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2006 Nissan Maxima 3.5 SL Review

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A Tennessee Road Trip

By Steve Purdy Detroit Bureau

SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for Nissan

We’ve cooked up a plan to do a really thorough road test of the sixth-generation Maxima, Nissan’s flagship sedan. We’re gonna take her south, run her hard, put her away wet and see how she performs. I’ve always liked the Maxima for the leading-edge styling and for Nissan’s penchant for offering a performance version.

This Maxima is a four-passenger, front-wheel-drive, full-size, near-luxury sedan. Yes that’s four-passenger, not five. You see the rear has a hard console between the firm, heated, leather bucket seats – an option. Rear passengers will certainly feel pampered. It’s plenty roomy inside with nice leather seats and trim, an unusual suede (or perhaps faux-suede, not sure which) covering the door panels and extending entirely across the base of the windshield. Nice touch. Shapes and design both inside and out are unconventional and, in my subjective view, very attractive.

We leave early on a late winter day and hit I-75 south for a 9-hour run to east central Tennessee. This time it takes 10 hours because they’ve closed one lane across the bridge at Jellico. We’ll be based at the Fairfield Glade resort near Crossville on the Cumberland Plateau. Day trips will give us a chance to put the Maxima through her paces. The initial freeway jaunt was pleasant and uneventful. I’m fond of the easy-to-use cruise control system that allows for accurate and smooth speed changes through cop-rich Ohio.

By the way, lunch on the initial run was at Cozymel’s off I-40 on the west side of Knoxville. If you like Mexican food, great service and ambiance, fresh salsa heavy with cilantro, and huge portions, Cozymel’s is the place.

We initially notice a couple of niggles inside the Maxima. I don’t know if the steering wheel has ever been off this test car (at press time we’re still waiting for clarification) but if not there are quality issues that need addressing. The housing that contains the stalks between the steering wheel and the dash is crooked, squeehawed, off center. And the metal bands that decorate the spokes of the steering wheel are ill fit and uneven. Otherwise we find the quality, fit and finish excellent.

The first road trip, to Chattanooga, takes us sort of due south where we drop off the edge of the Cumberland Plateau about 20 miles from Crossville. Highway US127 winds through the gentle, verdant Sequatchie Valley where cattle graze the rolling grassy hills. The Maxima gets an opportunity to run at less than freeway speeds for a change. We set the cruise control at about sixty on this smooth, gently winding two-lane through pasturelands and a few small towns. We’ll see what kind of gas mileage we get at such a gentle cruise. We seem to have been getting about 25 mpg on the 80 mph freeway run, so will probably do even better here.

About 20 miles away from the city we cross Signal Mountain on an especially fun section of US127 that gives us ample opportunity to test the sway and swoosh of the suspension. With the shifter in manual mode we keep the rpms up and drive it hard. We’re impressed with the road holding ability of this fairly large sedan. Though not a “sport” tuned suspension (which comes on the SE version) sway is minimal and road holding is excellent. Fully independent suspension with stabilizer bars both front and rear as well as engine-speed sensitive power rack and pinion steering keep us on track and unflustered at speed. The P255/55R17 Continental ContiTouring Contact tires felt nice and grippy with no squealing on hard charged corners.

While Chattanooga deserves a long weekend sometime we only have the day. As regular readers will recall we visited the Museum of Towing and Recovery here a few months ago while testing the Mitsubishi Outlander, wishing we had more time to spend in this lovely city on the Moccasin Bend of the Tennessee River. Our tourist bureau host makes a few recommendations and raves about the food options in Chattanooga, from calamari to catfish and from Moon Pies to filet mignon. This time we spend the day at the remarkable Hunter Museum of American Art and the famous Ruby Falls, leaving the renowned Tennessee Aquarium for the next trip. Those visits, along with lunch at a busy little fresh burger place called Cheeburger Cheeburger, spent our day. But as we left town we passed the Mt. Vernon restaurant were more than one of the locals recommended great deserts. We snagged the most popular one, the Amaretto cream pie, for the ride home. What a treat! On the way out of Chattanooga we decided to take Suck Creek Road, another route back across Signal Mountain - another fun drive, indeed.

Our final loop off the Cumberland Plateau takes us southwest on Highway 101 from Crossville to the Fall Creek Falls State Park just west of Mt. Crest. From the park’s nature center a 2-mile hiking trail follows the ridge above Cane Creek Gorge with a half dozen trail spurs out to the edge. Five waterfalls run off the plateau into the gorge, the largest of which is higher than Niagara, though a bit skinnier.

We leave the park and drive the Maxima crisply through about fifteen miles of tightly winding roads into and out of the gorge before finally swooping off the plateau and westward toward the quaint village of Franklin, about 20 miles south of Nashville. We’re pressing that great 3.5-liter V6 engine, rated one of the ten best engines by Wards Auto World. With 265 horsepower and 255 lb.-ft. of torque, continuously variable valve timing and variable intake we’re never at a loss for grunt, even on the steep uphills. Of course, keeping the smooth-shifting 5-speed automatic in the manual mode helps. Shifts are not particularly fast but they are smooth unless we’re shifting back and forth between 2nd and 3rd at fairly high rpm. Then it can be a bit jerky.

Franklin is one of those suburban communities that until recently was just a nice little small town. Being close to a major city – Nashville – and having nice architecture and an inspired Chamber of Commerce, it has become a destination with unusual shops and eateries. Our Maxima looks right at home parked on the square with all the other fancy vehicles. Maxima’s styling, after all, is probably boldest of any of its contemporaries. After lunch at the Mellow Mushroom, Southern style pizza place, on the corner of the town square in Franklin, and some shopping for my pretty blonde we eased onto the packed freeway for a visit to the spectacular Gaylord Opryland Nashville Hotel, a destination in itself, featuring three gardens indoors and one out, the result of a recent $85-million renovation. Waterfalls, orchid displays, a boat canal, dancing fountains, a banana tree with growing fruit, sculptures, shops, restaurants . . . the Gaylord would be right at home in Las Vegas or Orlando. Worth a visit, to be sure.

An extended after-dark drive back from Nashville will take a couple of hours. It was raining rather steadily exaggerating the Maxima’s limited sound insulation. Like the Altima on which it is based the Maxima allows too much road noise to intrude into the cabin. Fortunately, we’re able to turn the dash lights completely off, but the blue cruise control indicators still glare at me. The navigation screen will dim but I’d have it dim more if I were the designer. There is really no need for anything to remain lit in these night driving conditions. Nothing prevents eye fatigue better than getting rid of those lights in front of you. Four lanes of freeway traffic each way flow into and out of Nashville on I-40 but it flows steadily and we’re back onto the Plateau and Crossville in no time.

While wrapping up the research on this brash sedan a couple other annoyances presented themselves. I found the rear door openings a bit restrictive. I bumped my head getting in and whacked my knee getting out. And, the more I looked at the interior details the less I liked them – again subjective. It seemed to me there were too many different colors and materials inside making everything a bit incongruous, i.e., the brushed aluminum face of the center stack didn’t match anything else; at least two different colors of painted metal adorn other parts of the gauges and interior trim, steering wheel and door panels; and the wood panel on the console was too glossy making it look artificial. The seat heater switch is tucked away under the lip of the center console lid and the navigation system was less than intuitive, at least for this low-tech kind of guy.

Other things I really liked include the power tilt and telescopic steering wheel, which is quick with lots of range, that amazingly smooth, powerful and efficient V6, easy ingress and egress in the front and the bold exterior styling.

For all you audiophiles out there our SL comes standard with an 8-speaker Bose system including AM/FM/cassette/in-dash 6-CD changer and is pre-wired for Satellite radio.

Warranty is 36 month/36,000-mile basic, 60-month/unlimited mileage corrosion perforation, and 60-month/60,000 miles on the drive train.

The SE version starts at about $27,000 and our SL test car has a base price of $30,000. Satellite radio adds $350, Vehicle Dynamic Control is $600, navigation system with 7-inch monitor comes to $1,800 power sunroof is $900 and our “Elite Package” (power rear sunshade, heated rear seats with console, 12-volt power outlet in the rear and auto up/down rear windows) adds $1,700. With the $605 destination charge our sticker says $36,005.

EPA estimates for fuel economy I thought might be a bit optimistic at 20 in the city and 28 mpg on the highway. But our observed average over a variety of conditions and over 2,200 miles was 28.3 mpg, with the best at 30.4 and the worst (most of the tank spent running around town) 24.2 mpg - amazing, for a powerful V6 with automatic transmission in a nearly 3,500-pound luxury sedan that’s capable of zero to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds. The fuel tank holds 20 gallons and there is more than 4 gallons left when the gauge says empty.

In the same league as Avalon and Lucerne, Maxima is much different than either. If you’re in that market you might want to check out the Maxima. We rode her hard, lived with her for a week and were mighty impressed.

Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions All Right Reserved