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2012 Nissan Maxima SV Sport Review by Carey Russ

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2012 Nissan Maxima


SEE ALSO: Nissan Buyers Guide

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2012 Nissan Maxima

Sometimes a back-to-the-roots approach is just what's needed. Case in point: the Nissan Maxima. Originating in the 1980s, complete with fully-independent suspension, rear-wheel drive, and the engine from the original 240Z (in a slightly different state of tune), the Maxima was not your typical Japanese mass-market midsize sedan. A 1985 chassis change to front-wheel drive dulled it not at all, as careful tuning and the engine from the then-current 300ZX emphasized its sporty character. The peak was between 1989 and 1995, when Nissan called its Maxima "the 4-Door Sports Car", aka 4DSC. It was a fine, and affordable, sports sedan, as much a rarity then as now from a non-European automaker.

Then the Nissan world changed. The Maxima got softer and more luxury-oriented and the 4DSC was consigned to history. As, nearly, was Nissan itself…

Life is cyclical, and performance is back at Nissan, leavened with comfort. Why be uncomfortable? The 350Z gave notice in 2003, and if anyone missed that, the GTR emphasized Nissan's potential. Still, sedans are the heart of a mass-market company like Nissan. And so the Maxima as 4DSC came back in model year 2009. 2012 sees the most changes to the car since then, a typical mid-product cycle refresh with a new grille, redesigned taillights, new wheel designs, and interior trim changes. Nothing major, and no complaint about that as Nissan got it right the first time. The degree of performance and refinement suggested by the strikingly-styled bodywork is delivered by its 3.5-liter, 290-horsepower V6 engine, routed to the front wheels through Nissan's "Xtronic"™ electronically-controlled continuously-variable transmission (CVT). Steering, suspension, and braking are as good as the drivetrain, which is to say very good.

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2012 Nissan Maxima

Two trim levels are offered, the well-equipped S and premium SV, which can be made as upscale as desired with a number of option packages not offered in the S. SV standard equipment level is high, nearly at the entry-luxury zone, with power front seats, leather seating, a Bose® audio system with XM® satellite radio, Bluetooth® hands-free connectivity, dual-zone automatic climate control, a moonroof, and Nissan Intelligent Key® pushbutton start/stop. Chief SV options those are self-explanatory Sport and Premium packages. This week's test car had the Sport package, with a slightly stiffer suspension tuning, 19-inch alloy wheels shod with V-rated P245/40 tires, and shift paddles fixed to the steering column being the performance-oriented upgrades and heated front seats and power-adjustable heated steering wheel, HID Xenon headlights with smoked covers, and other interior enhancements among the comfort upgrades.

The Monitor Package added a color monitor at the top of the center stack, a rear-view camera to utilize that monitor, and USB/iPod® connectivity to replace the standard jack. The Sport Technology Package added a hard drive-based navigation system, XM NavTraffic® and NavWeather™and more.

So-equipped, the Maxima is an entry-level luxury-sport sedan in all but name. Lack of designer-label name here means better value, as you're not paying the premium. Yes, it's front-wheel drive, but it's a fine example of well-behaved front-wheel drive. The "sport" suspension is only a touch stiffer than standard, so there is no lessening of comfort, and the torquey engine is a good match to Nissan's CVT transmission. The Maxima is a thoroughly enjoyable car to drive, and offers space and comfort for passengers.

APPEARANCE: Fear not, the Maxima's voluptuous but toned shape hasn't been altered. It still looks like it should have an Italian designer label, with a simple overall shape possessing distinctive details. The new grille is not all that different from the old, and no complaints there. Often a car's good looks are destroyed when its manufacturer can't resist change for change's sake. Nissan is not making that mistake.

COMFORT: Inside the Maxima is upper-middle class, not really "luxury". So? It's comfortable, spacious, and well-designed. Good-looking, too, with high-quality materials and fit and finish. The Nissan "Intelligent Key"™ keyless fob and push-button start/stop and door entry/exit, electroluminescent instruments, power-adjustable front seats, cruise control, and plenty of useful storage spaces including a large locking glovebox even in the S model. The SV gets leather, and SV option packages allow further improvements including heated seats and steering wheel. Front seat comfort is comparable to cars in the official entry-luxury class, as is the case in the rear seat -- with more room than most cars. The Sport Package does revise the rear seat, replacing the stock 60/40 seatback split with a solid back with a ski-passthrough and re-contoured outboard seating positions. There's still a center safety harness so that position can be used for short times by small people. Trunk capacity is sufficiently large for most use, and there's a space-saver spare under the trunk floor.

SAFETY: The Maxima's unibody structure features Nissan's "Zone Body Construction", with a strong central structure and front and rear crumple zones. The "Advanced Air Bag System" includes seat belt sensors, the occupant classification system, and dual-stage front, front seat-mounted side, and roof-mounted side impact airbags. A tire-pressure monitoring system and the Vehicle Dynamic Control stability control system and traction control are all standard in all models.

RIDE AND HANDLING: Compared to its predecessor, the current Maxima has a more rigid unibody structure, a shorter wheelbase, and a wider track. Unsprung weight is decreased by use of aluminum suspension components, and the engine is mounted lower, for a lower center of gravity. Even with the sport suspension, the Maxima feels pleasant when treated gently as in regular around-town driving. Comfort is not compromised, as the fully-independent strut/multilink suspension tuning is more "sport touring" than serious sport. Still, when pushed a little harder, as with a fast pace on a pleasantly twisting road, it hunkers down quite nicely and gets to work. Steering has a speed-sensitive assist similar to that found in the Z, and is light at low speeds for easy maneuverability and appropriately firmer at speed for control and stability. Interior noise levels are low, and today's Maxima is a pleasant car to drive, whether on the highway or the scenic route. Worried about nearly 300 horsepower going through the front wheels? Don't, torque steer is a total non-issue.

PERFORMANCE: The power suggested by the Maxima's looks is delivered, efficiently. The 3.5-liter VQ-series aluminum alloy, dual overhead cam 24-valve V6, with variable cam phasing and sophisticated electronic controls is familiar from the previous generation. But Nissan's engineers have found an additional 35 horsepower and 9 lb-ft of torque -- now 290 hp @ 6400 rpm and 261 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm -- by improving intake and exhaust gas flow, increasing compression, improving piston design, and adding variable cam phasing to the exhaust as well as the intake cams. That power is transmitted to the front wheels through Nissan's "Xtronic" computer-controlled multi-mode CVT. In D, it's optimized for fuel efficiency, and keeps the revs relatively low. No problem there, as there is more than enough torque everywhere. Ds mode is the sport mode, with higher revs for greater and more quickly-available power. Both work quite well, just balance fuel economy with fun.

For complete control, manual mode shifts quickly and assertively, interesting since in a CVT there are no actual discrete gears. Manual does keep the engine revs where the driver wants them, for the best control, and the Sport Package's shift paddles don't rotate with the steering wheel so a proper shuffling of hands for maximum control means the shifters are always available. The 23 mpg I averaged for the week compares well with other cars with similar power and intent. Figure high teens around town and high twenties on the highway, on premium unleaded.

CONCLUSIONS: The 4-Door Sports Car lives, in style and with comfort.


2012 Nissan Maxima SV

Base Price $ 34,450

Price As Tested $ 40,055

Engine Type aluminum alloy24-valve DOHC V6

Engine Size 3.5 liters / 214 cu. in.

Horsepower 290 @ 6400 rpm

Torque (lb-ft) 261 @ 4400 rpm

Transmission electronically controlled CVT

Wheelbase / Length 109.3 in. / 190.6 in.

Curb Weight 3565 lbs.

Pounds Per Horsepower 12.3

Fuel Capacity 20.0 gal.

Fuel Requirement 91 octane unleaded premium gasoline recommended

Tires P245/40R19 94V Goodyear Eagle RS-A

Brakes, front/rear vented disc all around, ABS, BA, EBD standard

Suspension, front/rear independent strut / independent multilink

Drivetrain transverse front engine, front-wheel drive


EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon

city / highway / observed 19 / 26 / 23

0 to 60 mph est 6.0 sec

Towing Capacity 1,000 lbs.


Monitor Package - includes: 7" color monitor with rear-view monitor, USB connectivity (replaces auxiliary audio input jack), iPod® net in center console, single-disc CD player replaces 6-CD changer $ 700

Floor mats and trunk mat (5-piece set) $ 195

Sport Package - includes: sport-tuned suspension, 19" aluminum alloy Hyper Silver wheels, smoked HID Xenon headlights, heated premium leather-appointed seats, premium leather heated steering wheel, power tilt/telescope steering column, paddle shifters, automatic entry/exit system (w/ 2-driver memory), driver's-side memory (seat, outside mirror, steering wheel), auto-dimming outside driver's side mirror, heated outside mirrors w/ reverse tilt-down, rear bucket seats (3-passenger seating) rear seat trunk pass-through, rear seat fold-down center armrest, metallic trim, dark sport grille, rear spoiler $ 2,100

Sport Technology Package - includes: Nissan hard drive navigation system with voice recognition using 7" color touch-screen monitor, XM NavTraffic® and XM NavWeather™, Bluetooth® streaming audio, compass in rearview mirror removed $ 1,850

Destination Charge $ 760