Has it really been five years since I rented and tested the previous Nissan Maxima? Well, as Natalie Merchant once said about children, “At your age / in a string of days / the year is gone.” That less-than-maximum Max was, in my opinion anyway, the worst Maxima ever.
Is there anybody out there who expected anything more than mediocrity from the current Maxima, despite the in-your-face styling, despite that hugely evocative Super Bowl ad? I doubt it. The five-year gap between my last go-round with a big Nissan sedan shrinks to insignificance when compared to the three-decade gap that separates today and the introduction of the first (and last) first-rate automobile to bear this particular nameplate.
Here’s the good news: The new one’s better than the old one, and the one before that. It counts as a pleasant surprise in a business which is increasingly bereft of such consolations. All you need to appreciate this car is the proper perspective, which we’ll triangulate based on two historical points: the first-generation Datsun 810 “Maxima”, and the Renault Laguna.
My agenda for this particular rental was fairly stout. Two Fridays ago, I loaded the Maxima with four Direzza Star Specs mounted to Enkei wheels, a trunk’s worth of tools, a floor jack, and an URB-E Pro GT electric scooter. Then I drove it to NCM Motorsports Park to support my wife’s attempt to win the SCCA Time Trial event being held there on Saturday. (She took 2nd of 7 drivers, thanks for asking.) Then I turned and burned back home to grab my son, swap the car stuff for bike stuff, and head to Dayton for a BMX race. (He made his main and took 2nd, and I actually won my class for the first time in a very long time, thanks again for asking.)
The total distance involved in this 72-hour jaunt was somewhere in the range of 1,100 miles.
This is what I needed out of the Nissan: comfort, quiet, and outstanding fuel economy. That’s what I got. The cabin was almost Lexus-silent, the seats were genuinely outstanding, and the Maxima averaged a self-reported 28.9 mpg (without bike rack) and 28.5 mpg (two bikes on an old Rhode Gear rack).
All of this, adjusted for era, was also true of Datsun’s old 810 Maxima, which started out as an upscale trim level on the full-sized (by Japanese standards) 810 sedan. It was a RWD four-door about the size of a modern Civic with a straight-six heart transplanted from the 280ZX — but it wasn’t even remotely sporty. Not like the 510 which had come before it. That was a BMW competitor and an SCCA terror. The 810 was a Cressida-by-Nissan. Nothing more, nothing less.
In the long years since the 810 wandered off into the junkyards, the market has decided that upscale sedans need to be Autobahn-oriented in the manner of the Mercedes S-Class or BMW 3 Series. Lost in the pathetic eagerness with which everyone from Cadillac to Genesis has fallen into line with that decision is the fact that a few companies, most of them French or Japanese, didn’t get the memo. The Renault Laguna was one of those cars. It’s a platform relative of the Maxima, and it specialized in that big bland comfiness that also defined the Citroen C6 and the old Peugeot 604.
If you want to understand the Maxima better, just think of it as a house-brand version of the Renault Laguna. Any sportiness in the car is either mere gingerbread or completely accidental. There’s a stupid flat-bottomed steering wheel; whoever thought of that should have devoted more attention to the fact that the switches on that wheel are remarkably non-intuitive.
Those switches are sort of mirror images, but the cruise-control enable switch on the right side only presses down instead of down and up. On the left, you change music tracks by flipping the switch up and down. The left-right buttons do other stuff. It will take you more than the space of a rental period to get used to them. The same is true for the cruise control, which requires an odd thumb motion to adjust the speed.
The whole car is filled with ergonomic oddities. The left-side HVAC knob occupies the spot where the volume knob should be. The volume knob is up on the dash in an area that is obscured from view by the wheel. The window switches are convex-edged for the front windows and concave-edged for the rears, but they’re mounted in a spot where your hand naturally falls to the rear switches. The menu system for the infotainment system is mildly baffling. Maybe it’s the French influence; if your Laguna had these foibles you would put it down to character.
Speaking of the HVAC: It’s been years since I sat in a new vehicle that did so little indirect venting, and when I did it was a Chevy truck from the previous generation. The Maxima can blow ice-cold air — and it does, right at your face. The preferred methods of the “AUTO” setting are all remarkably indelicate, frosting or boiling whichever part of your face or body is closest to the vents. It’s like Nissan hasn’t bothered to keep up with industry practice in this area.
The styling, on the other hand, is as modern as today’s headlines, and just as moronic. The front grille, which appears to have a single stupid buck tooth jammed in the middle of an Audi trapezoid that failed quality-control inspections. The bizarre faux-glazing on the C-pillar. It’s not unique to Nissan, as you can see above. Maybe it’s the Landau padded vinyl quarter-roof trim of 2018. Except it looks worse. This theme of unnecessary complexity is repeated inside the cabin, where unconvincing stitching battles with several different kinds of grey plastic and an over-generous helping fake-brushed metal trim in a variety of shapes for your attention.
It’s a shame, really, because unlike the Avalon or the now-discontinued Azera the Max has a genuine difference in proportion when compared to the Altima from which it sprang. It looks lower, wider, meaner. Shame that it’s been festooned with so much surface confusion. At least the trunk is properly large, although the long tubular arms of the trunk can squash your luggage if you’re not careful.
On the move, the faithful old VQ-and-CVT combination keeps you at least even with the crossovers. Nissan has given into popular sentiment and tuned the CVT to (poorly) mimic a conventional transmission. Too bad it can’t hide the odd jumpy behavior the powertrain displays on the freeway as you engage, then relax, the throttle. A slight extra brushing of the pedal is accompanied by a 500 rpm jump and a lurch throughout the body that is then repeated in reverse as the CVT guesses at your next move. I’m being ungracious here, because the payoff for all this weirdness is, as previously mentioned, some really solid fuel economy. Hell, in this day and age Nissan deserves a medal for not saddling this big honker of a sedan with an asthmatic 2.0-liter turbo four.
As supplied, this SV sedan without sunroof would cost you about $34k before all the inevitable discounts. That’s the same price Nissan charged five years ago for a car that didn’t handle the basics nearly as well as this one does. You can spend up to seven grand more for a variety of upscale trim packages both sporting and luxurious. Some of them come with a better sound system. That would be a welcome upgrade; the stereo in the SV is not good.
Nissan likely thinks this competes with the Avalon. It doesn’t. No Avalon buyer would bother to look at this, because they’d be frightened of the reliability and the looks. In truth, this is a left-field alternative to an Accord 2.0T, the same way that the Renault Laguna is a left-field alternative to a BMW 3 Series overseas. The Nissan is quieter, probably gets better real-world mileage, and has more usable trunk space. Every other possible advantage would go to the Honda. Except, of course, for the fact that your Nissan dealer will work with your credit in a way that the Honda dealer won’t.
If you’re currently in an, ahem, rebuilding phase of your life, you could do worse than this Maxima. It’s an improvement over its recent predecessors and it’s a very pleasant freeway cruiser. Don’t expect anything more than that, and you won’t be disappointed.
[Images: Jack Baruth/TTAC]