But it needs a few changes before it can be perfect.
The Nissan Maxima was redesigned for the 2016 model year and it was a huge improvement over the previous model. Frankly, we think that Nissan hit it out of the park with the styling (both inside and out) in a segment that has been severely lacking in this area. The full-size sedan segment has dwindled and the Maxima doesn't have much to compete with. The segment includes aging models like the Chrysler 300 and Ford Taurus, boring models like the Toyota Avalon and Hyundai Azera and premium options like the Kia K900 and Buick LaCrosse.
There are a few other models in the full-size segment, which has far fewer sales than the mid-size segment. With that in mind, the Maxima easily sits near the top based on its affordable price and suite of options. Our 2017 Maxima SR Midnight Edition had an as-tested price of $40,330 with destination. This would be just enough to get into a base BMW 330i with almost no room for options. Even though the Maxima doesn't directly compete with the BMW, Nissan has made the claim that it is a "four-door sports car" as evidenced by the 4DSC badges in the taillights.
Even though the BMW has RWD, we think that the Maxima has plenty to offer buyers who value tons of tech toys and plush interior over a premium badge with almost no options. The Maxima is available in six different trim levels. All trims come with the same 3.5-liter V6 engine which produces 300 hp and 261 lb-ft of torque. Power goes out to the front wheels (no AWD is available) through a continuously variable transmission. Our SR Midnight edition was the second from the top with the top trim Platinum edition getting additional features such as an Ascot leather interior, power steering column, rain-sensing wipers and Nissan's Around-View Monitor, which we deeply missed in our test car.
The SR comes with plenty of nice features to keep the tech fans happy including heated and ventilated seats, backup camera, blind-spot monitoring with rear-cross traffic alert, navigation, Apple Car Play to name a few. The SR is the sportiest trim available on the Maxima and the Midnight Edition adds $1,195 for 19-inch black wheels, a black spoiler and black rear diffuser. We think that the Midnight package is certainly worth the price because it makes the Maxima look more aggressive and stand out in a crowd. We received several compliments on our Maxima even in the supercar-filled streets of Los Angeles.
Even though we enjoyed the Midnight Edition, we wouldn't recommend the SR trim. The Maxima is supposed to be a four-door sports car, but the SR trim compromises the ride in exchange for being sporty. Other Maxima trims may have a pleasant ride, but the firm suspension in the SR makes the Maxima feel like a race car when the roads get bumpy (and not in a good way). We took the Maxima out to LA's amazing canyon roads to see if this suspension made any sense out there. On the many turns of the Angeles Forrest, the Maxima's suspension did start to make a lot of sense. There was almost no body roll and the Maxima held its own on the winding roads.
Unfortunately, the stiff suspension cannot overcome some of the Maxima's shortcomings as a FWD car. Many people (us included) have criticized the Maxima for not offering a manual transmission, but as much as we would have loved to row our own gears in the Maxima, we really couldn't find any faults with Nissan's CVT transmission. We recently tested a Pathfinder with the same transmission and it has been greatly improved since the early days of the CVT. The biggest problem with these transmissions (that we noticed in the Lexus RX 450h) is that when you pin the throttle, the transmission picks an RPM and sits there. This creates an uncomfortable noise that feels extremely cheap.
The Maxima does not suffer from this problem at all. The CVT simulates seven gear ratios and when you step on the throttle it really does feel like it is shifting real gears. In fact, the CVT is so good on the highway that we were frequently able to take advantage of that 300-hp V6. The Maxima goes like a rocket when you mash the pedal and has one of the most responsive kick downs that we have recently tested. No matter what mode we were in, the Maxima was eager to give us full power when we wanted it, which made passing an absolute breeze. Unfortunately, straight-line speed is the Maxima's only real party trick.
The CVT works phenomenally in a straight line, but falls flat on its face when it comes to aggressive canyon driving. The Maxima has two simple modes, "normal" and "sport," and we couldn't really tell the difference between the two. The Maxima doesn't have adaptive suspension, so sport mode only slightly sharpens throttle response and makes the steering a bit heavy. The Maxima has all of the tools to be a good canyon carver, but something is several missing. The steering wheel is very GT-R-esque with shift paddles that are mounted on the steering column like most sports cars. Unfortunately, the paddles are a bit plasticky and don't offer enough control over the transmission.
We frequently missed downshifts and the system doesn't let you hang on the redline without upshifting (even in manual mode). For a fun drive, we would rather leave the transmission in the automatic setting and let it do its thing. We could take or leave the sport mode because it didn't add any extra steering feel. The Maxima's suspension could easily cope with the bendy roads, but the front wheels were often overwhelmed having to handle the steering and the power. The Maxima is close to hitting that four-door sports car benchmark, but it needs a few changes to make it perfect. Someone like the Nismo division could come a long and make the Maxima a true sports car.
We have heard a few rumors that Nismo is looking to expand its lineup and that the Maxima could get the Nismo treatment. If the Maxima does get a Nismo version, we sincerely hope that it isn't just an appearance package with some stiffer suspension. We know exactly what we would want from a Nismo Maxima to make it perfect. First, we would like a manual transmission, but we doubt that Nissan will ever offer it. With that out of the way, we would focus on that suspension. The SR's suspension was too firm and should be replaced with an adaptive system that can be firm on a nice road and comfortable on a crappy one.
The FWD system would be the next thing to change. If Nissan was unwilling to give the Maxima AWD, we would at least like to see an electronic limited-slip differential like Volkswagen uses in the GTI. Finally, a Nismo Maxima would have to offer better steering feel that inspires more confidence in the driver. The Maxima is fine in a straight line, but the steering felt very heavy without being precise. It is hard to make electric steering feel good, but we think that the clever people at Nismo could figure it out. The Maxima is a nice car for people who aren't "badge snobs," but it is missing a few finishing touches. In our estimation the Maxima is about 70% of the way towards being a great four-door sports car.