2003 Nissan Maxima Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Numerous enhancements improve Nissan's flagship.
With its free-revving V6 engine, the Nissan Maxima has always been the mid-size sedan of choice for those who place driving enjoyment high on their priority list. In fact, the Maxima outsells the V6 versions of the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
The 2002 Nissan Maxima is more luxurious, more powerful, and a little sportier than last year's model. The Maxima is moving upscale as it makes room below for the Altima, Nissan's other mid-size sedan. This trend toward luxury and power can be seen in numerous enhancements to this year's model.
An all-new 3.5-liter V6 engine delivers 255 horsepower to the 2002 Maxima. That's a lot of ponies, and it's a smooth and sophisticated engine. The interior has been upgraded. To differentiate this year's model, the styling has been revised: The 2002 Maxima gets a new grille, revised front and rear fascias, and new side sills.
Three trim levels are available: GXE, SE and GLE. All come with the new 3.5-liter V6. All come equipped with a four-speed automatic transmission, though the SE can be ordered with a new six-speed manual with no price differential.
GXE ($24,699) is the base model and comes equipped with air conditioning, dual front airbags, four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock and other advanced stopping technologies known as Electronic Brake force Distribution and Brake Assist. It also has standard Xenon high-intensity headlights, cruise control, remote locking, a compact disc player and a power driver's seat and tilt steering column.
SE ($25,449) is a popular sports model equipped with a sports suspension, wider, low-profile 225/50VR17 tires, 17-inch six-spoke alloy wheels, fog lamps, a rear spoiler, body-colored door handles, chromed exhaust tips, titanium-faced gauges, sporty seat cloth, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
GLE ($27,099) is the luxury model distinguished by its 17-inch seven-spoke alloy wheels. It comes with leather-appointed seats, simulated leather door trim, simulated wood trim, automatic climate control, memory features for both front seats, a power front passenger's seat, fog lights, 215/55HR17 tires. It comes standard with the Bose audio system with seven speakers, AM/FM/cassette, a six-disc in-dash CD changer, RDS, and speed-sensitive volume control.
Options include the Bose audio system ($1,099), power sliding sunroof ($899), side airbags ($249), and a navigation system ($1,999). There's a Leather package ($1,499) for the SE. However, both special packages require that you also equip your vehicle with several other options. For example, if you want the Leather package on the SE, you also must order a Bose audio system and power sunroof. A special Meridian Edition package ($399) includes heated front seats and steering wheel.
Maxima's styling is more assertive than many mid-size cars, and this year's model draws attention. It's particularly striking from the rear. A dramatic cut-off shape and bold taillight treatment highlight a crisp design.
The front end says Maxima in a bold new way with a new grille and those Xenon headlamps. The aggressive styling sweeps fluidly from front to rear, with the side view accented by a steeply raked windshield, accentuated fender flares and sporty side-sill spoilers. At the rear you'll find new taillights with clear lenses, dual chrome exhaust tips and a new Nissan logo.
The Maxima is long and wide. It shares its platform with the Infiniti I30 luxury sedan. The rigid chassis was upgraded for the 2001 model year. It rides on a 108.3-inch wheelbase; overall, the car is 191.5 inches long and 70.3 inches wide. The rigid chassis allows other components to perform as they were designed and also helps reduce noise, vibration and harshness.
The Maxima's interior has been significantly upgraded for 2002.
What hasn't changed is its roominess. A 6-foot-4 companion barely brushed his hair on the headliner, and our car was equipped with a sunroof; cars without sunroofs offer slightly more headroom.
The front seats were redesigned to provide more support and dampen road vibration. We found them comfortable. Eight-way power is standard for the driver's seat. For 2002, a memory seat feature is available.
The rear seats are comfortable and roomy enough that one adult male passenger took a nice nap while we were on the road.
The trunk is not be the largest in the class, but it is roomy. The rear seats are split 60/40 and fold down to make room for longer items.
Nissan's California designers shaped the new dash into a stylish wave that gives it an airy feel. The steering wheel and other controls were repositioned last year to improve comfort. A pair of cup holders is located under the lid on the center console.
For 2002, the sunroof switch features a multi-position slide instead of a conventional rocker switch. There's the new Bose stereo system, and the available navigation system now offers a 3-D Birdview display and a touch screen.
The SE interior is comfortable and inviting, with a nice grade of cloth and attractive interior trim throughout. GLE is the most luxurious, of course, with its leather seats. We didn't care for the GXE interior; it isn't as inviting as either the SE or GLE. The GXE interior trim is not as nice and does not look like it will age as well as the other two models.
The 2002 Nissan Maxima is smooth, quiet, and powerful. The V6 provides lots of power. It's an exciting engine that revs freely to its redline. Yet it's flexible around town, providing strong, smooth torque throughout the rev range.
The new 3.5-liter V6 delivers 255 horsepower and an impressive 246 pound-feet of torque, a substantial improvement over last year's highly respected 222-horsepower 3.0-liter engine. This is a very sophisticated engine. It features a 'drive-by-wire' electronic throttle. With lots of torque, it pulls well from low rpm.
This car is fun to drive, though it does not have the sporty dynamics of the newer Nissan Altima. The Maxima handles well, but when pushed hard, it's no sports sedan. On tight, bounding roads, such as those east of California's Carmel Valley, the Maxima reaches the limits of its shocks and suspension travel. The shocks don't rebound quickly enough to keep the tires glued to the road like a BMW's. But the Maxima is sportier than an Accord or Camry. Its steering is precise with sharp on-center feel. And it rides very well.
The SE suspension is well tuned to the car's capabilities and is comfortable without being mushy. There's little body roll, or lean, in corners. And it rides well. Our overall impression is that the Maxima has softened a bit this year, and that impression goes for all models.
The SE also comes with larger front disc brakes, along with electronic brake force distribution and Brake Assist.
The four-speed automatic transmission works well on narrow, winding roads, where it shifts smoothly and changes gears quickly to suit driving conditions. The engine is strong enough and the automatic transmission is responsive enough that an SE equipped this way is very pleasant to drive, even on two-lane roads that twist through the hills.
We also spent some time in a Maxima SE with the six-speed manual. While we usually prefer shifting for ourselves, the six-speed had a notchy feel that will take some getting used to. Also, the throws are long. With so much torque from the powerful V6, little shifting is needed on winding roads to keep it in the power band. Six speeds are not needed. For these reasons, we recommend the automatic transmission for the Maxima. (It also seemed as though the steering felt better in cars with automatics; the steering felt lighter in the six-speed cars.).
The 2002 Maxima offers roomy, comfortable accommodations for four and a big trunk. This is a car for people who want performance and functionality.
Nissan didn't design this car for the lowest common denominator. Its projected volume of 100,000 is less than a third of annual Accord, Camry or Ford Taurus sales. While Camrys are usually purchased with the family in mind, Maximas are often bought for the driver. And while most Accords are sold with four-cylinder engines, all Maximas are fitted with the powerful V6.
With the introduction of a much bigger Altima this year, look for the Maxima to continue to move upscale and serve as Nissan's flagship.
GXE ($24,699), SE ($25,449), GLE ($27,099).
Options As Tested
Leather trim package ($1,499) includes leather seating surfaces, automatic air conditioning, four-way power passenger seat with front memory seats; power glass sunroof ($899); Bose audio system ($1,099); 4-speed automatic transmission (no charge).
Maxima SE ($25,449).
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