When Nissan unveiled the redesigned 2016 Maxima at the 2015 New York Auto Show, it looked fresh and sexy perched up on its stage, flattered by professional lighting and attended to by a guy who was paid to wipe the smallest dust mote off the car every 10 seconds. The engine, a 3.5-liter V6 good for 300 horsepower and 261 pound-feet of torque, had me a little hot and bothered as well. Good looks and a bit of brawn.
Then I noticed what Nissan calls a "4-Door Sports Car" comes with a continuously variable transmission (CVT).
For normal, everyday drivers, a CVT is not a bad transmission. It keeps the engine operating at optimum efficiency with a band rather than fixed gears. But it doesn't offer the control over drive ratios that you can get from a manual or dual-clutch transmission. CVTs just aren't engaging, which kind of undercuts the Maxima's sport credentials.
In fact, it's hard to say where the Maxima sits on the automobile spectrum. The CVT and front-wheel-drive format take it out of the sport sedan category, the 300 horsepower V6 takes it out of the family category, and while there is a good amount of interior features, the slightly harsh ride of our SR trim line makes it a tough sell to those looking for luxury.
Despite an apparent identity crisis, the Maxima makes a case for itself. Visually it is a stunning car. It's about two inches longer than the outgoing model, but has lost over an inch of height and over eighty pounds. The floating roof and sculpted profile give it a modern look, and the wrap around taillights make for a recognizable rear. I especially like the new boomerang design of the LED headlamps.
As I slipped behind the wheel, the first thing I noticed is how the seats, with their leather and diamond quilted Alcantara inserts, cradled my behind. The entire cockpit is built around the driver, with the standard 8-inch touchscreen and controls angled toward the left seat. The overall design of the interior, from the contrasting stitching along the soft-touch dash to the chrome accent along the passenger side, is flawless.
In this SR trim model, navigation comes standard, and the system is very quick to recognize touchscreen inputs. If you prefer not to smudge the touchscreen, or can't reach it, there is also a redundant dial control on the center console.
One slick feature Nissan calls Swipe to Meter lets you push navigation information from the larger screen on the center console to a smaller instrument cluster screen with a quick swipe of your finger. A host of built-in apps give you access to Google search (powered by your phone), Sirius satellite traffic and weather, as well as emergency service, remote start and lock, and valet and curfew alert.
Cabin comforts include heated and cooled front seats, push-button start, two USB ports and a handy storage bin on the center console.
Nissan's 360 degree Around View monitor, which shows a bird's-eye view of your car, is only available on the top of the line trim. That's a good enough reason to shell out the cash for the Platinum trim, as Around View is incredibly helpful for parking and making sure no kids on Big Wheels are in danger.
Glaringly out of place is the mechanical, foot operated parking brake. I'd like to see either a mechanical hand brake, to better execute that perfect parking lot doughnut, or an electronic parking brake. It's a little thing, but my 1981 Jeep had a mechanical foot brake. Nissan can and should do better.
I fired up the Maxima and the exhaust note sounded off with just a hint of a growl. At this point, I was pretty excited. I was in a hot car and looking good. The light turned green and the Maxima jumped off the line with just a touch of torque steer to keep me on my toes.
I got a brief moment where the car revved and every ounce of me wanted to keep that going, to listen to the naturally aspirated six-cylinder engine work its magic, but then the CVT, like the worst nanny ever, stepped in to remind that the car is not a toy. Revs went down to a more respectable level and I was left wondering what life has left to offer.
The CVT can be manipulated by the column mounted paddle shifters, which helps to mitigate this disappointment somewhat, but it still does not offer the same pleasure as a manual transmission, or even a dual-clutch automatic.
To be fair, if you're going to drive a car with a CVT, you might as well be driving one from Nissan. While it's not the best choice for a sport sedan, it does offer excellent fuel economy, giving the Maxima an EPA fuel rating of 22 miles per gallon in the city, 30 miles per gallon on the highway and 25 miles per gallon combined.
The SR trim line has a sport-tuned suspension, which some may find a bit on the harsh side. The sport mode will change throttle mapping, transmission tuning, steering feel and exhaust note. There is a noticeable difference in sport mode, especially in the steering feel. Normal mode gives the steering a heavy feel at low speeds, and a lighter feel at speed, almost as if the computer got the information backwards. Sport mode gives the steering a more even feel across all speeds.
There are a few computer-aided whiz-bangs to help you along your drive. Active Trace Control is Nissan's answer to torque vectoring, applying the brakes to the inner wheel in turns to keep the Maxima in line. Another welcome addition is adaptive cruise control, which will match a lead car at speeds up to 90 miles per hour. It's perfect for slow traffic situations, but if the lead car stops, the driver has to push "reset" to get the Maxima back to follow mode.
The 2016 Nissan Maxima SR comes in at $38,750 with destination. I had high hopes for this car, and maybe that's why I've been a bit harsh in this review. GT-R notwithstanding, Nissan really needs a sporty new car in its lineup. The 370Z is still around, but in 2015 it never sold more than 800 units in a single month. Nissan needs to bring some excitement to its brand, and many of us thought, nay prayed, that the Maxima would be it.