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2004 Nissan Maxima Review

2004 Nissan Maxima
Base price: $27,490
Price as tested: $31,040
EPA mileage: 20 city/ 28 highway

By Des Toups
The new Nissan Maxima doesn't just want your attention; it's begging for 
it. Big wheels. Skylights. Dramatically arched profile. A nose that’s … 
avant-garde, to put it kindly.

No one will mistake the flagship Nissan, aggressively styled from stem to 
stern, for a garden-variety Altima. Despite five generations of forbears, 
there is no trace of kinship with any previous Maxima. No, like the Quest 
minivan and Murano crossover unveiled in the past year, the Maxima makes 
good use of Altima underpinnings while swinging for the fences, design-wise.

Whether the trendy lines appeal to you or not (count me a not), Nissan 
deserves kudos for the lengths to which it has gone to ensure that the 
Maxima feels like something other than a warmed-over Altima. The world’s 
silkiest V-6 receives a unique intake and exhaust, producing an extra 20 
horsepower to tow its additional poundage around. The sportier SE model 
gets an optional 6-speed manual, stiffer suspension, limited-slip 
differential and giant, wheelwell-filling 18-inch rims with low-profile, 
Z-rated rubber.

The standard luxury content is high: power folding mirrors, auto-dimming 
rearview, power driver’s seat, steering-wheel-mounted cruise and audio 
controls, automatic climate control, garage-door opener, trip computer and 
honkin’ eight-speaker stereo, just to start.

And then there’s the interior itself, with a look and feel far removed from 
the Altima’s shiny, cheap-feeling cockpit.

The dashboard, as is customary in Maximas, is recessed far from the driver 
but now is surrounded by an inch of air on all sides, appearing to float. 
Visual support comes from a slab of brushed aluminum that bisects the dash 
and houses the stereo, display screens and other controls. A minimalist, 
titanium-framed set of instruments -- illuminated in orange -- rests above 
the steering wheel. It's all very cool and high-tech-looking, though a 
driver coming from an Acura or Toyota might notice that the materials still 
aren’t quite up to par.

The price of that cool look, though, is that buttons are numerous, largely 
identical and hard to distinguish. Worse is the joystick-type button used 
to browse through menus for trip computers, ventilation and the like on the 
center display screen (even on Maximas without navigation systems). It's 
difficult to use on the road, unintuitive and generally a pain. Luckily, 
ventilation can be set once and forgotten, and redundant radio controls on 
the steering wheel keep your eyes on the road rather than the console.

By any dynamic measurement, the new Maxima is easily the equal of the old, 
as lively as any front-drive sedan on the market. The 265-horsepower V-6, 
voted among the world’s best engines year in and year out, revs eagerly 
right up to redline, though torque, the muscle that actually moves the car, 
peaks at a civilized 4,400 rpm. That much torque, though, means torque 
steer  the tendency to veer right or left under hard acceleration  is 
severe, more so than in other, equally powerful front-drivers such as the 
Acura 3.2TL. We clocked a 0-60 time of 6.2 seconds.

With the 18-inch wheels and more aggressive suspension tuning, ride in the 
SE is quiet but on the firm side. The payoff comes in corners, where 
there’s little plow or roll and no surprises  until you hit the gas again 
and are yanked to the right like a dog on a leash. Roads with a pronounced 
crown seemed to exacerbate the problem.

A five-speed automatic is a no-cost option on the SE, and while it adds the 
kind of flexibility an enthusiastic driver might appreciate (especially 
with the manual-shift feature), it shifts busily and somewhat abruptly. 
Actually, it feels as if the extra gear has been shoved between first gear 
and second, resulting in a lurching feel as you crawl through parking lots. 
The SL model gets a more sedate four-speed automatic.

Though the Maxima makes its rivals from Acura, Toyota and Chrysler feel 
sedate, its size and behavior inherent to front-wheel-drive cripple its 
claim to be a true sports sedan (remember Nissan’s “Four-door sports car” 
campaign?). As a sporty-feeling tourer  especially with the four-seat Elite 
package  it’s unique and ballsy and well worth the $5,000-$8,000 premium 
over the Altima. All but the hardcore might be more comfortable in the SL.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety hasn't crash-tested a new 
Maxima, but the Altima upon which it is based merits a "Good," its top 
rating. The National Highway Transportation Safety Agency gives the Altima 
four of five stars in frontal crashes, but only three for driver's-side 
impacts. The EPA recorded mileage of 20 city/28 highway for an automatic 
Maxima. The Maxima is a Low Emissions Vehicle (the third dirtiest of the 
EPA's six emissions classifications) and rates a 6 on the EPA's 10-is-worst 
pollution scale, about average for medium-sized sedans.

Des Toups is a Seattle free-lance writer who has written for the Seattle 
Times, AutoWorld and Driving Sports magazine and newspapers nationwide.