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First Drive: 2016 Nissan Maxima [Review]

Nissan\'s sport sedan is all-new for 2016.

Nissan's range-topping sedan enters its seventh generation for 2016, making it the longest continuously-running nameplate in Nissan's U.S. showrooms (the Z would hold this title if it weren't for the Japanese sports car exodus of the 1990s). Does its latest "Four Door Sports Car” still live up to the name? We traveled to Nashville, Tennessee to find out.

What is it?The Maxima is a bit of a ‘tweener by today's standards. By conventional wisdom, it's a large sedan, slotted against the Ford Tauruses and Chevy Impalas of the world, but in practical terms it's really just an over-developed midsizer. To put it in German terms, the Maxima is really sort of an Altima "L.”

The Maxima's size positioning may seem a little unconventional, but its formula has been consistent through seven generations (and nearly three million units sold in the U.S. alone): sedan + big engine + sporty dynamics = 4DSC.

Maxima's bloat peaked with the fifth-generation car and has subsided since. What's left? The staples. Under the hood, you'll find a 300-horsepower, 3.5L V6 engine packing 261lb-ft of torque. The Maxima remains front-wheel-drive and power still goes to the ground via a continuously-variable transmission. When questioned, Maxima engineers acknowledge that there is a business case for offering the Maxima in all-wheel drive, but there's simply not a large enough projected take rate to make it happen.

The engine is newer than the stats make it seem. While it's based on the tried-and-true VQ architecture (and in fact carries the same VQ35DE nameplate as other 3.5L engines in the line), it has been thoroughly revised. The result is better fuel economy (22 mpg city, 30 highway and 25 combined) for the same power output and displacement, which Nissan considers a win.

The Maxima's chassis improvements may not seem particularly dramatic on paper, but there are a few highlights. Weight is down by 80lbs trim-for-trim over the outgoing model, for one, with high-strength steel and aluminum both making appearances. You'll also find Nissan has fitted its chassis dampener (previously found on the Nissan Z) for an improvement in NVH.

Inside and outNissan has long been castigated by the automotive media for its lackluster interior treatments. With the last few generations of its showcase cars, things have improved greatly in this department. The Maxima is an excellent example of Nissan's progress.

Ask the company's designers what they were going for, and they'll start rambling on about fighter jets. The take-away is far less nuanced: They were going for a cockpit rather than a cabin, and at that they have succeeded. The driver sits low in well-sculpted and comfortable seats (If you've driven some of Nissan's mainstream offerings, you'll know this is another common weakness. Not so here.). The center console sits at hip level (think Ford Taurus or Cadillac CTS) and adds to the enveloping feeling Nissan was going for.

The dash and instrumentation are well laid-out and attractive, constructed of price-appropriate (read: not cheap-feeling) materials and intuitively organized. The steering wheel offerings (we drove both the SV and SR models) are large, both in diameter and rim girth, but not obtrusively so, offering both comfortable hand position and easily engaged control functions.

The SR's flat-bottomed wheel is sleek, but it's almost comically large for its mission—a minor quibble—and the love-‘em-or-hate-‘em Alcantara inserts (also present on the SR's seating surfaces—quilted, no less) make for a nice contrast regardless of your tactile and maintenance preferences. Upgrade to a Platinum model and you get the same diamond-quilted pattern on the seats, but it'll be leather rather than faux suede, both under your bum and under your hands.

Outside, the Maxima is an even bigger departure from its predecessor. Following the Murano, Maxima has embraced Nissan's new "Energetic Flow” design philosophy, sporting the "V-Motion” front grille and floating roof greenhouse design which first debuted on the crossover. It's a dramatic look, for sure, and likely not for everybody.

Some carry-over themes from Nissan's existing designs can be found, especially in the head- and tail-lights, but the look is otherwise very faithful to the concept on which it was based. Nissan is particularly proud of a handful of exterior details. The diamond-cut 19” wheels available on SR models, for instance, are a favorite talking point, and discerning observers can locate "4DSC” badging in some of the exterior details.

Does it go?This question usually has an obvious answer, but the Maxima is an oddball. With 300 horsepower moving between 3,400 and 3,550lbs, it's not particularly wanting for power. There are plenty in the segment (and the one below it) moving more car with less engine. What trips us up is the combination of the engine's linear power delivery combined with the (also linear, to a fault) CVT. The Maxima gets up and goes just fine, but the lack of a kick-and-go is disconcerting, even for those who have grown accustomed to the feeling of a "stepless” gearbox. It's quick, but it never really feels quick.

The sensation can be rectified by taking advantage of the CVT's pre-programmed gear ratios. If you opt for an S, SV or SL model, they're accessed by putting the gear selector in manual mode and tipping up and down as desired. On the SR, you get paddle shifters, which is an improvement.

Everything is an improvement on the SR, in fact. That's the only way to get the sport-tuned suspension, grippier tires, brake-based front-axle torque vectoring and the aforementioned transmission goodies, along with its exclusive wheels and interior bits. There are no sport packages or anything like that available for other trims. There are no packages at all, in fact. You buy the car that has the toys you want, and that's it. There's essentially no customization aside from accessories.

Stepping from the SV to the SR, then, makes for a marked jump in capability and fun. The SV is plenty capable, mind you, but it doesn't have the "let's go” edge that you'll find in the SR. Our only gripes with the SR's dynamics come from the steering, which is a touch vague on-center and a bit confused by quick transitions. An aggressive slalom maneuver will yield a brief moment of "will it or won't it?” from the helm as the front end makes up its mind. It's nothing compromising, but it's noticeable.

Is the Maxima a true "Four Door Sports Car”? With front-wheel-drive and a CVT, it's a stretch to validate Nissan's branding, but it's certainly a strong entry, both dynamically and in a straight line. It's no BMW (or Infiniti, for that matter), but it's plenty capable.

Leftlane's bottom lineThe Maxima is more fun, more efficient and much more comfortable for 2016. The CVT may give us pause, but the rest of the car steps up when called upon.

2016 Nissan Maxima, from $32,410 (S) to $39,860 (Platinum)

As tested, from $34,390 (SV) to ($36,890) (SR)

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