How The Maxima Lost Its Way
Then there are those models that keep on keepin’ on as the rest of us wonder why. The Nissan Maxima is quite possibly the poster child of this category. The Maxima emerged on the U.S. automotive scene over thirty years ago, and the third generation car was easily the best, bringing great design, solid performance and practicality together. After five generations and four complete redesigns in the states it remains alive and kicking, for some inexplicable reason. It’s grown in horsepower, weight and disjointed style throughout the years, and Nissan shows no signs of letting up. I heave a sigh of disappointment every time I see a current model on the road.
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Though the Nissan (formerly Datsun) Maxima had been sold in Japan as the Bluebird years before we ever got it, the predecessor to the Maxima sedan made its way to our shores first as the Datsun 810 in 1977. The Maxima name was official in 1982 and it wasn’t until 1985 that the Maxima’s design became noteworthy. You’ll even see some of the boxy second-generation cars around once in a blue moon, and they still look good, with the kind of squareness that begets a reputation of Asian automotive classicism — just like the second generation Toyota Cressida (the predecessor to the Avalon). But it’s the third generation Maxima that truly stands out in my mind as the finest iteration in the car’s history. As good-looking as the second generation was, Nissan smartly ripped up the old design in 1988 and made a decidedly more adventurous move toward something sleeker, simpler and as handsome as a sedan could be in the late 1980s (and even today, by comparison). It was marketed, quite deliberately, as a “4-Door Sports Car” and was so noted on stickers with “4DSC” prominently displayed on the side windows. The car’s performance, driving dynamics and especially the aesthetics were true to this new moniker.
This third generation was vastly different from the car it replaced, sporting fewer angles and harder lines while adding welcomed contours to the front and rear fascia, the greenhouse and all four quarter panels. The proportions were just right, with no dearth or excess of front and rear overhang, no extraneous body bulges, clean and slender head and taillights. It was sleek simplicity. Quite possibly the only thing wrong was its front-wheel-drive setup, but that execution was meant to make it family friendly — and it worked. A 3.0-liter, 160 hp V6 gave it a healthy pep without a hefty amount of torque steer. Even in SE form, the more sporting version, the 190 hp front-wheel drive sedan was more than manageable. The Maxima SE even had a variable intake manifold, sport-tuned suspension bits, a limited slip-diff and could be optioned out with a manual transmission. Even the deck spoiler, something that rarely works on sedans, looked proper. The Maxima of this era was, quite simply, one of the best-looking sedans of its time. Unfortunately, this would be as good as it would get.
The generations of Maxima that would follow were especially disappointing from a design perspective. The clean-cut approach of the third generation was completely abandoned the fourth time around in 1995. The only aspects remotely similar to the 1994 car were the simple grille, lights and wheel design. Sure, the remarkable VQ30DE 190 hp V6 engine in the fourth-gen car earned rave reviews in the automotive community, and the re-worked Maxima had plenty of cosseting features, but its design departed from everything that was great about the car before it. The fourth-gen looked puffy, as if its previously slim exterior had been repeatedly stung by bees.
A complete departure from historically good design came with the mid-cycle refresh of the Maxima in 2000. The headlights and grill were tossed for something bordering on animalistic. The catfish-mouth grille and the headlights with the odd pointed tip along the top edges screamed “brand identity” but were far from attractive. Its only salvation: it was still available with a manual transmission, though that feature still failed to cover up its many sins.
What the sixth-generation car wrought established a consistent design language for Nissan more than it helped the Maxima get its mojo back. The blocky grille, shark fin headlights and taillights and clamshell body shape were poor choices; they made the car look like it had been designed by a multiple people who had no idea what the others were doing until it was too late. Then the manual transmission got the axe three years into the cycle. Oh, what were you thinking, Nissan? The Maxima had officially become the family sedan for men who loved horsepower but lacked any sense of driving dynamics or style.
The Maxima of this era was, quite simply, one of the best-looking sedans of its time. Unfortunately, this would be as good as it would get.
So, where does this seventh and current gen Maxima stand? Does it get better or worse? That’s hard to say, frankly. Some of the old car has returned in the form of a simple rectangular grille, even though Nissan is heading toward a trapezoidal design in their Altima and Sentra sedans. Too bad the nice grille is at odds with the pulled tooth headlights that flank it. The body is simply contoured, but the taillights take a disappointing return to the “shark fin” motif. The thick rear bumper and the strange s-curve trunklid sides certainly don’t help. In a word, it’s incongruous.
Nissan has overcomplicated a former stunner of a family sedan. Rather than capitalizing on an evolutionary design, they attempted something radical at every turn. The great Maxima name, not unlike the Acura Legend of yore, has been sullied by all the wrong changes. Now it’s just a fairly reliable large sedan with too much front-wheel-drive horsepower and a disjointed and forgettable aesthetic.
Nissan needs to go back to the drawing board without killing every good idea it had back in the late ’80s. They need to drop the weight, drop the horsepower, drop the overly busy design language and make the Maxima great again. If you disagree with me, just wait for that rare moment when lay your eyes on a third generation Maxima that still runs. Even now, it’s an attractive car, and that’s saying something.