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By MARK VAUGHN


Attention Maxima performance devotees (and we know there are lots of you): Your car is back. And it’s better than ever.

Gone is that silly beam rear axle, the floaty Camry feel, the conformist styling. Now you can pull out those “4DSC”(4-door sports car) stickers again and start driving.


The 2004 Maxima not only has an independent rear suspension and a more powerful, 265-hp 3.5-liter V6 driving the front wheels, but comes with an optional six-speed manual and a helical limited-slip differential. It is as fun to drive as an Altima, but with just a little more luxury cachet.


2004 NISSAN MAXIMA
ON SALE: March
BASE PRICE: $28,000 (est.)
POWERTRAIN: 3.5-liter, 265-hp, 255-lb-ft V6; fwd, five-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT: 3432 pounds
0-60 MPH: 6.3 seconds (est.)



So, like that character in the opening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Maxima (through its voice-controlled nav system) could say, “I’m not dead yet!”

It looked like it might be for a while. If you’ll recall, Nissan was so proud of its new Altima when that car was introduced a year ago that it seemed the Maxima would fade away. After all, the new Altima had more room than last year’s Maxima and it had a V6 engine for the first time, same as its upscale stablemate. Nissan detailed how it would reduce Maxima sales and allow Altima to cater to buyers looking for a midsize sedan with V6 power.

But it turns out rumors of the death of the Nissan flagship were greatly exaggerated. While Altima was being aimed at megasellers Camry and Accord, a step up from where it used to be, the 2004 Maxima was being moved upscale with premium equipment and pricing to compete with the Acura TL, Toyota Avalon and the V6 versions of the Audi A4. Nissan whittled down the model count to two, the performance SE and the luxury SL, eliminating the entry-level GXE to ensure Maxima’s up-level standing.

The dimensions of the 2004 Maxima also put it back on top, size-wise, in the Nissan sedan lineup, but not by much. Its 111.2-inch wheelbase is an inch longer than the Altima and at 193.5 inches overall it’s two inches longer. Interior volume is bigger than Altima now, too, but by only half a cubic foot, 103.6 vs. 103.2. Nissan could only stretch the platform so much.

Outside it looks very much the same as the Altima. Park the two side by side and you might have trouble telling them apart, with their nearly identically pronounced C-pillar and rear decklid combinations, and the creased edges along the tops of the fenders.

The Maxima carves its own identity with interior appointments and luxo touches, though. Take that sunroof. While all sunroofs in automotive history have gone sideways across the roof, the standard-equipment Skyview Roof is mounted longitudinally, right down the middle, allowing views straight up for both the front- and rear-seat passengers.

The Maxima also offers what Nissan calls an Elite Package, with rear bucket seats and a rear center console, so all four occupants can luxuriate equally. The optional navigation system comes with the 3-D Birdview seven-inch display they like in the Japanese home market so much.

Then there are all the luxury features you’d more or less expect: eight-speaker sound, optional six-disc CD changer, dual-zone a/c, blah, blah, blah. A lot of the blah blah blah is on the Altima, too. So is this really just an Altima in Maxima clothing?


“It’s a wolf in wolf’s clothing,” said Peter Marcin, senior manager of Nissan sedans. Well woof, woof.

While both Altima and Maxima get the 3.5-liter V6, Maxima’s version makes 265 horsepower at 5800 rpm and 255 lb-ft of torque at 4400, thanks to unique intake and exhaust tuning, compared to the Altima’s 245 hp and 246 lb-ft. So you’d think maybe the Maxima could easily beat the V6 Altima down the quarter-mile, right? Maybe.

But the Maxima weighs 200-plus pounds more than a comparably equipped Altima, so maybe it couldn’t. We got 6.32 seconds 0 to 60 with the Altima. Nissan is not releasing performance figures. We’ll let you know what the Maxima does when we take one down the drag strip.

Steering and suspension are the same basic geometry in both cars. The front suspension is a simple strut attached to a subframe, while the steering is engine speed-sensitive power rack-and-pinion. In the rear there are lower A-arms and trailing links attached to another subframe. Antiroll bars ride front and back. Nissan offers two different suspensions on the Maxima, softer on the luxury SL and stiffer on the performance SE. Take your pick. Both are better than the hopping old rear beam.

Maxima gets meatier tires on bigger wheels than the Altima. The SL rides on H-rated 225/55R-17s and the SE gets higher-speed V-rated 245/45R-18s. Promising stats.

So it sounds like a pretty fun ride, yes?Our actual first words behind the wheel of an SE with the big tires and the five-speed automatic were something like, “Whoooo” and “hooo!”

The Nissan executive with us thought we were mocking him. And his car. But really, sir, it is fun!

The Maxima feels tightly bolted together. There’s no play in the steering and any suspension movement is tightly controlled without being harsh. And that engine—broad torque and power curves, smooth, acceleration through the entire rev range, quiet until you mash it... aw heck, anyone who doesn’t love the 3.5-liter VQ engine family is a communist.


We spent a couple of hours on winding two-lanes, knocking the five-speed automatic up and down through the gears, and actually had more fun doing it than we might have had trying to heel-and-toe. Those who fancy themselves good heel-and-toers will no doubt prefer the six-speed manual, which we also drove, and liked. You’ll get quicker 0-to-60 times with the manual transmission, for sure. Those seeking nothing but luxury will appreciate the softer shifts of the four-speed automatic (yep, three transmissions!).

So the Maxima is fun and luxurious and all that, but it costs between $28,000 and $35,000, more or less (prices will be announced closer to the car’s March intro in showrooms), and the Altima with the five-speed manual and the 3.5-liter V6 starts at under $23,000. That’s a whopping big discrepancy to justify to the spouse. But Maxima buyers are Nissan’s most loyal and Nissan is counting on them.


Plus, Nissan is actually planning to lose Maxima buyers to the Altima, a strategy we never fully understood when it was explained to us several times in a row at the Altima’s introduction. They’ll make it up on volume, see?

In any case, Altima sales did go up from 150,000 to 200,000 last year, still less than half the Camry and Accord juggernauts. Maxima sales dropped only 4000 units and stayed right around the 100,000 mark. So total Nissan sedan sales went up. Maybe they really know what they’re doing at Nissan. The engineers certainly do.



Gabriel,
2001 CL Type S
2001 Lexus RX300 Silversport
 

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Gabriel,
2001 CL Type S
2001 Lexus RX300 Silversport
 

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3 trannys? Why?

So +5HP on the TLS. I see where this is going. They did the same thing to the Accord when the Altima came out (245HP vs. 240HP). Also, Maxima= 265HP and G35= 260HP. Hmmm... Finally, imagine a $35K Maxima. More than some Infinitis.

Gabriel,
2001 CL Type S
2001 Lexus RX300 Silversport
 

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They are going to cannabalize their Infiniti market. I don't understand this marketing at all. Keep the Max as a popular, practical car, and keep the Infiniti as the luxo version. Hell, 25% of the Altimas I see have Xenon headlights!


2003 G35 Coupe (on order)
6-speed
Diamond Graphite / Graphite
 

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Yeah I agree VQ...doesn't make sense. BUT I will say that I like what I saw when I went to the Houston Auto show. They had one there and man its nice! I love the inside although its strictly a 4 seater since they have a middle console in the back as well...


'03 G35 Sedan.
 

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Based on the article, it doesn't seem like you get much for the extra bucks. In fact, it seems to be nothing more than a slightly upscale Altima. They really need to lose that grille, ugh!

'03 6MT (6-Speed Coupe)
Diamond Graphite/Willow
 
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