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.
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.
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.
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.