• Apr 15th 2009 at 11:59AM
  • 90
2009 Nissan Maxima - Click above for high-res image gallery

Once upon a time, labeling anything other than a two-door, two-seater a "sports car" would have been anathema to enthusiasts. And calling a mid-size sedan by the same name would have been utterly absurd. But when Nissan originally slapped the 4DSC ("four-door sports car") label on the Maxima 20 years ago, the automotive landscape was a very different place. Today, the sports sedan has been embraced by the masses, and with a series of "four-door coupes" hitting the market, consumers looking for an entertaining ride with seating for four have a host of options to choose from.

So when Nissan trotted out the all-new 2009 Maxima in New York last year and revived the 4DSC label, the automaker's past successes weighed heavily on the redesigned sedan. Would it still deliver the power and handling of its predecessors or would it be just another poseur in a see of wannabe sports sedans? More to the point: is this really a sports car? Let's find out.

Photos Copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

Nissan has always had a sporting streak running through its DNA. What began with the Datsun 240Z and 510 has evolved into 370Z, GT-R and, yes, even the Maxima. When the latest edition of the brand's flagship sedan debuted a year ago, it introduced a new design language dubbed "liquid motion." The theme was a complete departure from the sharp creases and relatively slab sides of the previous generation model, beginning with the headlights that form a stylized "L," a cue that has since been carried over to the new Z.

Another element of the new design theme which first appeared on Nissan's 2008 Forum minivan concept is the hood profile. A pair of ridges run from the grille ends to the A-pillars with the top crease chamfered at the edge. The ridges flank a wave that runs from end to end, providing visual interest both from the outside as well as the driver's seat. All four fenders swell outward, creating prominent shoulders rife with muscularity. The roofline has a fastback profile that contributes to the sedan's sporting character, but stays elevated long enough to ensure decent rear head-room before falling away.

The Maxima's styling has a lot to like, but there are some questionable details. From where we sit, the weakest styling element is the front fascia and the grille housed within. From certain angles, the nose looks too low and too heavy, with alarming amounts of overhang – and the same issue carries over to the rear. In both cases, a contributing factor may be the revised proportions that come from the two-inch shorter wheelbase compared to the 2008 model, along with a four-inch shorter overall length.

Inside, the Maxima is a curious mix of premium and cheap. The shapes and textures have attractive colors and textures, but aside from the top of the dash, the rest of the surfaces surrounding the driver are hard plastics. While most of the pieces don't deliver luxurious tactility, the matte finishes look pleasant enough and are well finished with no rough or uneven edges. Those surfaces that the driver comes into contact with most often are finished in leather, including the thick-rimmed, heated steering wheel.

The driver's seat is another mixed bag, with eight-way power adjustability, along with a very welcome manually adjustable thigh support. Unfortunately, we had issues with getting the seat back to fit comfortably, as the upper portion felt slightly lumpy and a bit too thick. The standard rear seat features a 60/40 split seat back. However, if you opt for the $3,450 premium package fitted to our test car, the rear seating area is replaced with a set of re-contoured buckets. As such, the seat back is fixed in place with only a center pass through for long, skinny items. The premium package also includes a dual panel glass moonroof, although only the front half opens.

If the Maxima is supposed to be a sports car, it has to be packing a great engine. And as we'd expect from the automaker, it doesn't disappoint. As a modern Nissan, it's only fitting that the Maxima is powered by the 3.5-liter VQ V6 as used in the 350Z and numerous Infiniti models. Unlike the Z, however, the engine is mounted transversely, driving the front wheels through an updated version of Nissan's Xtronic continuously variable transmission. In a marked departure from most CVT transmissions, the programming on the Maxima's unit doesn't have the unnerving characteristic of holding the engine at a constant speed as obviously while accelerating. Instead, you get to listen to that fabulous six as the revs climb. Whether this unique arrangement ultimately takes a toll on overall fuel efficiency is a topic we'll leave open for discussion.

In addition to the normal "D" mode, the Maxima offers a more aggressive "Ds" as well as full "manual" option. The aforementioned premium pack includes steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters in addition to the tap shift gate on the console that allows the selection of six pre-programmed "ratios." In "Ds" mode, the transmission keeps the engine climbing towards the redline before shifting, and like most similarly equipped cars, it also downshifts while decelerating to provide engine braking.

So does the Maxima drive like a sports car? It's certainly has the right engine, with 290 hp and 261 lb-ft of twist providing brisk acceleration and the run to 60 mph consistently coming up in less than six seconds. Nissan engineers have done an admirable job of configuring the front suspension to keep the Maxima from veering off into the ditch when the go pedal is pressed to the floor, and the VQ is always good for audible delights and this installation is no exception. As the revs climb, a thrilling mechanical symphony emanates from under the hood while a sharp bark – distinctly reminiscent of the Z – comes from the exhaust under hard acceleration. In normal "Drive" mode, initial throttle tip-in feels a bit lazy, but pulling the shifter back into "Ds" seems to to remedy the issue. And although you can't get a proper manual transmission in the Maxima, if you want control of the ratios, tapping the paddles or the shift lever produces quick gear changes that put you right into the powerband.

But delivering on the sports car experience is about more than just acceleration. Eventually, the time comes to change direction. The leather-wrapped tiller provides precise control over the heading with no free-play and a measured reaction to torque in proportion to cornering forces. Compared to the Acura TL, the Maxima's steering feels much more natural and fun to toss into corners, provided that the pavement remains smooth. The spring rates provide a good balance between ride quality and road holding, but the damping needs more tweaking. When the road surface gets uneven, the rebound damping comes across as weak and the Maxima can feel floaty. It's nothing that can't be easily fixed, but it's not quite right for a sports car. When the time comes to scrub off speed, the brakes feel fully up to the task, and if things begin to go pear-shaped, the stability control engages smoothly without jerking the car around.

When playtime is over and a road-trip or gentle commute is in order, the Maxima is a pleasant place to be. Wind noise on the highway is nicely subdued and the XM NavTraffic system will help you avoid getting stuck in a jam. Our test car was the uplevel SV trim with a base price of $31,990, and with the premium and technology packages, the bottom line swelled to $38,535 (including delivery). When venturing into that price point, the Maxima's four-door sports car designation truly comes into question. Does it deliver? Not quite. It's a handsome sedan with a healthy dose of engagement. It's not so large and heavy that it feels ponderous, and having a VQ35 at your command is always a good thing. So... sports sedan? Yes. But this is no Z, and the 4DSC label may be going a bit too far. Now, if Nissan went back to a rear-drive Maxima that might be another story. But that car already exists. It's called the Infiniti G37.

Photos Copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 6 Years Ago
      I had such high hopes for this car. the HUGE ASS ruined it for me. i had an 03 and it was an incredible car. by no means perfect but it was damn fast and looked sweet to boot. From the description is looks like your car was missing the critical "sport package" that according to nissan engineers, make it "the best handling FWD car period." I would have like to seen that claim tested. On the upshot, they've done a lot to this car to take it back in the right direction. For starters, this was a 3,800lb car 06-08, whereas my 03 was 3,200lbs. This car clocks in at 3,600. still fat, but at least they brought back the unique suspension tuning option (sport package) and this is the ONLY car I'd EVER consider with a CVT. that unique programming is no bull. Alas, I will post my 03 to see what many maxima enthusiasts still considered the peak:

      • 6 Years Ago
      It looks...weird. You know, the kind of fish with those weird looking jaw. Uh uh.

      • 6 Years Ago
      Back in '89, you could get away with a FWD "4DSC" because of the pricepoint and the performance you got for that.

      But fast forward 20 years, you have a Maxima that is double the price--well into RWD sports-sedan range--and yet still is FWD. It should AT THE VERY LEAST be AWD... I just don't see why a FWD sporty sedan starts at 31k.

      I actually love the exterior aesthetics though. In person it's a very attractive car. But the price and the performance you get... not worth it.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I have purchased a Maxima SV with Sport and Tech package. I drove a number of other cars: Acura TL, Audi A4, BMW 328i, Mercedes C350, Infiniti G37, Hyundai Genesis Sedan, Pontiac G8 (hard to find!), Cadillac CTS, VW CC. I agree with an earlier post that a sports car is actually more about one's own skill than the car itself. A Datsun 1600 Roadster from 1967 has 95 horsepower and a rather slow 0-60 time, but nevertheless, one can drive it for sporting fun. Remember the Ford Van driven on the Nurburgring on Top Gear?

      What I found disappointing about the other sedans: Acura (ugly), Audi A4 (2.0T engine groans and moans), BMW (expensive with any sort of options), Mercedes (too insulating, too expensive), Infiniti (crashing hard suspension, lack of interior room), Hyundai (too insulating), Pontiac (dead brand, hard to find, a great used car in 2 years!), Cadillac CTS (fussy interior, uncomfortable seats), VW, (VR6 hard to find, engine is rough).

      What I liked about the Maxima: great looking, unique design, especially in person, great exhaust note, comfortable seating, great nav system (from the Infiniti), sharp precise steering that "shrinks" the perception of the size of the car, epic exhaust note, 19" wheels with summer rubber. A note about the CVT: after driving the 7 speed Infiniti and the Maxima, the CVT's programming parameters are much wider. In regular CVT mode, it just pushes the car along, with a more direct feeling than the damped delay of the automatic. In Ds mode, it feels more like a DSG style transmission that also blips the throttle and downshifts into corners. With the addition of flappy paddles in any mode, that car is instantly responsive to what you want the engine to do.

      I own an Audi and realize that the interior appointments are not up to the tactile standards of that brand, but I find that in most instances, what I am not missing that so much: the inside of the glove box and console are heavily flocked, switches have appropriate damping (except for the window switches).

      In terms of driving experience, I feel the car is responsive and I can push my own abilities with the car and get a definite thrill from the power, exhaust note and handling of this comfortable sedan.

      A friend of mine helped pick out the car. He is a BMW M3 owner. See what he has to say about it on his blog: http://web.me.com/arnaldob/acarguy/Blog/Blog.html

      • 6 Years Ago
      So the problem seems to be it overlaps with other cars from Nissan. Altima at one end and the Infiniti at the other.
      • 6 Years Ago
      No proper manual gearbox=no proper four door sports car.

      Especially if Nissan no longer equips the Maxima with a limited slip diff.

      The heyday of this model was '91 or '92 when it could bang off a mid 6 second 0-60 and could be equipped with a manual and a limited slip.
      • 6 Years Ago
      If the answer is a $38,535 Altima, it must have been an awfully stupid question.

      It isn't sporty, the Nissan dealership experience puts to rest any notions of being luxurious or prestigious, so what is it?

      Ought to be an Infiniti.

        • 6 Years Ago
        Infiniti is rightfully RWD/AWD.

        The Maxima is an answer to a question nobody is really asking due to the fact that G35/37 answered it.

        And if it is indeed an answer to Acura TL and Toyota Avalon/Lexus ES premium front-drivers, then they should drop the sporting pre-tense that is not supported by mechanicals.

        FWD and CVT is not sport sedan hardware, and is antithetical to a sports car, if it were to be somehow wishfully placed in a 370Z sports car chassis. Even though

        I personally find 370Z ugly, but it is a 2-seat RWD car, and designed to be a performance car first, not adapted from another role. The 370Z would be soundly trounced if it were FWD with a CVT, and rightly so.
        • 6 Years Ago
        What is the Maxima's weight distribution, about 60/40 (there is more junk in the trunk compared to the Altima)
        Look at G37x sedan 55/45, G37x coupe 56/44, and if Nissan made a 370Z 'x' wouldn't that be 57/43?

        I'd rather have this than the Acura TL. With the CVT you have super passing ability 60-90mph
      • 6 Years Ago
      In person this car looks sweet from any angle but the front view

      I'd likely opt for the $31k Maxima over an Avalon, Passat, and likely the FWD Lincoln MKZ, but at $38k this car doesn't even enter into the list of cars I'd consider buying

      a G37 will be my pick in anyform over this

      Nissan should forget the 4DSC for the Maxima, that G37 territory (and maybe they should have a G25 with the 2.5L VQHR from Japan borught over with 250HP) and should bring the Maxima up to date:

      - longer than Altima by 5in on the wheel base
      - shorten the overhangs a bit
      - make the interior more luxurious and aim at a better handling Lexus ES
      - I guess where the Acura TL stands now, but definitely need to keep it good looking
      • 6 Years Ago
      Ford Taurus SHO is head and shoulders above this.
      • 6 Years Ago
      My word... what a horrendous driver experience. Ugliest dash/center console/steering wheel I have seen in a very long time.
      • 6 Years Ago
      The Maxima never lost its performance. It simply lost its way. Becoming ugly as sin (for 3 model revs!) was strike one, but the killing blow was you could get an Altima with the same motor for less money.

      Copying the rear from the Altima coupe onto the Maxima has not fixed either of these problems.
      • 6 Years Ago
      why would anyone buy this over the altima? CVT? who cares, Bigger engine w/heavier body.. who cares??

      and lastly, talk about making the car look even more boring.. bleh. And I live in the area where the Maxima is/was in the most demand.
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