2020 Nissan Maxima review: Not your typical four-door
Today's family cars tend to be pretty sedate. Few of them break new ground when it comes to looks or performance, but Nissan wants you to think of its Maxima as something different, a large sedan with loads of soul. After testing a 2020 Platinum model, for the most part, I agree with this framing... mostly.
Sporty looks inside and out
When the current-generation model launched five years ago, the automaker touted it as a "four-door sports car," a descriptor Nissan first used with the third-generation Maxima in 1989. Yes, this is a bit hyperbolic, but at least when parked next to a Toyota Avalon or Chrysler 300 the Maxima looks more interesting, with its aggressive grille, pumped-up fenders and quad exhaust outlets, things that imply it's a bit rowdier than average.
The current-generation Maxima is no spring chicken, even after last year's refresh. Still, its interior, especially in Platinum trim with the Reserve package, has aged quite well. The overall design is attractive, with easy-to-use secondary controls and a relatively simple layout. The center stack is angled slightly toward the driver for a more cockpitlike feel.
My top-shelf Platinum-trim tester's interior trimmings are nice, with plenty of soft plastics on the door panels and dashboard, plus a sprinkle of contrast color stitching to liven things up. This car's steering wheel feels good in the hand, being both chunky and nicely sculpted, with a flat bottom for an extra dash of sport. Thoughtfully, the tiller's Rakuda tan inserts match the leather used on the seats and doors. Sort of an orangish-brown, this semianiline cow hide looks upscale, especially with the diamond-stitch pattern Nissan designers applied to it. Unfortunately, this leather isn't all that special, feeling more like a vinyl shower curtain than any natural material.
Rear-seat air vents keep passengers traveling in economy class happy; ditto for the heated outboard seats, which are included in the Reserve Package, a modest $1,140 extra. The Maxima's back bench is supportive and comfortable, offering a good amount of legroom, but it's not particularly friendly for taller folks. If I don't slouch, my noggin hits the headliner.
Making sure I never get lost, this Maxima features a NissanConnect infotainment system with integrated navigation on an 8-inch display. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard across the model range. That multimedia array looks pretty old, with some less-than-modern graphics, but it's easy to use and surprisingly responsive, with no delays when typing out addresses or zooming in or out on the navigation map, which you can do with the touchscreen or using the hardware knob on the center console. It's nice that you have a couple of ways to interact with the infotainment system.
Nissan Safety Shield 360 is standard across the Maxima lineup. It includes a range of advanced driver aids like automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. Adaptive cruise control and traffic-sign recognition are standard on SV models and up, though the useful but somewhat gritty-looking 360-degree Around View Monitor is only included on SR and Platinum grades. Nissan's excellent ProPilot Assist adaptive cruise control with lane centering is not offered on the Maxima, so, sad trombone.
The driver aids this car does offer are OK. Blind-spot monitoring is always a good thing to have, attentively reminding you of traffic in adjacent lanes. As for the adaptive cruise control, it's perfectly adequate, adjusting vehicle speed as required by surrounding traffic. Naturally, lane centering would be greatly appreciated.
CVTs get a bad rap
Most automotive enthusiasts hate continuously variable transmissions, and it's easy to understand why. All too often, they're teamed with droning, malnourished four-cylinder engines, a combination that's about as pleasant as being locked in a room with an endless Dave Matthews Band playlist blaring. But they don't have to be torture, as the Maxima proves. When a potent and refined powerplant is factored into the driveline equation, suddenly a CVT's bad behavior becomes a lot less objectionable.
With 300 horsepower and 261 pound-feet of torque on tap, the Maxima's 3.5-liter V6 provides plenty of performance, getting up to highway speed easily if not quite instantly. Even when wound out, this engine is smooth and rather hushed, sounding like it's operating somewhere off in the distance rather than a few inches ahead of your feet.
Powertrain refinement and decent torque make the standard Xtronic CVT far more pleasant to live with than you might expect. But something called D-Step shifting logic plays an important role as well. This feature simulates gear changes under moderate to heavy acceleration, which helps reduce droning powertrain sounds. Beyond that, the Maxima can also recognize if it's going through a high-G corner and stay in a lower transmission ratio to help you power out of the turn.
There are, however, a couple of downsides to the Maxima's CVT. It can be shifted manually with the gear selector, but only SR models come with paddle shifters, which is a bit strange. Also, when cruising at speeds around 40 mph, the drivetrain can feel a bit gritty because the transmission loves to keep the engine revs as low as physically possible for improved fuel economy.
And that right there is why automakers opt for CVTs. These "gearboxes" can significantly improve a vehicle's efficiency, and the Maxima is no exception. This car is rated at 20 miles per gallon city and 30 mpg highway. Combined, the EPA says it should return 24 mpg, though in typical driving I'm averaging around 29.7, an impressive figure.
There's a syrupiness to the Maxima's steering, which is of the electro-hydraulic variety, a certain viscosity that's a little hard to describe. The feel through its wheel is one of denseness: It's unexpectedly heavy. While not overly precise, this sedan is still quite agile, and it tracks as straight as a Japanese bullet train, except in corners where there can be a tiny wisp of torque steer under heavy acceleration.
Ride quality flirts with outright stiffness, but it's still a step away from crossing that line. The Maxima feels well controlled and body roll in corners is basically nonexistent. As for this Nissan's binders, they have a nice bite to them, and the pedal is child's play to modulate, being neither sink-to-the-floor squishy nor overly eager at initial application.
Still a handsome, sporty-ish four-door
The current-generation Nissan Maxima is pleasant enough to drive and it still looks great five years after first going on sale. It's hard to argue with what the automaker has delivered here, CVT and all, though some drivers might object to the price. A base Maxima S stickers for about $35,375, including $925 in destination fees. That's about four grand more than an entry-level Chrysler 300, though it undercuts the Toyota Avalon by about $1,500. The top-shelf Platinum model kicks off at around 42 grand, but with the Reserve package, a rear diffuser, underbody lighting and a few other odds and ends my review unit checks out for just about $46,000, which is quite a bit of money for a mass-market machine. Still, if you want a sporty four-door that's on the larger side and features somewhat aggressive styling, the Maxima fits the bill.