CarsDirect Review

2021 Nissan Maxima Review

, Automotive Editor -

Luxury, Nissan style. Cheap full-size sedans that can hold their own in corners don't exactly grow on trees. Actually, finding a full-size sedan at all has become a challenge. But a few holdouts remain, including the Nissan Maxima.

The Maxima name likely rings a bell, as 2021 marks the fortieth year of the nameplate, Nissan, for its part, is marking the anniversary with a pricey new special edition that comes chock-full of features. But you don't need to shell out $45,000 on the 40th Anniversary trim to get a sporty Maxima - every version has traces of the smart moves and peppy performance that endeared the model to buyers in the first place.

Some might wonder whether the Maxima is full-size at all, especially considering the mid-size Altima measures just as long as its once-bigger brother. To be sure, the only true full-sizers left are the Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300. Calling the Maxima full-size is more to denote its place at the top of the lineup rather than suggest it measures as long as a Chevy Tahoe.

These days, sheer dimensions matter less than the substance stuffed between the front and rear bumpers. In that regard, the Maxima offers luxury features aplenty for those who don't want to pay for a luxury badge.

Muscular V-6, CVT is a letdown. We'd make less of a stink about the features and value proposition if it were as sporty as its predecessors, but there's no doubt the current Maxima falls on the softer side. Even though it has some decent moves, you can't call it a sport sedan.

The most entertaining Maxima is the SR trim, which gets all the usual upgrades in order to provide a firmer chassis and more tactile response. Stiffer spring rates and upgraded brakes give the driver more confidence on more technical routes. Compared to the other trims, the SR feels more planted, more buttoned-down. It's also more rewarding to drive even when just loafing along.

The SR and Platinum also get 19-inch wheels rather than the 18-inch wheels used on the lower trims. The bigger wheels don't really impact ride quality; all Maximas have a well-dampened suspension that leaves passengers unperturbed even over the worst roads.

All trims have one thing in common a 3.5-liter V-6 making 300 horsepower and 261 lb-ft of torque. It's a muscular motor, delivering a pleasant wallop of power to the front tires without instigating any torque steer. Give it the spurs and 60 mph shows up in under six seconds.

Pushed up against that engine is a CVT transmission. CVTs have become somewhat common in recent years. Their party trick? No gears - just a belt-and-pulley system that offers an infinite number of ratios. In theory, it should always keep in the engine in the power band, making the most of the Maxima's 300 horsepower at all times,

The reality isn't so rosy. The Maxima's CVT is slow to adjust its ratio, so stepping on the gas doesn't result in anything resembling the satisfying "shift" we've become conditioned to. Instead, the CVT drones along at steady high RPMs while speed increases. It's underwhelming, especially in something as purportedly luxurious as the Maxima.

It's a shame, considering the strong engine and decent chassis. Had Nissan used an eight-speed automatic, the Maxima would be as well-rounded as it aspires to be. For now, it's a nice-driving car hobbled by a transmission that needs more time in the incubator.

Nissan Maxima

More features, higher price. For 2021, Nissan has reshuffled the Maxima trims, eliminating the base S and chrome-oriented SL and leaving the SV trim as the base model. That brings a big price bump when you compare the cheapest versions of this year and last, but it also means a much more comprehensive set of standard features right out of the gate.

Among the included features on the SR: leather upholstery, heated front seats, heated exterior mirrors, and driver lumbar support. That's on top of what was standard last year, like LED lights, remote start, dual-zone climate control, and power front seats. The new base price? A touch under $38,000. That makes it the most expensive player in the segment.

Upper models pile on the goodies, such as heated rear seats, a heated steering wheel, a panoramic roof, quilted semi-aniline leather, real wood trim. If that reads more like a Mercedes spec sheet than a Nissan, you'd be right - a loaded Maxima blurs the line between luxury and mainstream.

Despite the great features, the Maxima's value is murky at best. After all, it can cost up to $45.000, which is a steep ask for a Nissan-badged front-drive sedan. All things considered, we don't see much merit in such an expensive Maxima.

Where's the value? The revised trim structure makes the Maxima the most expensive of its competitive set, as the Dodge Charger, Chrysler 300, and Toyota Avalon all start at thousands less. Yet even though it's generously equipped right out of the gate, the value proposition of the Maxima is a bit puzzling.

For the sake of comparison, take the Stellantis (formerly FCA) twins, the Charger and 300. Both ride on a rear-drive platform, boast true full-size dimensions, come with an excellent infotainment system, and offer V-8 power - the last point being a very rare treat in any segment these days. Despite their age and mediocre fit and finish, their unique selling points have kept them relevant and popular.

The Avalon is more similar to the Maxima in that it comes standard with front-wheel drive and V-6 power. It starts at about $1,000 less than the Maxima but gets with many of the same features - and not to mention that enviable Toyota reputation for longevity.

Like the Charger and 300, the Avalon also offers all-wheel drive - leaving the Maxima as the only model in the class that's strictly two-wheel drive. It's a bit strange, considering the Altima is now available with all-wheel drive.

Final thoughts. The biggest issue facing the Maxima is its competition. Performance buyers will lean towards the Charger and 300; those who prioritize comfort and value will look toward the more affordable, famously dependable Toyota Avalon. It doesn't leave much room for the Maxima to distinguish itself in its current form.

But that doesn't mean the Maxima is out of the running, as it has the features and comfort prioritized by big car buyers. But a high price and a lack of any notable differentiators handicap it in an era where big cars are no longer the aspirational choices they once were.

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