Mountain Wheels: Optimized for sports performance, the Nissan Maxima rocks

Created by driving enthusiasts for driving enthusiasts, the dramatically styled 2016 Nissan Maxima looks like nothing else on the road today – and drives like nothing in the segment.
Courtesy of Nissan | Nissan

2016 Nissan Maxima SL

MSRP: $36,890; As tested, $37,935

Powertrain: 300-HP 3.5-liter V6 engine; CVT transmission

EPA figures: 25 combined (22 city, 30 highway)

Someone at Nissan apparently decided that the notion of the company making nice but — with the exception of the GT-R and the 370Z — somewhat blasé vehicles in recent years, finally got the message through.

There’s a widescale revolution under way at the company and with models from the all-new Titan down through the entire family, some major, upscale transformation is certainly underway.

Case in point is the new Maxima, which elevates the company’s long-standing, top-of-the-line four-door sedan from forgettable to a sexy, powerful and fun-to-drive automobile, in many ways more classy than the company’s higher-end Infiniti family.

Drive the Maxima like you mean it and you’d swear you were in a very large version of the racer-boy favorite, the Mitsubishi Evolution series. In Maxima’s case, there’s 300 legitimate horsepower explosively coming out of a 3.5-liter DOHC V6.

And while the Maxima’s standard Xtronic continuously variable transmission is not quite the twin-clutch affair you got in the rally-spec Evo, in the Maxima’s case, it felt quite the same and works surprisingly well to harness all of that new-found power and put it to the road. You might endure a moment of hesitation, but keep your foot flattened and this not-small car goes like hell, pulling strongly uphill, as well. They say it’s been given a performance-oriented overhaul and I do agree.

Steering is also fiercely precise, composed and well-balanced, and braking set up to contain all of the drama riding on those 18-inch wheels. Best of all, that power is still quite efficient, with highway mileage of around 30 mpg.

So, yes, like the tagline, this really is a four-door sports car, the kind of thing Porsche tried to do with its polarizing Panamera — but in this case, it’s a real car, too, with a massive and comfortable back seat, loads of trunk space, and a bevy of high-end details all swirling together in a vehicle that was just under $38,000 in my SL-level test model.

Set yourself as low as possible in the broad and stiffer-than-expected driver’s seat and the view is like you’re looking out over the prow of a high-performance machine like the Corvette or the Mustang — a large central dome and broad flared edges are part of a wildly angular remake to the Maxima’s overall looks. That big mid-channel dome is balanced by a broad body curve that sweeps right into the middle of the front door.

Up front, it’s a very masculine reinterpretation of Nissan’s standard V-shaped grille, with a very pronounced aerodynamic lip at curb level and genuine sports car-inspired, mega-angular headlamps. In the back, that popular hatchback-that-is-not-a-hatchback stylistic theme is in action, with black and chrome window frame treatments that stretch to the very back of the roof, and very off-the-body brakelamps wrapping around the edges of the tail.

Tons of design work has also gone into a new and boldly angled interior, with miles and miles of double-rowed highlight stitching and a litany of surprising details. Consider the flat-bottomed racing wheel, or the curiously multi-contoured silvery plastic almost metallic wood-looking trim, that slices the doors and dash like you have a katana sword perched on your knees.

Tall walls offset the center console channel, which itself contains a start/stop ignition button, a properly scaled shift knob, the swirling bottlecap-styled controller for the navigation and entertainment system and buttons to kick the Maxima into sport mode, with higher rev points and ignited rocket boosters, perhaps.

Navigation details are ever improved but there’s some serious redundancy as you can control many of the functions four different ways — using the touchscreen, hitting hard buttons around the edge of the screen, dialing things up on the controller knob and its hard buttons, or using the extra control buttons on the steering wheel. Double USB and audio inputs are contained under a pop-up lid on the center console, but you can’t close the lid if you’ve actually connected a cable to the outlets.

An added and appreciated benefit is the impressively large and platform-styled rear seat, offering comfort, space and leg room that feels like the main attraction, not an afterthought. And a set of rear and aft sunroofs — the forward one slides open — can be covered up by forward-and-back-sliding shades.

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