The Nissan Maxima has been waging a battle for a long time – one that it has been losing with every new iteration. Contrary to what you’d imagine, this battle has never been against rivals, but with itself as it has struggled to find an identity.
It’s not the car’s fault. The Japanese carmaker, which has always positioned the Maxima as a sports saloon, never bothered to equip it with what it takes to be one. And the Maxima ended up being neither a large luxury saloon like its rivals, nor a proper sports saloon as its parent wanted it to be. Neither did it help that its styling was conservative and not much different from its smaller sibling, the Altima.
It’s this identity crisis that Nissan has attempted to address with the latest 2016 model of the Maxima. The all-new version gets a complete ground-up redesign, featuring design characteristics apparently inspired by the US Navy’s Blue Angels fighter jets. Anchoring the aggressively sculpted styling cues is Nissan’s new V-Motion grille and the signature boomerang headlights up front, with the car’s profile sharpened by crisp, flowing character lines and C-pillars, which kick up snappishly to meet the sloping roof at the rear.
The thorough overhaul carries on into the cabin, too, where use of top-quality materials and contrast stitching on the dashboard, doors and console lend it a decidedly more upmarket ambience. Our test car came with (the optional) diamond-quilted leather seats, which are supportive and comfortable for long cruises. The 8.0in touchscreen interface can be controlled either by, er, touching the screen, or by turning a large knob in the centre console that Nissan calls a Display Commander. And while there’s plenty of leg- and shoulder room for the driver and front-seat passenger, the rear lags behind rivals like the Toyota Avalon and Chevrolet Impala in terms of space.
So visually it’s a win for Nissan in its ‘four-door sportscar’ positioning for the Maxima, as this is by far the sharpest-looking model in its eight generations. It also effectively sets it apart from the Altima, as well as more subdued rivals like the Avalon, Impala and the Hyundai Azera. And the cabin also lives up to the standards expected in a car of this class. Do the Maxima’s driving dynamics back up the expectations set by its belligerent looks? Well, the Maxima’s 3.5-litre V6, a time-tested mill from Nissan’s VQ series, is a great engine. Nissan claims the block has been redesigned with more than 60 per cent new parts. And 296bhp is ample power to propel a car of this size.
But it’s the means chosen to transfer these horses to the front axle that bogs the Maxima down. Nissan has tried its best here to minimise the annoying drone, which CVTs are notorious for, by adding seven simulated gear ratios that mimic a regular automatic transmission. But call up sudden acceleration and there’s no mistaking this transmission for anything but a CVT, as transition between the cogs proves what it really is – fake. The flat-bottomed steering feels good in your hands, but is unnecessarily heavy, especially in Sport mode, and the car understeers when approaching a bend at speed.
The ride is also more tuned in favour of firmness than suppleness, so don’t expect it to glide over bumps and road imperfections as serenely as an Avalon or the Impala would.
But if all the above characteristics define a family saloon for you, then rest assured that you will not feel short-changed when it comes to features, as the Maxima is packed with technology including predictive forward-collision warnings, driver attention alert, forward emergency braking, blind-spot monitors, rear cross-traffic alerts, adaptive cruise control, and six standard airbags.
So, have the 2016 updates cured the Maxima’s identity crisis?
To a certain degree, yes. But it’s still some way away from justifying the four-door sportscar moniker. A double-clutch transmission paired to that beautiful engine would have taken it a bit closer, but since that’s not going to happen, the best thing to do would be to just market it as a large family saloon.
And then the Maxima would be just fine.