- The Washington Times - Friday, August 8, 2008

There are many things that can tilt a buyer toward a particular car — price, fuel economy, size, passenger comfort, performance, handling and ride.

But the biggest determining factor, as it always has been, is styling. Nobody buys a car that is perceived to be ugly—unless, of course, it is way too good a deal, and even that might not be enough.

But styling, as it always has been, lies in the eye of the beholder. The stunning beauty to one person might be a piece of horse hockey to another. That’s why so many choices survive from so many domestic and foreign manufacturers.

Once in awhile, however, an automobile comes along that develops a consensus verdict as a looker. Such a car is the 2009 Maxima, a front-drive sports sedan from Nissan of Japan.

Not only does it have flowing, muscular lines, it is-gasp!—smaller than its predecessor. Stop the presses! It’s almost unprecedented, at least in the United States, where bigger has always been better.

But the new Maxima is shorter by almost four inches than the 2008 model, though it is wider by about an inch and a half. Not unexpectedly, that results in less passenger space (down by about four cubic feet) as well as a smaller trunk (down by 1.3 cubic feet).

But the proportions, along with curvy, muscular bodywork, give the Maxima the look of an expensive European grand touring car. Follow one down the highway and you get the impression that you’re seeing something like an Audi or BMW coupe.

From the driver’s seat, you look out over a hood that drops away in the center, but bulges up over the front wheels and flows back toward the windshield. The Maxima is a four-door, but it feels as if you’re driving a sports car.

That, of course, was the intention. The Nissan designers said their goal was to make a four-door sports car that also was the most powerful and best-performing front-drive car available.

The Maxima’s 3.5-liter V6 engine delivers a whopping 290 horsepower.

Ordinarily, a car with that sort of power would be engineered for rear-wheel drive in order to get rid of dreaded torque steer—the feeling that the steering wheel wants to jump out of your hands when you punch the loud pedal, especially around a corner.

But the Nissan engineers have done a commendable job of adjusting the suspension system and steering to mostly eliminate torque steer. The result is balanced and confident handling at rapid speeds on twisting roads.

The power gets to the front wheels through a state-of-the-art continuously variable automatic transmission. Unlike other automatic transmissions, a CVT has no shift points. It uses belts and pulleys to provide a seamless surge of power—not unlike what you would experience with an electric motor.

But to add to the sporting flavor, the Maxima’s CVT also has an aggressive sport mode, as well as computer programmed manual-shift points, controlled by the shift lever or optional paddles on the steering wheel.

Nissan currently has more models with CVTs than any other manufacturer, and the experience shows. In the automatic setting on the Maxima, you soon forget that you don’t feel any blip between gears, and in the manual mode it’s virtually the same. There’s no hiccup; simply an instant ratio change.

On the road, the Maxima is a quiet cruiser—so quiet, in fact, that the designers installed a so-called “sound generator” to deliver a dollop of performance-announcing engine noise to the passenger compartment under hard acceleration. But it’s impossible to detect when it kicks in.

With its smaller interior dimensions, the Maxima has a snug, tight feel in the driver’s seat, enhanced on the test car by the optional manually-adjustable thigh support. You might also want to order the power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel because the manual version is awkward to operate.

In the words of product planning director Mark Perry, “It’s a bit of a tweener.”

The Maxima is the flagship of the Nissan line, much as the Avalon is to Toyota. But the Avalon is a large car aimed at the geriatric set, while the Maxima is more youth oriented. Its closest competitor is the Acura TL.

There are three Maxima versions: the base S, which has a starting price of $29,950, and the SV in either Sport or Premium trim.

Standard equipment on all models includes traction and stability control, antilock brakes, tire-pressure monitoring, side air bags and side-curtain air bags, dual-zone automatic climate control, power front seats, tilt-and-telescoping steering column, cruise control, trip computer, pushbutton ignition, remote locking and an audio system with six-disc CD changer and MP3 capability.

The test car was an SV with the Sport package. It also had leather upholstery, a premium Bose audio system, garage-door opener, 19-inch alloy wheels, heated front seats, powered tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, shift paddles, XM satellite radio, Bluetooth communications, rear-view monitor, a navigation system, 9.3-gigabyte music hard drive and an iPod interface.

With that load of equipment, the tested Maxima had a suggested delivered price of $38,770.

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