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First drive: 2019 Nissan Maxima [Review]

Nissan's flagship sedan gets a fresh look and an updated interior.

Nissan's first-drive program in Napa, California, earlier in December was a two-part affair. Earlier this week, you saw our impressions of the 2019 Nissan Murano. Today, we're bring you the second helping: the 2019 Nissan Maxima.

When we called the Maxima a "flagship" in the lead-in to this piece, we were using Nissan's words, not our own. While Nissan's stable still includes two performance cars (The Z still exists, folks.), the sedan lineup reaches its pinnacle here. Maxima, once the proud bearer of the "4DSC" ("Four-Door Sports Car") branding, is now referred to simply as a "near-luxury sports sedan."

What's new?

For 2019, Nissan gave its range-topper a little more luxury and tech. A new infotainment unit includes Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration, along with USB Type-C connectivity. At the top of the lineup, a new Platinum Reserve bundle includes GT-R inspired orange leather, which we'll admit looks quite good, especially with a gray or blue exterior.

Because Maxima was the spearhead for Nissan's "V-motion" styling overhaul, this introduction represents sort of a full-circle moment for the implementation of that aesthetic. Changes to the exterior are incredibly minimal, to the point where if you blink, you might miss them. New fog lamp recesses on the front fascia may be the most significant visual cues aside from new wheel designs for each trim.

If all of this sounds familiar, perhaps it's because you read our Murano review earlier this week. Yeah, there's a reason we drove these at the same event.

What's not?

Ready for some more Déjà vu? Under the skin, the 2019 Maxima remains unchanged. The 3.5-liter V6 still puts out 300 horsepower and 261 lb-ft of torque, and that power goes to the front wheels (only) via Nissan's Xtronic continuously variable transmission.

For those who want a sportier edge, the SR trim has sharper suspension tuning and paddle shifters for the CVT along with darker interior and exterior trim for a slicker look.

What's the point?

While Murano is fending off new entries in the midsize crossover segment, Maxima is playing in an increasingly smaller space. Nissan's communications staff will be the first to tell you that the company remains "bullish" when it comes to traditional four-doors, but we don't expect that to translate to anything earth-shattering in terms of the company's offerings in this corner of the market.

It's for that reason that we weren't surprised when all-wheel-drive was never brought up as a possibility for Maxima's future (And remember, Nissan's only performance-oriented AWD system requires an entirely different powertrain architecture than what you find in its mainstream vehicles.).

In fact, not much in the way of a future was brought up at all. It remains to be seen whether Nissan's stubbornness will translate to an eighth generation for Nissan's venerable nameplate.

What's it like?

We have mixed feelings about the Maxima's driving experience. It's one of those sedans which feels smaller than it actually is, but also somehow manages to seem slower than it should.

By the numbers, it's fine. 300 horsepower in a 3,400-pound sedan? That's plenty, strictly speaking, but given the prevalence of small-displacement, turbocharged engines with lofty torque figures, can a naturally aspirated V6 still feel quick?

The academic answer may be "yes," but Maxima doesn't provide evidence to support that hypothesis. It behaves best when you manually select gears (preferably via the paddles in an SR model), because the most satisfying thing about the VQ's linear power delivery is feeling the engine rev out--a sensation absent when the CVT is left to its own devices.

We weren't blown away by the Maxima's steering response and feedback when we drove it back in 2015, and our impressions haven't really changed. The vague on-center feel (which we also noticed driving the Murano) remains, as does the lack of communication once you get it out of that dead zone. Considering the fact that nothing has changed in that regard mechanically, we're not surprised that these weak points haven't been addressed.

By most standards of the normal large-sedan experience, Maxima remains a competent, comfortable and reasonably efficient choice. Indeed, with 24 mpg city and 30 mpg highway ratings, it's an excellent ambassador for the traditional, large-displacement V6 as the motivator for a highway cruiser.

Leftlane's bottom line

As it has been for some time, the 2019 Nissan Maxima remains a fashion-based choice in the ever-shrinking field of full-sized four-doors. We're not sure what is next for this long-running nameplate, but we hope it will continue to have a place in Nissan's lineup.

2019 Nissan Maxima base price, $33,950

Exterior photos by Byron Hurd; interior photos courtesy of Nissan.

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