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Nissan Maxima GLE (2002)

SEE ALSO: Nissan Buyer's Guide

by Carey Russ

Nissan keeps on improving the Maxima. When it debuted as Nissan's sedan flagship back in 1981, it was one of the first six- cylinder Japanese mid-sized sedans in the American marketplace. With an engine derived from that of Nissan's 280 and later 300 ZX sports cars, it quickly gained a reputation for sporty performance with no sacrifice of comfort. It has always been a little different, and more upscale, from other mid-sized Japanese sedans in that no four-cylinder engine was ever offered. Now into its fifth generation, the Maxima continues to grow in comfort, performance, and, well, Maximaness.

Changes for 2002 are incremental, but what an increment. The styling has been subtly freshened, but the most important improvements are inside. The 3.0-liter V6 has grown to 3.5 liters. Power, not exactly weak before, has increased noticeably, but not at the expense of fuel consumption. As always, the "base" GXE is very well-equipped, and comparable to mid-level or better versions of competitors' V6 offerings, while the GLE edges ever closer to true luxury. The sport-oriented SE gains a standard six-speed manual gearbox, all the better to make use of the new engine's power and keep it at the forefront of the front-wheel drive sports sedan class.

A new Maxima GLE has been my transportation for the past week. It's as smooth, refined, and quiet as any official "near- luxury" sedan, even those costing several thousand dollars more. And it offers greater interior space than many competitors as well. A lack of power was never a problem with any Maxima, and certainly is even less so now. Whenever I think that Nissan couldn't possibly improve the Maxima, they prove me wrong.

APPEARANCE: The rounded but well-defined Maxima is basically unchanged from its introduction in 2000, and that car was a very evolutionary development of the previous version. But the 2002 Maxima is freshened with a new front fascia featuring a larger air intake and new grille, new four-bulb headlights with xenon high- intensity discharge low beams, standard side sills for a sporty touch, and a clear cover over the taillights for the contemporary import performance look. A discreet amount of chrome trim adds a luxury touch. Body panel fit and finish is first-rate.

COMFORT: Fit and finish are top-notch inside as well, and the 2002 Maxima is comfortable and spacious. Greater use of anti- noise-and-vibration technology makes it relaxingly quiet. The flowingly-curved "wave" instrument panel reduces windshield glare to negligible levels and places the most important instruments and controls at hand. The redesigned front power bucket seats combine comfort and support, while the rear bench has real room for two real people, or even three. It's split 60/40 for cargo carrying when necessary, and the fold-down mechanism locks for security. Large door pockets, a locking glove box, and a CD-friendly console box add useful storage, and there is plenty of trunk space. New titanium-colored accents around the center stack and shifter brighten the interior, and Nissan's "Birdview" navigation system is now available. It shows an aerial view in addition to the regular map view.

SAFETY: The 2002 Nissan Maxima has an impact-dispersing body structure designed to protect occupants. Dual stage front airbags are standard, with side airbags available. All Maximas come with an engine immobilizer.

ROADABILITY: Changes to the Maxima's chassis are minimal this year, and none are really needed. A rigid unibody structure provides a solid base for the suspension, which uses independent MacPherson struts in front and Nissan's unique "Multi-Link Beam" (tm) rear axle. Rear beam axles are commonly used to cut costs, and can have less-than-perfect effects on ride and handling. Not here. Precisely-designed locating linkage keeps the rear wheels perpendicular to the road, without camber change, for good traction, and prevents unwanted lateral movement. In almost any real-world condition, it's as good as or better than any common independent rear suspension system, and its compact design allows increased interior and trunk space. Larger four-wheel disc brakes and electronic brake force distribution and brake assist add stopping power and safety.

PERFORMANCE: The most significant difference between a 2001 and 2002 Maxima is found under the hood. Nissan's high-tech aluminum alloy VQ-series V6 engine has been enlarged from 3.0 liters to 3.5, and also gains continuously-variable valve timing, a variable induction system, and electronic throttle control. The result improves on the near-perfection of the 3.0-liter engine, adding 33 horsepower and 29 lb-ft of torque with a negligible fuel consumption penalty. The maximum 255 hp at 5800 rpm and 246 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm ensure effortless cruising, acceleration, and passing. Power is developed in a linear manner, with plenty of torque right from a standstill. This makes the GXE and GLE's smooth-shifting four-speed automatic transmission work very well. Aficionados of the four-door sports car have the SE, with a six- speed manual gearbox for maximum performance. Despite the increased power, torque-steer, the bane of high-powered front- wheel drive cars, in not a problem.

CONCLUSIONS: Nissan just keeps maximizing the Maxima.

2002 Nissan Maxima GLE

Base Price               $ 27,099
Price As Tested          $ 30,537
Engine Type              dual overhead cam 24-valve
                           aluminum alloy V6
Engine Size              3.5 liters / 213 cu. in.
Horsepower               255 @ 5,800 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)           246 @ 4,400 rpm
Transmission             4-speed automatic
Wheelbase / Length       108.3 in. / 191.5 in.
Curb Weight              3275 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower    12.8
Fuel Capacity            18.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement         91 octane unleaded premium for
                           best performance
Tires                    P215/55 HR17 Bridgestone Turanza
Brakes, front/rear       vented disc / disc, antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear   independent MacPherson strut / 
                           multi-link beam axle
Drivetrain               front engine, front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed      20 / 26 / 22
0 to 60 mph            7.0  sec

Power tilt and slide sunroof   $   899
Navigation system              $ 1,999
Destination charge             $   540