Nissan's Maxima has been in the product lineup for six generations, dating back to its 1981 forerunner, the Datsun 810. It's slotted above the Altima sedan in both size and price, and it is the Nissan brand flagship.

Nissan says the seventh-generation 2009 model heralds the return of the four-door sports car, which is how Nissan has positioned the car for years, though some will say the Maxima had grown out of that label. Aimed at the family customer who prefers a sporty ride and handling over a softer approach, the Nissan Maxima competes directly against the other sedans -- both sporty and luxurious -- on the market. Those include the Acura TL, Honda Accord, Infiniti G35, Toyota Camry and Avalon, and several domestics, including the Chrysler 300 and Cadillac CTS.

The new Maxima shares its platform with the Murano and the Altima coupe and sedan. The seventh-generation car was designed to be shorter by two inches in wheelbase and four inches shorter overall, but is slightly lower and wider than the outgoing model. The track measurement is an inch and a half wider. All these measures taken together, says Nissan, create a sportier, quicker-handling package, at the expense of some interior roominess.

Nissan has modified the platform and body of the Maxima extensively, with more chassis stiffness for the S and SV models, and additional rear reinforcements for the sport and premium versions. Nissan says the Maxima Sport is up to 17 percent stiffer than the base model, which is already 15 percent stiffer than the outgoing model. Sport versions also get a strut tower brace across the front suspension towers for greater front stiffness and steering precision.

The Maxima range consists of only two models, the S and the SV. But there are several packages that can be added to the SV, including the sport package, the premium package, and the technology package. All of the packages can be ordered, with some overlap, if the buyer really wants all the extras. There are six freestanding options, including the cold package for wintry areas, a fully climate-controlled driver's seat, HID headlamps, a Bluetooth hands-free phone package, a rear spoiler and 19-inch high-performance summer tires.

The list of standard equipment includes dual-zone air conditioning, power windows, locks, mirrors and driver's seat, trip computer, power moonroof, cruise control, intelligent key and starter button, and an AM/FM/CD/MP3 8-speaker sound system with AUX jack.

The SV version adds a nine-speaker Bose sound system with speed-sensitive volume control, subwoofers and RDS, leather, a driver's seat with a thigh extension and power lumbar, a compass, fog lamps, HomeLink, and turn signal repeaters in the mirrors.

The sport version adds 23 items or substitutions, including upgraded suspension and 245/40VR-19 tires, with upgraded and additional leather items, and XM radio.

The tech package includes HDD navigation with a 7-inch monitor, a 9.3-gigabyte music hard drive, single-CD player, XM NavTraffic, a rear-view camera, an iPod interface, and an input jack.

The standard safety package includes front, side and roof curtain airbags, ABS brakes, traction control, yaw control, and tire pressure monitoring.

To distinguish between models, Nissan has made the exterior design of the new Maxima completely unlike that of the Altima. Every body panel on the car is new, flaunting a much more adventurous and modern design.

The grille, headlamps and 12-LED tail lamps are larger, and the fenders and hood sculpted with sharp edges and bulges to add to the sporty appearance. With its shorter nose, shorter deck lid, and long roof, it's completely different from both the smaller Altima and the sixth-generation car it replaces. We liked the outgoing model's looks very much, but the new design is really a bold move into the future, with a whole new set of swoops and levels that really pleased our eyes. No other car in this class combines soft edges and hard edges into such an organic whole. We loved the sharp corners on the fenders, the completely inset hood, and the headlamp design, which is adventurous, to say the least. The grille design is kind of prosaic, but it's surrounded by such a good design that it doesn't matter that much in the overall picture.

The interior includes a few items right out of the existing Nissan design library, like the radio and navigation control panel at the top of the dash, new style for the lower controls with large, labels and markings, instruments that are illuminated day and night, a three-spoke steering wheel with controls for cruise control and the audio system, and long paddle shifters for the CVT transmission.

We found the materials and workmanship inside the new Maxima very well done and very pleasing to the eye and to the touch. The front bucket seats are comfortable and supportive in spirited driving, and nothing is awkward to use or out of reach. In the rear compartment, the seat can be ordered as either as a 60/40 fold-down seat, or as a fixed seat with a cargo pass-through in the center. Sport versions, which need the stiffest chassis possible, cannot be ordered with the split fold-down seat arrangement.

The Maxima test car we drove was the SV Sport that, like the rest of the lineup, comes with a powerful, responsive 3.5-liter V-6 engine which has been upgraded from 255 to 290 horsepower, a 35-horsepower increase with nine more foot-pounds of torque and a one-mile-per-gallon increase in fuel economy (EPA rates the Maxima at 19 city, 27 highway, neither the best nor the worst in the class). The engine now has variable valve timing and a variable intake system, a system that goes audibly wide open at about 4500 rpm.

We drove on a combination of two-lane country roads, city streets and major highways in and around Cary, N.C., and found the engine to be smooth and quiet, right up to the 6200 rpm redline, delivering plenty of power for passing. Nissan told us to expect 0-60 mph times of 5.8 seconds or less.

The only transmission in the new Maxima is the continuously variable transmission or CVT, a new version that also has a manual mode. The shifting is much quicker than previous CVT transmissions from Nissan, and the transmission was fun to use in either mode. Nissan says the new CVT software has more than 700 shifting algorithms and can shift 30 percent faster than a human. In the D Sport mode, downshifts include a sporty throttle blip to keep engine RPM matched to the gear selected.

The chassis and suspension have been upgraded from the previous model. The front-drive Maxima has six engine mounts now instead of the usual four, and the engine is mounted lower for a lower center of gravity and improved handling. The suspension is all-new, using aluminum components, new shock absorbers, front and rear stabilizer bars, and new geometry. The front-drive system incorporates a new wrinkle that virtually eliminates torque-steer on full throttle. The Nissan Maxima SV Sport always felt solidly connected to the road, with no harshness or slipping in the ride.

The speed-sensitive power rack-and-pinion steering system has been borrowed from the 350Z sports car, and it puts the driver in command and in touch, not over-boosted or loose. The front and rear ABS disc brakes have been upgraded, with the rear brakes now ventilated as well as the fronts, for better fade-resistance.

With the kind of engine power and acceleration it packs, the Maxima, in fact, acts very much like a taller, longer four-door 350Z. The Maxima is far sportier in its mien and feel than a lot of other cars in this class. A power upgrade from 255 to 290 horsepower means a power boost of almost 14 percent, and you can feel the added power and the broad torque curve every time you push the pedal into the carpet. Because the intake flaps open at 4500 rpm, you don't even have to watch the tachometer, because you know you're getting close to redline as they open and the engine note changes.

We used the CVT transmission in every available mode, and at the end of the day, we didn't lament the absence of a conventional 6-speed transmission one little bit. This CVT works extremely well, it saves gasoline, it's very sporty when you want sporty, including the throttle blip on downshifts, or you can just put it in D and ignore it f you choose. Kickdowns were very quick.

The new Maxima smoothly and quickly changes direction from side to side, staying glued to the road on those generously large tires, and is ready to stop in a very powerful way should the need arise. The suspension is about two grades better than the setup on the previous model in keeping the car flat, without beating up the occupants with a rough, choppy ride. It drives more like an Infiniti than a Nissan. The driver's environment is all up close and personal, everything is nearby and legible, and it really feels more like a cockpit than just a left front seat. This is one of those rare cars that feels right almost all the time, feels composed and ready almost all the time, and always feels like it want to go out and play.

The new Maxima is not as economical or as roomy as some of the competitive cars in its large class, and it won't be the least expensive, at $29,290 to start for the S version and $31,990 for the SV version. The premium package adds $3,450; the sport package adds $2,300, and the tech Package adds between $1,850 and $2,400 depending on the model.

But if fun driving is still attractive to you, the combination of its style, engine, transmission, suspension, and tires on the new Maxima may just ring your chimes. And, if 26-mpg on the highway isn't enough, Nissan says the Maxima will be available in 2010 with a clean diesel engine.

Read More Reviews at AOL Autos:

- Ford Flex

- Chevy Malibu Hybrid

- 2008 Saturn Astra XR

Autoblog accepts vehicle loans from auto manufacturers with a tank of gas and sometimes insurance for the purpose of evaluation and editorial content. Like most of the auto news industry, we also sometimes accept travel, lodging and event access for vehicle drive and news coverage opportunities. Our opinions and criticism remain our own — we do not accept sponsored editorial.

Share This Photo X