EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 5, 2013

Maxima handles fast, hard driving

Motor Mouth
Jeffrey Zygmont

---- — Some of you, maybe all of you, must wonder from time to time if I’m a complete dunce. To bolster your suspicions, I offer this tale.

One morning last week I turned left when leaving the parking lot of State Line Pet Supply in Plaistow, N.H., swinging onto Route 125 in a south-bound direction, heading toward Haverhill.

But the wide, ample traffic lanes that I entered were all north-bound lanes.

Gulp. Sometime since my last visit, construction crews had widened Route 125 and stuck in an elevated median.

I couldn’t turn left. But I had turned left and now I was driving in the wrong direction on a busy state highway. Worse, a wave of vehicles surged head-on toward me from a stop light that had just changed to green.

I reacted the same as any person, dunce or genius, would react. I felt both embarrassment and dread, as in, “I hope nobody I know seems me,” along with, “I hope I get out of this alive.”

I pitched the car into an immediate U-turn and accelerated in the north-bound direction, the right direction, trying to look like I had intended that maneuver all along.

As I completed the tight, rapid, emergency turn, I thought, “this car handled that incredibly well.”

The agile, fleet-footed machine was also a large car, a Nissan Maxima. The front-drive, five-passenger sedan is the flagship auto in Nissan’s line, with list prices for the 2013 Maxima starting at $34,060.

With its wide, long stance, generously sized cabin and luxurious details, the Maxima impressed me for also being so nimble and athletically responsive.

But that fact is no surprise to Bret Chavaree, co-owner of Salem Nissan in Salem, N.H.

“It’s been known for the last 20 years as the four-door sports car,” he said. “It handles well. It has excellent horsepower. It’s fun. And it’s luxurious.”

I experienced the comfortable, pampering side of the Maxima sport sedan a few days after my near-annihilation in Plaistow. I drove the model for a weekend road trip that started here, at the northern tip of the Northeast Megalopolis, and took me to the heart of one of the most densely populated spans of American geography.

Traffic was thick and halting through long stretches of Interstate 95. I spent the full span of a day driving the Maxima. But I never felt cramped or fidgety. I never nodded from numbing road fatigue. I never suffered the butt burn that can afflict long-distance drivers after too much sitting.

That wasn’t just because the Maxima is fundamentally comfortable. A generous level of travel and entertainment technologies provided guidance and distractions that helped the hours of saddle time pass more pleasantly.

My evaluation model was a Maxima 3.5 SV, a step up from the base-level, 3.5 S version, priced $2,300 higher. With options that boosted its price more, my test model included a Bose audio system with satellite radio that kept music reception constantly available.

The navigation system, which was intuitive to operate, provided up-to-the-minute traffic and weather reports, and route guidance automatically suggested paths around upcoming traffic snarls. The seven-inch touch screen for controlling cabin systems responded to voice commands.

What’s more, when traffic moved at the 75-plus mph speeds common on interstates, my Maxima tucked among the fastest cruisers with unflinching ease.

Its 290 horsepower (when using the recommended, premium fuel) comes from a 3.5-liter V6 engine.

The car’s continuously variable automatic transmission sends that energy downward through the wheels with authority. Continuously variable transmissions, or CVTs, are touted for being more fuel-efficient than old-school, geared transmissions. But the CVT in Maxima matches the hard-charging attitude of the car’s engine very well, responding so unhesitatingly with so much gusto, that I wondered if the transmission really was a CVT.

As for fuel economy, the official government rating for the Maxima is 19 miles per gallon in city driving, and 26 mpg on the highway. I averaged 33 mpg through my week of adventures and misadventures.

Combined with Maxima’s 20-gallon gas tank, my test model’s favorable fuel-use rate provided a very generous cruising range that saved me from filling up at expensive freeway rest stops during my road trip.

At Salem Nissan, Chavaree sees more affluent, well-established professionals choosing the Maxima. They slant toward younger ages, starting in their mid 30s, he said. They are drawn by the model’s spirited road command, in combination with its travel-easing niceties.

Nissan is not a luxury brand, but instead aims at straight-up, middle-class consumers.

Still, the closest competitors to Maxima come from luxury-car makers. Major contenders are the BMW 3-Series and the Acura TL. Significantly, both Acura and BMW position their vehicles as performance-oriented passenger cars that make driving exhilarating while they also layer in comforts and lather on advanced technology.

That is exactly how Nissan differentiates itself inside the middle-class car market: as a maker of motor vehicles that provide all the essentials that competing companies offer, while adding greater shares of spirited exhilaration and fun. That market position makes Maxima the perfect flagship for the Nissan line, Chavaree stated, because Maxima epitomizes the characteristics that the company’s other, lower priced models can emulate.

The Maxima characteristics also keep drivers returning for more, he reported. The primary buyers of the Nissan Maxima are people who already own a Maxima coming back for a replacement, Chavaree explained.

“People who buy the Maxima tend to stick with it,” he said. “It has a real following.”

After last week, I understand why.

Jeffrey Zygmont is an author of fiction and nonfiction books, and a long-time auto writer. Contact him at www.jeffreyzygmont.com.

2013 Nissan Maxima :Vehicle type: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-wheel-drive mid-size sedan Price range: $34,060 to $40,060 (plus options) Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles basic warranty; 5 years/60,000 miles powertrain warranty; 5 years/unlimited corrosion warranty Engine: 3.5-liter V6 Power: 290 horsepower at 6,400 rpm; 261 lb.-ft. torque at 4,400 rpm Transmission: Continuously variable automatic Fuel economy: 19 mpg city; 26 mpg highway Wheelbase: 109 inches Length: 191 inches Width: 73 inches Height: 58 inches Weight: 3,551 pounds Fuel capacity: 20 gallons Turning circle: 37.4 feet