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Friday, October 24, 2008

The Maxima's good, but Infiniti's the front-runner

The '09 Maxima veers closer to its upscale sibling but remains a conventional sedan.
October 24, 2008
According to our friends at Kelley Blue Book Marketing Research, you can tell which presidential candidate a person supports by looking at what kind of car they drive. Republican Sen. John McCain has the support of 66% of full-size pickup truck drivers; not surprisingly, perhaps, hybrid drivers are more inclined toward Democratic Sen. Barack Obama. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin scores very high with drivers of Zambonis.

Supporters of Sen. Joe Biden take the train, back and forth, from Washington to Delaware for 35 years.

As for brands, KBB reports Obama leading McCain among owners of nichy import vehicles, including Mini (70%), Subaru (61%) and Saab (59%). Does that mean 41% of Saab owners support McCain? Not necessarily. Remember there are several credible independent candidates, including Rep. Ron Paul, Ralph Nader, Bob Barr and Sha'alweed from the planet Niiik6.

Does the Nissan Maxima still have a constituency? In the early 1990s, this was the cool Nissan to have -- a tightly drafted, reasonably racy Japanese sedan noted for its affordable fun and can't-kill-it durability. Tuners and slammers loved it. Nissan called it their 4DSC, which stood for "four-door sports car" (though I always thought that was eight-door hyperbole).

In recent years, if the Maxima were a political party, it could have held its rallies in a porta-potty. The once-sporty midsizer had been rendered all but irrelevant by the slightly smaller, swifter and cheaper Nissan Altima, built from the same greasy bits and using the same 3.5-liter V6.

Yet the bigger problem for Nissan's top-shelf sedan, it seems to me, was its loss of identity. The numb-handed corporate styling, the perfunctory interiors, the middling performance. If these are the planks of your platform, you ought to be campaigning in Albania.

For 2009, the Maxima has gotten a candidate makeover -- for much less than $150,000. The big changes include a 290-horsepower version of Nissan/Infiniti's VQ-series V6 (a 35-hp bump over the 2008 model), which gushes power through a continuously variable transmission and out the front wheels in a deluge of exuberant torque steer.

This is a car that is trying really hard to be liked, a little like Hillary. Eager, aggressive, hypercompetent, the new Maxima doesn't so much sit on the fence as caromthrough it. It's a four-wheel pantsuit.

The CVT transmission has been reeducated for sporty driving -- it will now hold high revs under hard acceleration -- and the 19-inch sport tires (part of the optional performance package) sink their fangs into the asphalt from takeoff. It's a buzzy cavort to 60 mph (under 7 seconds), and I estimate the quarter-mile time is probably in the mid-14-second range. There's a bit of a whine here. I'll leave it to you to say which candidate that's like.

To further establish the Maxima as a bona-fide sports sedan, Nissan has shortened the wheelbase and widened the track to make it marginally more nimble and flatter in cornering. There are, apparently, lighter aluminum suspension pieces underneath, buttoned to a stiffer chassis, and the engine lump is situated lower.

The CVT is also equipped with paddle shifters behind the steering wheel, which causes the transmission to mimic the fixed gear ratios of a standard six-speed.

The results of all the sport-ifying are mixed. Indeed, you could call it Mixima. The car has serious and significant road-holding ability in corners, big lateral grip.

However, first you have to get it in the corners, and that means using the steering wheel, which is full of twitches and uncertainty. The steering ratio is quick -- when you turn the wheel a little, the car turns a lot -- but the low-friction steering doesn't feel connected and secure, nor does it want to center itself. At moderate highway speeds, the Maxima requires a lot of tiller tending.

Out in the esses, the Maxima has a toothy bite in the corners. But as speeds increase, the turn-in washes away and you're left with a fairly conventional front-drive sedan operating at above-par speeds. Body roll is damped but far from banished. Off-the-corner push (understeer) is simply part of the bargain. Making a high-horsepower, front-drive, nose-heavy car corner well is harder than gay marriage in Utah.

So why isn't this a rear-drive car? Which is to say, why isn't this an Infiniti?

The Maxima's new styling -- with its distinct bevel edge from headlight to taillight, swelling to encompass muscular fender flares -- is reminiscent of Nissan's luxury division. The deep reserves of cush, the quiet ride and sound insulation, are worthy of the Infiniti.

The interior, from the lux leather to the scads of high-grade electronics, including rear-view camera, Bluetooth and navigation, are right out of Infiniti's campaign headquarters. The price -- upward of $37,000 in full boat trim -- is certainly in the Infiniti ZIP Code.

Personally, I think the Maxima is a victim of over-busy, overlapping product planning. Why would you vote for the Maxima when you can pull the lever for a similarly priced Infiniti G35, which puts its 300-plus horsepower to the rear wheels? Or even further the upcoming G37 sedan with 330hp to the rear wheels and a 7 speed automatic!

Now that's a party.