New Nissan Maxima has a lot for drivers to love

— -- Nissan's redesigned Maxima sport sedan goes about its business with such easy grace that you wonder why pricier models can't do as well.

Maxima's long been Nissan's NSANY "halo" model: a go-getting growler that gives the whole brand a luster of quick-step performance and snap-turn handling. It's true enough: Nissans drive sportier than many rivals.

The Maxima's slightly bigger outside than the Altima sedan that shares Nissan's "D" platform, as does the Murano SUV and Quest minivan in a nice job of crafting different vehicles on one base. But it's mysteriously tighter inside: slightly less headroom, legroom and width than Altima.

It has the arresting looks you want in a personal-statement car, as well as arrest-me engine oomph.

The 3.5-liter V-6, shared with several Nissans and Infinitis, is rated 290 horsepower for Maxima; hence, Nissan has revived the hoary marketing tag "four-door sports car."

Silly maybe, but not just hype. Maxima scoots. It makes cars in the mirrors look really small, really quickly. And it holds a tight line, unperturbed, in fast corners.

Sadly, torque-steer still is there. Nail the throttle and the car pulls to the right. Lots of powerful cars have been able to minimize or eliminate that.

"With this powerful an engine there's still a little torque steer there," says Larry Dominique, Nissan's vice president of product planning. "But compared to what it used to be, it's virtually gone."

Other gripes:

The power sunroof on the test car made more noise closing than you hear in a railroad switch yard.

Haven't heard others mention it, Dominique says.

Instrument lighting couldn't be dimmed enough. Went from not-so-bright to off.

Probably not an issue, Dominique says. Nissan surveys (they study this stuff?) show many drivers like the dash lights on fully bright.

The tiny stereo volume control on the steering wheel was hard to use and would be impossible with gloves, though a nice-size knob is barely a reach on the center stack of controls.

The engine's specifically tuned for premium fuel, not regular.

Dominique says regular won't hurt it, but will sacrifice some power: "Would a normal customer notice the difference? Probably not."

The middle spot in the back seat has no head restraint — but the middle slot is so narrow and the legroom so limited by the center tunnel that it'll only fit a kid, who's probably too short to need the head restraint.

There's plenty about the Maxima, however, to celebrate.

The front-end design is terrific. Outside, it's a chiseled crouch, vaguely like an Audi. From behind the wheel, you're treated to a gentle hood bulge that eases down into the crisp rise of sensual fenders. Exotic (erotic?) without being overwrought — a modern interpretation of the view in classic 1950s Detroit cruisers.

The controls and their layout make more sense than in most cars, and reward the touch when you operate them. The lack of a gee-whiz presentation is a good thing. You'll appreciate it more everyday.

Optional high-intensity discharge headlights worked well, illuminating elevated street signs and pedestrians. Most HID headlights are stingy with their light and break their promise of safer night driving.

CVT — a belt-drive, continuously variable-ratio automatic transmission — felt like a real gearbox. None of the rubber-band feel of some rival CVTs. It has multiple personalities. Normal automatic; a sporty automatic that keeps engine revs up for snappier response but uses more fuel; manual, in which the driver can choose among six set ratios with the gearshift lever or the optional paddle shifters on the steering column. Whew.

The glove box not only swallows all those manuals and brochures, but also leaves — imagine — generous room for stuff you really want in there.

Steering has good on-center feel and aims the car in proportion to how much the driver turns it. You'd think that'd be a given 120 years after Berta Benz sneaked hubby Karl's Motorwagen out in the wee hours, and wasn't shy about telling him what needed improvement. Sadly, good steering still is notable.

Everything works well together, so you can hop in and just go when you really don't want to put on your game face. Yet the growl of the engine and view out the windshield remind you that with a little toe on the throttle, a tap on the gear lever, a twist of the leathered wheel, you're in the joy zone.

It's how cars should be.


What? Sporting, near-luxury four-door, front-drive, midsize, high-performance sedan loosely based on Altima.

When and where? On sale since June 26, built at Smyrna, Tenn.

Why? Jazzes up the brand's image.

How much? S is $29,985 with $695 shipping, SV at $32,685. Tester: $38,500.

How potent? Quite. 3.5-liter V-6 is rated 290 horsepower at 6,400 rpm, 261 pounds-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm. Belt-drive, continuously variable automatic transmission offers four (!) modes (two auto, two manual) to deliver grunt to front wheels.

How fancy? Pretty, as it ought to be starting at $30K. Standard hardware includes anti-lock brakes, anti-skid control, traction control, today's normal air bags everywhere, plus power this and that galore.

What's missing:On the S model you can't have leather, high-intensity headlights, fog lights and gadgets such as navigation, Bluetooth phone link, satellite radio.

How big? Accord/Camry/Altima territory. Maxima is 190.6 inches long, 73.2 in. wide, 57.8 in. tall on a 109.3-in. wheelbase. Weighs 3,556 pounds, (S) or 3,579 pounds (SV). Turning circle is 37.4 feet.

How thirsty? Rated 19 miles per gallon city, 26 highway, 22 combined. Tester's trip computer showed 19 mpg in 160 miles of suburban driving. Tank holds 20 gallons.

Overall:Satisfying in nearly every way.