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Review: 2016 Nissan Maxima SL

Does the Nissan Maxima live up to its sports car billing?

What makes a sports car? A traditionalist would say that it must only seat two, have an open roof, and send its power to the rear wheels. The more modern approach encompasses a wider range of body styles that offer more practicality.

What you're looking at here is the latest generation of the vehicle that didn't necessarily invent the concept of a sporty car that could haul a family, but certainly refined the idea. Back in the ‘90s, the Nissan Maxima lived up to its "four door sports car” marketing with its trim proportions and excellent chassis tuning, but subsequent generations grew ever fatter and softer and generally confused about their mission in life.

This latest model, the eighth to wear a badge dating back 35 years, promised a renewed focus, so of course we had to check one out.

What is it?Arriving for the 2016 model year, the latest Maxima is certainly a lot more striking to behold than its predecessor.

But what's weird about the Maxima isn't its styling; it is the sedan's positioning. Externally, its footprint is about the same as Nissan's mainstream Altima, but the Maxima has less interior room and a smaller trunk. The Maxima is also around $3,500 more than a similarly-equipped Altima which makes it a rather expensive midsize, non-luxury sedan.

At its core, the Maxima isn't significantly changed underneath from the last model, which means a 3.5-liter V6 powers the front wheels. That engine is up 10 horsepower to 300, but it remains mated exclusively to a CVT that Nissan says has been retuned.

A bunch of Maxima trim levels are on offer, with our SL tester slotting in dead center as the more luxury-oriented model. It lacked the SR's sports suspension, 19-inch wheels, and Alcantara/leather seats, but comes standard with goodies like a forward collision warning system, adaptive cruise control, and two sunroof panels.

What's it up against?Maxima occupies an unusual place in the automotive spectrum just above mainstream midsizers like the Altima and the Honda Accord but definitely below, say, the Volvo S60.

We would suggest cross-shopping the Buick Regal, the Acura TLX, and the Lincoln MKZ—and maybe a Volkswagen Passat optioned up with the available V6.

What does it look like?You can't miss the Maxima's striking C-pillar, which dips down and is festooned with chrome. It's distinctive, at least for a sedan; the Murano and the Lexus RX also have a similar embellishment.

Otherwise, this four-door is fairly conventional, fitting in with the rest of the Nissan lineup. Our SL tester was gussied up with its own alloy wheel design, but we actually prefer the sportier wheels on the SR .

And on the inside?Nissan says it went for a jet fighter look inside the Maxima, but jet fighters have switches everywhere and an ejector seat. The Maxima, by contrast, has deeply-bolstered sports seats and a generally intuitive array of buttons and screens. What apparently makes the Maxima jet-like is that its center stack is canted more toward the driver than the passenger. Oh, and it can fly. No, wait, it cannot.

Unfortunately, just like a jet fighter, the Maxima is remarkably tight inside. Sure, there's plenty of room for four, but the sedan actually offers less rear seat room than the Altima—not to mention a typical full size sedan. Even the driver and passenger don't have all that much stretch-out space since the dashboard and center console close in on the passenger compartment.

Moreover, the materials selected definitely don't scream upmarket the way that they should at this price point. Mediocre leather adorns the steering wheel and only the center surface of the seats, not the bolsters. The shiny plastic trim on the dash doesn't impersonate a fine material, either.

The Maxima does have a fairly intuitive navigation system, but at this price point, we expect more goodies than just adaptive cruise control and automatic braking to avoid a collision. Items like ventilated seats or a truly premium audio system would help set it apart more inside.

But does it go?The ingredients are here: The Maxima's suspension is fairly stiff and its steering requires a fair amount of effort. Oh, and it scoots. Yet it falls far short of being the four door sports car it once was. There's a lack of cohesion, as though the chassis team didn't talk to the powertrain team.

Accelerate and the Maxima delivers copious torque steer, about the only thing exciting about its steering. Two drivetrain modes, normal and sport, modify throttle response, the CVT's resting point, and steering heft. Yet even normal provides steering that is heavy, not communicative. Turning the wick up to sport delivers a steering wheel with very little power assistance. Firm steering doesn't necessarily equate to good steering.

That said, the Maxima's relatively long wheelbase gives it an excellent ride quality over undulating pavement, owing in part to the 18-inch wheels seen here rather than the 19s seen on the SR. The CVT generally keeps the 3.5-liter V6 within its power band, but the sport-tuned exhaust and intake systems drone on with a growl that's more loud than sporty.

During our evaluation, we saw about 31 mpg on the highway and a bit below 20 mpg around town, figures not far off of the 22/30 mpg seen in the EPA's test.

Leftlane's bottom lineIt might look more interesting than before, but this latest Maxima doesn't rekindle any of its predecessors' zip.

Viewed as a full-size sedan, it delivers good acceleration, comfortable seats, and an above average ride quality. But the problem is that it is sized more like a midsizer and priced 15 percent higher. As it is, we have a hard time seeing why one would pay more for a Maxima than an Altima, already an acceptable but less-than-intriguing midsize sedan choice.

2016 Nissan Maxima SL base price, $36,990. As tested, $37,825Destination, $835.

Photos by Andrew Ganz.

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