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The Maxima occupies an interesting niche in the automotive world. Nissan describes its Maxima as the "four-door sports car," slotting above the midsize Altima, and supposedly offering higher doses of performance and premium touches. There's a lot to like, don't get me wrong. But despite a slight refresh for 2019, the Maxima is old, and doesn't pack enough sport or luxury to really stand out from the crowd.
With the current eighth-generation Maxima originally launching in 2016, it's about the right time for a little midcycle pick-me-up. For 2019, the Maxima gains a more prominent "V-motion" grille, updated bumpers, wheels, standard LED headlights and quad exhaust tip finishers. Along with a snazzy new Sunset Drift Chromaflare paint option, my SR test car looks attractive and aggressive with an imposing front end, flowing side character lines, rear haunches, "floating" roof and reworked spoiler.
Only minimal alterations take place inside, with all Maximas receiving upgraded materials and accent stitching for a slightly more premium feel. In the SR, the seats now feature diamond-quilted Alcantara inserts and a charcoal headliner. The "Zero Gravity" seats themselves remain comfortable and supportive and all the wrapped surfaces do make the surroundings feel a notch above the Altima. And while there's adequate space for adults in both rows, legroom in the backseat is snugger.
Like before, the Maxima gets an easy-to-use NissanConnect system to quarterback infotainment functions. It's controlled by either a responsive 8-inch touchscreen flanked by large, clearly-marked shortcut buttons, or a dial on the center console. The SR comes standard with navigation, a rocking 11-speaker Bose audio system and both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. To some, the button- and knob-laden center stack may be a bit busy, but I prefer it over being distracted by digging through numerous screens.
The addition of USB Type-C ports is new for 2019, with one joining a USB Type-A port in the media bin up front. Another USB Type-C and Type-A outlet can be found on the back of the center console for folks in the rear to charge phones and tablets. Disappointingly, a Wi-Fi hotspot still isn't available from the factory, but one can be had as a $450 dealer-installed option that can support up to five devices.
A bolstered safety technology menu now includes rear door alert that honks the horn to remind people to check the backseat for items or children after turning off the car. Traffic sign recognition is also added to provide a handy reminder of speed limits, which is an item I'm a big fan of. Those join previously available items such as adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning with lane-keep assist and rear-cross traffic alert. Of course, a rearview camera is also standard as required by law, but image resolution is frustratingly poor.
The Maxima's drivetrain soldiers on unchanged, which is both good and bad. It's good in that the VQ 3.5-liter V6 is muscular and sounds great, churning out 300 horsepower and 261 pound-feet of torque. That's a lot of giddy-up to safely merge onto crowded expressways and pass slower traffic, and returns a not-so-horrible, EPA estimated 20 miles per gallon in the city and 30 mpg on the highway.
The bad part, however, is the continuously variable transmission that mostly ruins the experience. When taking it easy around town, the CVT behaves fine with simulated gear changes and mostly disappears into the background. Things change when driving enthusiastically, even with the car in Sport mode. It's a buzzy affair and ratio changes are lazy in both auto and manual modes alike. Don't even bother with the steering wheel-mounted paddles.
I will say the Maxima SR is a fairly composed, 3,582-pound vehicle. Thanks to a handful of handling improvements like stiffer shocks and springs, a thicker front antiroll bar and retuned stability electronics, the big sedan swiftly turns in and hangs on tight around corners with some initial body roll at entry. Credit also goes to the 19-inch Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric All-Season 245/40 tires, which aren't the greatest in light snow, but grippy on clean pavement. Steering weight is heavy enough in the car's Normal mode and brake muscle is on point to confidently scrub off speed.
Without the luxury of adaptive dampers, all the changes that deliver sharper reflexes in the Maxima do have a negative effect on ride comfort. Impacts from almost every bump and rut get channeled into the cabin. It's not to the point of being overly jarring, but the too-firm behavior likely will get tiring on a long road trip. For a daily commuter, it'll be tolerable to anyone willing to give up some ride quality in exchange for tighter handling dynamics.
As tempting as a Maxima SR initially sounds with the handling upgrades and slicker cabin details, I ultimately would end up building an SV model. With a $35,960 base price, not including $895 for destination, it will have the options most important to me like heated front leather seats, navigation and blind-spot monitoring. The more compliant standard suspension and 18-inch wheels with slightly taller sidewall tire will also better cope with dreaded Michigan roads. Tacking on $140 floor mats brings my car to $36,995, which is a lot more affordable than the $40,960 SR model pictured here.
There's certainly stuff to like about the Nissan Maxima, such as the engine, exterior design and well-trimmed cabin. Unfortunately, the 2019 updates don't address the flagship's shortcomings that prevent it from being an engaging "four-door sports car." I can't help but wonder what a good torque converter automatic gearbox would be like in here to liven things up in place of the CVT. Sadly, that's likely a pipe dream with Nissan's solid commitment to CVTs in most of its products. As is, calling it a "four-door sports car" seems pretty inappropriate.
At $34,845 for a Maxima S base model, there's some appeal to the Nissan for anyone looking for a solid, mildly entertaining sedan. Any trim level above bumps the price tag up to a level where you could spring for a V6-powered Acura TLX that's just as, if not more athletic, uses a normal automatic transmission and is far more comfortable and luxuriously appointed. The Acura is not as attractive as the Nissan, but I'll happily give up some style for not having to deal with a CVT.