A sharper, stronger new Maxima to please the faithful. BY BARRY WINFIELD Nissan's 2004 Maxima is the sixth-generation sedan to carry that nameplate, and the company is confident that it will satisfy an extremely loyal owner group, many of whom have owned four or five Maximas. This time, Nissan wisely decided to split the model range into sport (SE) and luxury (SL) variants to cover both sides of the market. We borrowed a 3.5SE six-speed model for evaluation, since the priorities of this magazine tend—as you've possibly noticed—toward the sporting lunatic fringe. All models get the same engine—Nissan's ubiquitous VQ-series 3.5-liter V-6—which seems tunable for almost any application. In the Maxima, the V-6 produces 265 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque, much of which is available throughout a broad engine-speed range. In fact, so torquey is this engine that the driver must take care to launch with relatively few revs on the dial to avoid abusing the clutch. Thanks to an electronic drive-by-wire throttle that in our test car had a mind of its own, that was easier said than done. In fact, the distinctly nonlinear response we got from our car made performance testing difficult, rendering effective wheelspin modulation a real challenge. Which probably explains why this car looks slower on paper than the last Maxima we tested in October 2002, requiring 6.4 seconds to achieve 60 mph (instead of 6.0) and 15 seconds flat to cover the quarter-mile. The last Maxima took only 14.7 seconds to do the same job. Such are the risks one runs with preproduction cars, so don't be surprised to see the figures improve when we test a final-spec production Maxima. However, what probably won't improve is the fairly pronounced torque steer that afflicted our car. Because the Maxima is built on the same front-engine, front-wheel-drive large-car platform as the Altima, it exhibits the same weaving responses to aggressive throttle application, and the same wheel-tugging steering fight. This sort of insolence cost the Altima dearly in our mainstream-sedan comparison test last month, helping relegate it to a sixth-place tie, and we're disappointed to see the same symptoms manifested so clearly in the new Maxima. Audi has a well-publicized suspension geometry that quells this kind of thing, and most of the other players in the front-drive, high-torque category have dealt with it to a reasonably satisfactory extent. So why not Nissan? It raises questions about possible cost-cutting measures necessary for an aggressive model-rollout strategy. Although this may prove to be a gamble that pays off as Nissan's business case improves, it's a regrettable flaw in an otherwise attractive product. For this 2004 rebirth, Nissan kept the Maxima concept close to the current formula, with changes to interior dimensions so slight they are unlikely to be noticed. For example, front headroom is reduced by 0.8 inch, and rear hiproom increases by 1.1 inches. Basically, there's still enough space in this car to comfortably convey four adults, even with a new arched roofline that trims rear headroom by 0.3 inch. Some changes are more substantial. The wheelbase went up 2.9 inches, overall length 2.0 inches, and overall width by 1.4 inches. As we've come to expect with virtually every new car these days, torsional stiffness is claimed to be much greater than in the previous model—40 percent in this case. But even greater than that, perhaps, is the improvement to the Maxima's styling. The nose is bold and chiseled, with creases in the hood that suggest a 350Z influence. The roofline describes a taut arc and rakes the C-pillars beyond the rear-window plane, leaving small flying buttresses at the window's edge. The tail is almost European. Nissan's interior design is pretty adventurous, too, with a triple-barreled array of motorcycle-inspired gauges perched above a leather-wrapped, three-spoke steering wheel. Fake-titanium wheel and cockpit trim has become almost a cliché these days ("wood tone" trim is available on SL models instead), but there's no denying the freshness of the Maxima's dash. The only echo of the previous car's cockpit is a concave segment in the center of the upper dashboard surface. There are a couple of novel features in the '04 Maxima we really have to wonder about. One is the standard-equipment longitudinal Skyview glass roof running the length of the car's top like coin slots in a piggy bank. (A conventional sunroof is optional.) Although the Skyview glass doesn't open, there are sliding panels inside—one each over the front and back seats—to shutter it. Another unusual feature is included in the Elite package, which provides two rear bucket seats in place of the usual bench. In this configuration, the center console continues from front to back and provides the rear occupants with generous cup holders, storage compartments, and—if so ordered—a switch to operate a rear window blind. Since the center spot on the conventional bench seat isn't comfortable, this may make sense for owners who would take another couple out on the town but have no need for a fifth seat. They evidently also see no need for the extra cargo area a full bench seat provides, or for the 60/40 split-folding seatbacks that come with it. Instead, the Elite package provides a trunk pass-through panel. Naturally, the suspension calibrations vary between luxo and sporty models, along with tire and wheel fitments. SL models wear 17-inch wheels and tires; SEs flaunt 18-inchers. Our SE had springing and damping firm enough to transmit noticeable vibration back to the controls on rough roads. On the other hand, the 3.5SE demonstrated carefully controlled ride motions and was able to attack Mulholland Drive's twisty route through the Santa Monica Mountains with obvious relish. The new Maxima doesn't understeer much when hurled around in the twisties, nor is there any undue bouncing and rolling. The roadholding feels substantial, with dependable turn-in and pretty tenacious adhesion. Pulling 0.84 g at the skidpad on all-season Goodyear RS-A tires, the 3.5SE is not short of grip, and the way it manages transitions highlights its sporting DNA. There is, of course, the inevitable weaving and jinking when powering out of the corners, but let's not harp on that. The six-speed box—almost unnecessary on the highway, where the torquey V-6 pulls effortlessly at almost any revs—comes into its own on tortuous roads. Its throws are quick and fluid, and the gates are clearly defined. The synchromesh is strong, too (second gear has a triple-cone system), yet engagements are detectable as a subtle gnashing of metal. Double-clutch downshifts proved tricky in our prototype because the electronic throttle would overshoot and then float the revs too high for a smooth reengagement. That's bound to improve in production. In case it doesn't, the six-speed in our 3.5SE test car can be swapped for a four-speed Jatco automatic with a manual shift mode at the same trim level, or even for a five-speed Aisin automatic in the more-luxury-oriented 3.5SL model. These largely negate issues with torque steer and throttle response. The brakes on the 3.5SE are big and fade resistant, and although our 70-mph-to-standstill test required a fairly lengthy 197 feet, the brakes felt secure and dependable when we went playing in the mountains. Perhaps production-level ABS calibrations will improve the car's stopping performance, too. When the 2004 Maximas arrive in showrooms this month, they'll be equipped with a choice of two powerful stereo systems. The standard unit for the 3.5SE is a 240-watt eight-speaker radio/ cassette/CD player; the SL gets a 320-watt Bose unit with a six-CD in-dash changer that is also offered as an option on the SE. Options for the '04 Maxima will be offered singly and as part of packages. One of them—the Journey package—supplies a DVD navigation system with a seven-inch display for the first time in this model. That display acts as an info screen for the stereo, ventilation, and trip computer, too, even on models without navigation. Thus, with more power, more style, more colors, and more variation, Nissan clearly hopes the Maxima will not only pick up where its worthy predecessor left off but also bring more believers into the fold. Without the torque steer, it would have been a pushover. THE VERDICT Highs: Great engine, distinctive styling, interesting interior. Lows: Wheel fight, firm ride. The Verdict: With less torque steer, it could have been a contender.