- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2007

After launching a sweeping model redesign, manufacturers typically use the succeeding years of its life cycle to make minor styling updates and tweak the mechanicals. Usually any change altering the personality of a car takes place with the major redesigns.

Nissan has bucked this tradition with the 2007 Maxima. Its last major makeover was for 2004, but this year Nissan made an off-year change that ultimately transforms Maxima’s very character. The five-speed automatic and six-speed manual transmissions have been cast aside in favor of a new continuously variable transmission (CVT).

At first blush this may not sound like a big deal; however, this strategy not only recasts Maxima in a less sporty role in Nissan’s lineup, it creates a greater divide between Maxima and Altima which still offers a six-speed manual as well as the CVT. Neither result is a bad thing — just a departure from the Nissan status quo.

CVT technology isn’t new. Several manufacturers have utilized it from time to time. The new Jeep Compass, for example, offers a CVT, and Nissan’s Murano SUV was introduced with one. Rather than rely on a specific array of gear ratios as traditional transmissions do, a CVT constantly adjusts among an almost infinite range of ratios, maximizing fuel economy and performance.

When in automatic mode, there is no sense of changing gears. This absence of hard shifts usually carries over, at least in part, to the driver-shiftable mode as it does with Maxima.

Although historically the bulk of Maxima’s sales have been automatics, the availability of the manual transmission boosted its performance credentials. Suddenly sedan buyers who want to stir their transmission will have to shop elsewhere or move downstream to Altima.

Deployed liberally among multiple Nissan and Infiniti products, a version of the corporate 3.5-liter V-6 propels Maxima. In this application it delivers 255 horsepower and 252 foot-pounds of torque. Eager and responsive, it provides satisfying acceleration and decent fuel economy. Maxima jumps off the line with gusto when the light turns green and has plenty of reserves during highway cruising to explode around slower traffic. The Environmental Protection Agency rates it at 21 miles per gallon in the city and 28 on the highway.

Shoppers can choose between the $28,655 SE or the $30,905 SL trim levels. The performance minded not put off by the CVT will probably opt for the less pricey SE. It comes standard with 18-inch wheels and rubber in place of the SL’s 17-inch wheels. The suspension is also tuned a tad stiffer for crisper handling and less roll when attacking the twisties.

Overall the independent suspension produces a comfortable ride, and the handling of the test Maxima SE was very good. Solid, confidence-inspiring braking rounds out performance. Four-wheel disc brakes with antilock provide controlled stops. Enhancing the brake system are traction control and electronic brake force distribution. Stability control bundled with a full-size spare tire and alloy wheel is available as a $600 option.

A few cosmetic enhancements ride on the coattails of the CVT into the 2007 Maxima. A freshened snout, including bumper, headlamps and hood, increases curb appeal. In profile, Maxima is quite sleek. A fraction of an inch over 194 inches in length, Maxima rides on a 111.2-inch wheelbase. This translates into better than average passenger space.

With front legroom measuring a healthy 44 inches, rear-seat passengers still get 36.5 inches to stretch their legs. Likewise there is plenty of hip and shoulder room. A low liftover makes easy work of utilizing the 15.5 cubic feet of trunk space.

Some changes to the center stack improve what was already a well-planned interior. Sharp styling with lots to catch the eye keeps occupants engaged. Neatly arranged, all controls and gauges are simple to use and interpret. Seating is comfortable and supportive. Leather seating is included in the SL trim in addition to a cadre of other standard features, such as eight-speaker Bose audio system, xenon HID headlights, four-way power front passenger seat and heated front seats, not standard on SE, but bundled together in the optional $3,750 Driver Preferred Package.

Standard features on both Maxima versions include power accessories, six air bags, tire-pressure monitor, cruise control and a leather-wrapped tilt and telescoping steering wheel.

There is no shortage of quality midsize sedans on the market. It’s a tough segment no matter how good a competitor is. Maxima certainly has all the elements to be a class leader, but has never been able to get out of the shadows of Toyota’s Camry and Honda’s Accord. Moreover, sales would probably be better if there were a greater gap between it and the Altima in terms of performance, size and equipment.

Maxima doesn’t pay a price for what it is lacking, but for what is has in common with Altima — and it’s a lot. Possessing the looks, attitude and resume of a sporty sedan, Maxima is still a worthwhile alternative to some of its more conservative competitors.

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