Front-wheel drive is a funny thing. When originally introduced during the Thirties in the Cord 810 (then later in the awesome supercharged 812) and the Citroën Traction Avant, FWD was hailed as a major breakthrough, a wondrous technological innovation that allowed for lower ride height and greatly increased passenger space. Postwar consumers got a taste of the wonders of FWD with the iconic Citroën DS. At the top of its game in the Sixties, General Motors reintroduced FWD to American consumers with two remarkable luxury coupes: the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado and the 1967 Cadillac Eldorado. Come the Seventies, Citroën produced what is arguably the greatest GT coupe of that decade, the impeccable (and FWD) SM.
Roll the clock forward to the Eighties and suddenly everything was being tugged around by its front wheels. Honda, Toyota, Nissan, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler all jumped head first onto the FWD bandwagon and, for the most part, they haven't looked back. Granted, Cadillac has rethought which wheels get driven, but with the exception of a dinosaur livery-mobile, there isn't a single rear-wheel-drive Lincoln to be found. Even Volkswagen got in on the transversely-mounted engine madness. This left only the Germans – namely Mercedes-Benz and BMW – to seriously carry the rear-wheel drive passenger car torch for nearly a decade. Sure, Lexus and Infiniti brought out some heavy hitting RWD sedans along with a raft of FWD offerings (
The average gearhead hates FWD for all the right reasons (weight distribution, steering feel, the front tires being asked to both propel and turn, etc.), and during a recent discussion we had with a half-in-the-bag PR guy, [NAME REDACTED] exclaimed, "Front-wheel drive sucks!" So, how can a technology go from the penthouse to the doghouse like that? One answer (of many) comes from the Minnesotan economist/social philosopher Thorstein Veblen and his book The Theory of the Leisure Class. Here's a quick, ten-cent Cliff Note version: When electric lighting first appeared, only the rich could afford electric lights. As such, electrically lit dinners were considered romantic and desirable. However, once electrification trickled down to the unwashed masses, only the rich could afford both bulbs and candles. Hence, candlelit dinners became en vogue. Which – believe it or not – leads us very nicely to the 2010 Nissan Maxima SV Sport and its $38,384 asking price.
Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2009 Weblogs, Inc.
Granted, you can get a new Maxima for less scratch. The base car starts at "just" $30,460. But the car Nissan provided us has a price tag of nearly $40,000. You do get a lot car for that money, but at the end of the day, $38,384 is a big chunk o' change. So big, in fact, that you might be tempted to choose an Infiniti G37 sedan (beginning at just over $33,000), or even a Cadillac CTS (starts at $37,000). Two similarly-sized cars that are, as it happens, rear-wheel drive.
The Maxima's shape is one thing it has going for it. When the third-gen Altima was introduced in 2002, suddenly the once lofty Maxima looked an awful lot like its lower-priced platform mate. Then the Altima was redesigned and placed on Nissan's new D platform in 2007 and it still resembled the more pricey (and very long-in-the-tooth) Maxima. Finally, last year, Nissan brought us an all-new Maxima that didn't resemble anything.
A quick poll of the Autoblog staff reveals that almost all of us like the shape. From the blunted front end to the deeply sculpted sides to the fat, sexy haunches, there is little question that design-wise Nissan's biggest sedan has got the look. Though admittedly strange at first, the harpoon/fish hook head and tail lamps look sharp (no pun, no pun), especially when set off against a dark color. And these are some of the finest looking wheels we've seen on any car, let alone a big FWD sedan.
The interior's nearly as good as the exterior. First and foremost is that thick (we're talking BMW-thick) leather-wrapped steering wheel that is mercifully (nearly) free of button clutter. While all Maximas now ship with a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), the large, almost oversized aluminum flappy paddles behind the wheel feel great. The seats are also thick, many-way adjustable and comfy. Though we'd like some more leg and hip bolstering – the seat bottom is a little flat – rear seat customers will enjoy their spacious perch. The instrument binnacle is intelligently designed and filled with big, legible gauges, exactly what one would need if you were to take Nissan up on its renewed 4DSC (Four-Door Sports Car) boast.
Many of us are also fans of the very Infiniti-like nav-cluster. Overall, the quality of the materials is on par with other entry-level luxury offerings with one big exception: The area surrounding the gear selector is not only dull, but almost undesigned. And if the car's got a CVT (i.e. no set speeds), why not follow BMW's lead and move the gear lever to the column so as to free up some space? A minor quibble, maybe, but that area was beneath (again with the no pun) the rest of the rather pleasingly pleasant interior.
One justification for the Maxima's pricey sticker is that lump of VQ goodness found under the hood. Heaping praise upon Nissan's wonderful V6 is like calling firefighters heroes – you just do it, and only the crazy will argue. Still displacing 3.5-liters – unlike the Z, G, M and FX, which have jumped up to 3.7-liters – the VQ35DE produces a whopping 290 horsepower and a stout 261 pound-feet of torque, more than enough to scoot the fairly big boy (190 inches, 3,565 pounds) to 60 mph in less than six seconds. In terms of potency, those 290 horsies are more than you get from 3.5-liter V6s found in the Accord (271 hp), Avalon (268 hp), Taurus (263 hp) or Mercedes-Benz E350 (268 hp). And way more than you get in a 211 hp turbocharged Audi A4. But none offer a CVT... (Note: FWD Audi A4s have a CVT)
Allow us to state up front that when CVTs first arrived on the scene they were nasty, despicable things that were constantly whirring, wheezing and searching for who knows what every time you buried your right foot. Much like automatic transmissions – only worse. That rant out of the way, the second generation of CVTs are actually... okay.
The first good one we experienced was in the cyber barge Lexus LS600hL, though we chalked up that transmission's okay-ness to the fact that Lexus had buried the shiftus interruptus beneath the brand's requisite nine tons of sound deadening. Besides, in a $120,000 automobile, the CVT had better be good. Then we got our paws on some down market CVTs – principally in Nissans like the Rogue, Versa and Cube. And you know what? Most of us like 'em just fine. They weren't Lexus wonderful, but they were a fifth the price.
In the Maxima, the CVT experience is better than in its smaller siblings, and about on par with the big, electric Lexus. In fact, for the first 20 minutes we were behind the wheel, we were unaware (fine – we forgot) that the car didn't have a regular old slush box. As our normal testing procedure begins with jamming up the curvaceous 110 freeway to Pasadena to fetch Drew Phillips and his photographic chops, we threw the tranny into manual mode and used the paddle shifters. That's right, the Maxima (like the LS600hL) has six faker-gear ratios (though the Lexus has eight) that allow it to behave just like an automated manual. It was only on suburban streets back in regular mode that we noticed the tach needle slowly rising and falling, as opposed to a regular automatic where the needle falls precipitously with each gear change.
So, how's the Maxima drive? Well, it's very quick. Stomp the gas and this sucker just goes for it. However, due to so much power spinning the front wheels, you are very aware that you are being pulled to extra-legal speeds, instead of pushed. To be fair, this has been a Maxima trait since they first started dropping VQs into the sedan. But in the 2010 Maxima, you really do notice all 290 ponies. The sensation is like holding onto a horse's reins. And torque-steer – the engine's tendency to try and rip the wheel from your hands when you throttle out of a corner – is an all day event.
While there's nothing inherently rotten about FWD, there is something unsettling about big horsepowered FWD cars – unless they've got a fancy way of fighting back against all that power, like in the power-chopping Mazdaspeed3 (fuel gets cut early in low gears at high RPM) or the unequal-tracked Citroen DS/SM (where the front wheels extend out further than the rear ones). With the Maxima, you're just left to arm wrestle the mighty motor. We hope you've been eating your Wheaties.
When you're not shredding apexes, the Maxima is a fairly cool customer. The ride is plush and plenty comfy, while the cabin is quiet and nicely shielded from wind and motor noise. Those big, beautiful wheels do make some racket, though. Nothing fatal, but you hear 'em. Should you choose to saunter through corners (instead of play Lewis Hamilton), the well-engineered chassis can carry plenty of speed around the bends. Just watch your right foot.
Far from a four-door sports car (sorry, Nissan), the Maxima SV Sport is a roomy, nearly-luxurious, semi-athletic steed. If we woke up tomorrow and (somehow) discovered we owned a copy, we'd be happy. But would we pay $38,000 for one? Short answer: No. There's nothing really wrong with the car, save for its sticker. Who then would consider a Maxima spec'd out like our test vehicle? Best we can figure, an Accord owner who is quite happy with his/her car but just wants something a little nicer, a little quicker and a whole lot more good looking. Then again, they might not. For our money, we'd take an Infiniti G37 sedan with the six-speed manual and pocket the extra $2,000. It's not that RWD is always better than FWD. But in this case, it is.
Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2009 Weblogs, Inc.