2016 Nissan Maxima: First Drive

·Contributor

What is it? A four-door near-luxury “sports” sedan

Price range: $32,410 - $40,000

Competitors: Toyota Avalon, Hyundai Genesis, Chevrolet Impala, Acura TLX

Alternatives: Dodge Charger, Nissan Altima,

Pros: It’s quick and agile, favoring drivers looking to have fun over those who are looking for more mundane characteristics in a car. Oh, and it offers a level of luxury that puts most of its peers to shame.

Cons: Poor visibility, so-so passenger space, and its looks, while appealing, can seem cartoonish — albeit more Dark Knight than Looney Toons.

Would I buy it with my money? It’s expensive. But the performance and posh amenities put it on my want list. And surprisingly, compared to its luxury equivalents, it’s a great value. 

When the original Nissan Maxima hit the streets more than three decades ago, it was an agile, well-appointed vehicle that performed like a much sportier (read: more expensive) machine, such as the BMW 3 Series, lending credence to the automaker’s hotly debated claim that the Maxima was a true four-door sports car. Since then, however, the Maxima has grown and, thus, gained a few pounds — consequently, sacrificing much of its sporty intent for reasons of practicality; more passenger room, more cargo space, more power, etc.

But for 2016, Nissan has treated the Maxima to an extreme makeover, recapturing much of the athleticism that it sacrificed over the years in the name of expediency. Thus, rekindling the old claim, and subsequent debate: Is Maxima a four-door sports car?

We’ll get to that question in a bit. What’s not up for discussion, however, is the fact that the all-new Maxima offers a combination of design, performance and luxury beyond that of its peers, and some sedans costing far more.

The 2016 Maxima comes in five different flavors. Each will offer no options other than what’s bolted on at the factory. The base S is equipped with navigation, a remote engine start and a rearview monitor. Next on the list, the SV adds leather, heated seats and mirrors, as well as a front and rear sonar system. The SL adds blind-spot warning with rear cross traffic alert, a Bose premium sound system, heated steering wheel and intelligent cruise control. Then there’s the ultra-sporty SR with a performance-tuned suspension, as well as black accents on the mirrors, rear bumper valance and wing and black wheels. Finally, the flagship Platinum, outfitted with Nissan’s Around View monitor, a power tilt and telescoping steering wheel and premium leather seats.

Regardless of the trim, the new Maxima stands out from the crowd. Its coupe-like design features a bold mix of hard angles and gentle waves that combines to form a mostly cohesive, mostly attractive silhouette. However, its aggressive demeanor can seem a little overstated. Some might say it’s a bit cartoonish, a claim accentuated by the “floating roof.” In profile, it looks like a fighter jet canopy. Nissan’s bold V-shaped grille and exaggerated headlamps add to the effect.

Even so, it looked great in my driveway, turned a lot of heads rolling down the street. It will appeal to any young professional looking for something with a little more style and performance.

Powering all 2016 Maxima models is Nissan’s stoic 3.5-liter V-6 tuned to 300 horsepower (10 more than the out-going model) and 261 pound-feet of torque. It is mated to Nissan’s unique continuously variable transmission. Unlike most, this CVT doesn’t disappoint with motorboat droning and responses; power arrives with little hesitation.

Eighty-two pounds lighter than the outgoing model, Nissan claims the 2016 achieves a better power-to-weight ratio (11.6 pounds per horsepower) than its predecessor, as well as many entry-luxury sport sedans like the Acura TLX or BMW 328i. The weight-loss also helps the mill deliver a 14 percent improvement in fuel economy, with the Maxima rated for 22 miles per gallon city, 30 miles per gallon highway and  25 mpg combined.

The dramatic design theme continues inside, as the Maxima’s driver-centric cabin straddles the line between standard family sedan and entry-level luxury vehicle. Most materials are high quality; the entire cockpit wraps around the driver like a cocoon with the center stack screen and controls angled toward the driver for easy operation. All of the gauges and switchgear are logically arranged, with the most important placed right in front of the driver.

A notable highlight is the updated NissanConnect infotainment system. It offers navigation, voice recognition, and an 8-inch touch-screen display that features gesture control. Like operating a tablet or smartphone the user can swipe, pinch and spread his or her fingers to access information on the screen or scroll through menus. Much easier to use than previous iterations thanks to the improved interface.

Not surprisingly, Nissan also outfitted the vehicle with a comprehensive portfolio of advanced driver aids, such as predictive forward-collision warning, intelligent cruise control, forward emergency braking, rear cross-traffic alert and blind-spot warning, as well as an all-new drowsy-driver alert system.

While backseat passenger room is tight, trunk space is impressive (14.3 cubic-feet), which is slightly above average. The wide opening, mostly unobstructed floor, and fold-down rear seats further enhance utility.

We drove the sportier Maxima SR. On the road, the vehicle exhibited rapid acceleration (making highway merging and passing a stress-free affair), confident braking and responsive handling. The sedan’s Sport mode further adjusts throttle response, transmission programming, steering feel and exhaust tone to enhance the car’s fun-to-drive nature.

Most people will appreciate, as I did, the car’s flat cornering and direct steering feel and response. The ride was stiff, but not uncomfortably so. The car was composed, able to soak up even the most obnoxious bumps and bruises in the road. In fact, the car exceeded our expectations in almost every driving category.

Our only real nitpicks were the lack of visibility due to the thick B and C pillars and tiny rear window, and at some angles the vehicle looks a little too much like something a super villain would drive on the big screen.

But is it a four-door sports car?

Nissan has been touting it as such for generations. And yes, the 2016 performs on a higher level than many other sedans, even its predecessor. But we still wouldn’t call it a sports car. And that’s a good thing. 

In addition to being fun to drive, it has a comfortable, compliant ride and quiet cabin, even with the SR trim’s sport-tuned suspension. That gives it appeal to a much broader audience. Plus, it costs less than most entry luxury sedans, yet offers more passenger space than all of them, better performance than many of them and some luxury features a few can’t. Call it what you want, but the Maxima is a winner.

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