As its top-of-the-line sedan, Nissan fits the updated 2009 Maxima with cabin tech handed down from its Infiniti brand, and gives it a driving character far more sporty than we would expect. Although front-wheel-drive means the Maxima might have trouble competing with the likes of BMW and Audi, the continuously variable transmission (CVT) is exceedingly well-tuned, delivering what feels like hard shifts and a really usable sport program.
We like the body style, although the looks might be polarizing. Rather than just another sedan with a curved roof on the road, the Maxima has substantial fenders front and back. Nissan narrowed the waist for a sportier look. Headlights get the boomerang look Nissan previously used on the GT-R and 370Z, making for cohesive brand design language.
On the road
Entering the cabin of the 2009 Nissan Maxima, we were immediately impressed to see the same infotainment interface used in models from Infiniti. A big knob studded with directional buttons sits just below the navigation LCD. Given this hardware, we weren't surprised to find an iPod connector in the console. Pairing an iPhone to the car and hooking it up to the iPod cable set us up for communications and entertainment, so we were on our way.
Infiniti-level cabin tech finds its way into the Nissan Maxima.
Heading south of San Francisco, the responsiveness of the accelerator, the sharp handling, and the big shift paddles mounted to the steering column suggested this car should be taken on a more exciting road than the four lane freeway stretching out before us.
So up into the Santa Cruz mountains, letting the Maxima loose on the winding Skyline Boulevard, we took full advantage of its performance. At an easy cruising speed, the CVT keeps the 3.5-liter V-6 running at under 2,000rpm. But pull the shifter to its sport-program position, and that CVT shows track ambition. Give it the gas to pass other cars, and the CVT pulls its ratios down, letting the engine speed soar towards redline, accompanied by an excellent fine-tuned exhaust note.
Making a fast start, the CVT took proper advantage of all 290 horsepower from the engine, while traction control virtually eliminates torque steer without being intrusive. Using sport mode in turns, the CVT lets the power rise as we braked before a turn, giving the car the kind of oomph it needed to pull itself through. As it's a front-wheel-drive car, the back-end stayed in line, keeping theatrics to a minimum--not a good thing if you like your car to pivot through the turns.
Paddle shifters let you keep your hands close to the wheel when using the manual gear selection mode.
Switching the CVT to manual mode, we were impressed by how real the six virtual gears felt. Each shift, although only a programmed point on along an infinite ratio, felt hard and happened fast. Few automatic transmissions give this kind of shift feel.
The Maxima inspires a lot of fun, too much fun considering the mileage we turned in at the end of this trip. With about half our miles made up of sport driving in the mountains, and half an easy highway cruise, the trip meter ended up with a low 18.5 mpg--not out of line with what we've seen on other sporty V-6s, although it didn't meet the EPA mileage of 19 city and 26 highway.
In the cabin
Although its platform is pure Nissan, the cabin of the 2009 Maxima reaches Infiniti-luxury levels. Switchgear on the steering wheel and infotainment interface uses metal, for a quality feel. The multifunction knob makes spelling street and city names with the onscreen keyboard fast and easy. The LCD is also a touch screen, and there are many settings and functions you can operate by touch or with the interface hardware.
Live traffic reporting is an excellent addition to the navigation system.
The hard-drive-based maps are very easy to browse, with the multifunction knob letting you find locations in the navigation system smoothly, without the usual pauses to refresh found on other systems. Traffic information is also shown on the maps, letting you see the traffic jams before driving into them.
The navigation system's main drawbacks are that it doesn't do text-to-speech for every road, just for freeway and highway numbers, and the traffic system doesn't proactively detour you around incidents.
Nissan packs an insane number of audio sources into the stereo. There are the usual broadcast sources: AM, FM, and satellite. The disc player can read MP3 CDs, and can also rip standard CDs to the car's hard drive, which reserves about 10GB of space for MP3s. There is the iPod cable in the console, and a Compact Flash-card slot on the stack. It is difficult to get stuck without any music in this car.
Onboard music storage complements the iPod integration and Compact Flash-card reader.
The sound system is above average, although not really of audiophile quality. It complements front tweeters and door speakers with a centerfill speaker and subwoofer.
Bluetooth phone support is easy to set up; we had no problem pairing it with an iPhone. There is also a good onscreen interface for the phone. But the setup lacks the ability to read your phone's contact database, forcing you to manually enter numbers into the car's phone book.
Nissan also has excellent back-up camera technology that it brings to the Maxima. Put the car in reverse, and the rear-view image shows up on the LCD, complete with overlays that show you the distance of objects behind the car and the path the car will take depending on how the wheels are turned.
Under the hood
For the 2009 Maxima, Nissan refined its award-winning 3.5-liter V-6 VQ-series engine, increasing air intake and fuel-burn efficiency to get 290 horsepower and 261 pound-feet of torque--strong numbers for a family sedan. This engine uses continuously variable-valve timing to optimize efficiency and different engine speeds.
That engine is mated to the CVT, which has a normal drive mode, sport mode, and manual-gear selection. Sport mode automatically shifts to a lower ratio when the brakes are applied, and maintains engine speed in corners. The CVT includes six virtual gears for manual shifting, which can be selected with the steering column paddles or the shifter.
Nissan squeezes 290 horsepower out of this V-6, giving the Maxima plenty of power.
The suspension delivers a very smooth ride at speed on the freeway, while cabin noise is kept to a minimum, giving the Maxima luxury car qualities. But that ride isn't too soft, and the suspension handles cornering very neatly, keeping body roll down.
As further proof of the Maxima's sporty nature, Nissan fitted the new car with a similar steering mechanism to that used in the 370Z, a speed-sensitive power-steering unit that does an excellent job of delivering road feel at higher speeds, while still being very responsive.
For emissions, the Maxima does surprisingly well for the size of its engine, earning a ULEV II rating from the California Air Resources Board.
The 2009 Nissan Maxima SV has a base price of $31,990. Our review car came with the Sport package, which includes a raft of features including HID headlights, the paddle shifters, and a smart key, for $2,300, and the Sport Technology package, bringing in the excellent navigation system, onboard music storage, and rear-view camera, for $2,250. A few other options and the destination charge brought the car's total up to $37,380.
Other options to consider are the Acura TL, which will cost a little more with similar equipment, and the upcoming 2010 Ford Taurus, which will probably cost a bit less and feature some excellent cabin tech.
The Maxima scores very well, delivering excellent performance and cabin tech, only held back by a few lacking features, such as cell phone contact-list importing and automatic traffic detours. The design is outstanding, with a sedan that sets it own unique style on the road.