- The Washington Times - Friday, May 8, 2009

You can’t look head-on at the 2009 Nissan Maxima and not be impressed by the high, audacious curve of its front fenders, a design element reminiscent of one of those classic pre-war motorcars.

The profile view is more ordinary, but the entirely re-engineered and restyled 2009 Maxima is way easier on the eyes than the disjointed and tubby-tailed previous-generation model that became symbolic for how Nissan had lost its way with this once-iconic nameplate.

The Maxima is not the home run it was in the mid-1980s and early 1990s when it truly earned the title “4-door sports car,” but that’s as much a function of a vastly changed car market as it is any slight of the Maxima itself, which again is a pretty serious sedan.

What’s at issue is whether the Maxima has revived its heritage as “sport” sedan. That’s an important point, because at the Maxima’s average transaction price of about $32,800, it’s running up against a lot of fine luxury cars with ritzier badges than “Nissan” on the trunk lid.

Nissan’s always emphasized that “sport” side with the Maxima, though. It howls from 0 to 60 mph in a right-quick 6.5 seconds or so, and like the best German machinery, seems to be just hitting its cruising stride at a laughably unstressed 100 mph - yet the car isn’t reactive enough when you fling it through a curve.

Handling and agility are important ingredients in the sport-sedan recipe. The Maxima is a little too big and a unwieldy to be a full-blown backroad weapon, even though it’s built on a new and stiffer structure, and its 3,579-pound curb weight actually is on the light end of midsize-sedan spectrum.

It has more to do with the fact the Maxima is front-wheel drive and an unforgiving 61 percent of its weight rests on the front tires, blunting steering feel and handling response. Many competitors drive the rear wheels and take pains to reduce the proportion of weight on the car’s front wheels closer to the theoretical ideal of 50 percent.

If the Maxima isn’t a ballerina, then, it’s definitely an athlete, pumped by the resounding 290-horsepower shove from its 3.5-liter V-6. This engine’s not as refined as it was as a smaller 3.0-liter, and you’re not likely to enjoy piping in premium unleaded when similar V-6s from Honda and Toyota do it with regular. But the Maxima’s V-6 definitely shows the goods when that punk in the purple Mitsubishi Eclipse conspires to beat you to the on-ramp.

It’s when you slide inside that the Maxima begins the job of convincing you it’s a cut above everyday cars. There’s a premium look and feel everywhere inside the Maxima, particularly in the plushness of the upper-dash plastic and the deep and rich feel of the standard leather seats. Even that is exceeded by the exemplary build quality: seams and transitions between surfaces and different materials are almost invisible and it all feels drum tight.

The central gauge cluster is a testimony to straightforward, pleasing design and graphics, as is the central “stack” dominated by a gorgeously vivid 7-inch monitor for the optional navigation system and hard-drive-supported audio unit.

The new 2009 Maxima’s an excruciatingly well-engineered car. Yet as Nissan’s flagship sedan, the Maxima carries a price that puts it uncomfortably close to the territory patrolled by acknowledged luxury nameplates such as Lexus, BMW, Cadillac and Infiniti.

Our Maxima’s $38,500 as-tested price buys a quite-similarly equipped version of one the market’s best luxury-sport sedans: the G37 - from the company’s own Infiniti premium-car division.

For Nissan, it’s great to have two excellent luxury-performance cars in the Maxima and the G37. But is it smart business when some of your strongest competition comes from within your own walls?

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