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Review: 2014 Nissan Maxima 3.5 SV (7th place)

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This review is part of a ten-car comparison of large sedans. The Maxima is ranked seventh place of ten.

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7th Place: 2014 Nissan Maxima 3.5 SV
Summary review

The flagship sedans of most mainstream brands are bigger and more luxurious than the higher-volume midsize models at the heart of the lineup. In a few cases, the flagship is bigger but not appreciably fancier.

Nissan is alone in taking the opposite track. Its Maxima is the same size as the Altima sedan – the Altima is an inch narrower but an inch longer – but feels upscale of the cheaper model. For buyers seeking an upscale look and feel without needing to buy a massive hulking sedan to do it, the Maxima is a rare option.

The Maxima nails the basics of its niche. Nissan took full advantage of the car's relatively tidy dimensions and light weight to make it into a relative sports sedan. Polished driving dynamics give it cornering tautness and overall zest that the competition lacks, without destroying the ride quality. Buyers must be aware that they're giving up the expansive rear seat and trunk of a full-size sedan – accepting even less room than the Altima, in fact – and that they're getting a sports sedan in return.

Even if that's what you want, though, the Maxima isn't quite ideal. This aging model dates to 2009 (a 2015-model replacement is expected), and its interior trim, safety ratings, and fuel economy have fallen behind the class norm. Even at a nicely discounted price of about $33,000 out the door well-equipped, some buyers will rightfully demand more. But for its uniquely compelling mix of performance, style, relative interior space, and relative value, the Maxima still stacks up well against various large and entry-luxury sedans – albeit in part by default.

'The 4-door sports car'?

Nissan's marketing goes a little overboard with the Maxima, declaring this to be “the 4-door sports car,” a designation that the automaker has bestowed on the car since the 1980s. There are cars on the market that could very legitimately make that claim; they are far more dedicated performance vehicles than this one.

But apply the fairly substantial asterisk of “compared to other midsize and large sedans priced in the low $30,000s,” and the Maxima comes closer to the claim. It's still not a brilliant corner-carving piece of magic, but there's a respectable alertness to the steering, control to the chassis, and punch to the engine. You'd admittedly get a lot of the same in a V6 Honda Accord for several thousand dollars less (and with a roomier interior to boot), but the Honda – while still quite nice – has comparatively anonymous looks and fewer available premium features.

Despite being sporty, the Maxima also has a decent ride quality – though firm and controlled, rather than cushy – and it eats up highway miles nicely. It's not especially quiet, though, for a sedan in the $30,000s.

Another strong point to the Maxima's driving experience is its 3.5-liter V6, whose 290 horsepower keep this relatively light sedan feeling very quick. Like most Nissans, the Maxima uses a continuously variable automatic transmission that is constantly choosing among an infinite selection of gear ratios for maximum powertrain efficiency, rather than shifting among certain gears. In many cars, including four-cylinder Nissans, this transmission type yields a steady droning engine note under hard acceleration because engine RPMs remain constant. But this isn't a problem in the Maxima because of its greater power and pleasant-sounding engine.

However, the Maxima is in need of efficiency advances. Its overall EPA rating of 22 miles per gallon is competitive by this class's standards, but its 26-mpg highway showing trails everything else in this comparison despite the Maxima's relatively light weight. The newer V6 Altima achieves 25 miles per gallon in mixed driving, and 31 mpg on the highway. The Altima also runs happily on regular fuel; the Maxima, unlike every other car in this comparison, requests premium.

Non-luxury interior

Besides the gas mileage, the most obviously outdated aspect of the Maxima is its dashboard. Its materials and design were never terribly fancy, and have only continued to fall behind. Silver plastic trim that curves its way around the instrument panel's buttons and knobs is a stylistic touch that has not stood the test of time, especially in a premium car. The steering wheel controls also feel cheap and the gauges look humdrum. Overall, the car's interior looks like it belongs in a previous-generation mainstream sedan, not a current-model flagship.

Aside from how it looks, the Maxima's interior isn't the worst place to be, especially if your tastes agree with the car's front seats. They're lower, firmer, and better-bolstered than other cars in this comparison – befitting an entry-luxury sporty sedan. However, if you prefer the high cushy chairs that are easy to pivot off of for easy entry/exit, you're looking for a different type of car than the Maxima.

The rear seat isn't as accommodating. The cushion is low, and there isn't a ton of room. Adults will fit okay, thanks to space carved out of the front seatbacks, but it takes some squirming to get in and out and it decidedly lacks an airy feel. The trunk isn't very large either, at just 14.2 cubic feet.

Safety notes

The Maxima trails most of its newer competitors' safety scores. While every other car in this comparison (except a few models that weren't tested) earned a top five-star overall safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Maxima netted just four, dragged down by a weak score for front-passenger protection in a frontal crash test.

Similarly, every other large sedan (that's been tested) has breezed through the frontal and side crash tests and roof-strength and head-restraint evaluations conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety; the Maxima was marked down for both of the latter two.

The Maxima also lacks the suite of advanced safety features that are increasingly common in today's $30,000-plus sedans, such as blind-spot monitoring, forward-collision warnings, and rear cross-path detection.

It is worth noting, though, that the Maxima is the only car in this comparison that's yet been subjected to the very demanding IIHS small-overlap crash test, and it did better than most cars that have been tested so far, earning the second-highest score of Acceptable.

And none of this should be read as calling the Maxima unsafe by any stretch, but it's not up to the level of ever-advancing standards.

Overall

The Maxima is a pleasant and sporty but admittedly flawed product that's competing in a unique niche. Impressive driving dynamics and comfortable front seats offer a reason to consider overlooking the dated interior décor, relatively tight interior, and mediocre gas mileage and crash test scores.

The Maxima isn't perfect in any of these three ways, but it nonetheless pulls off an appealing blend of premium, sporty, and affordable. It's not for most buyers, but if it's what you want, it's not just an okay choice – it's really the only choice.

Besides the cars in this comparison, also shop the Maxima against the more mainstream Honda Accord, the more expensive Accord-based Acura TL, and the less roomy Volkswagen CC, along with the rear-wheel-drive Infiniti G37 and Q50 from Nissan's own luxury brand.

A redesigned Maxima is expected as a 2015 model, likely inspired by this newly unveiled concept.

Overall grade: B-

- More photos of the 2014 Nissan Maxima 3.5 SV
- Report card: Rating the Maxima -- how does it compare in different ways, such as comfort, performance, and fuel economy?
- Report card: Ranking the Maxima -- how does it stack up for different types of buyers?

More from this comparison:
- Previous review: 2014 Chrysler 300 C (8th place)
- Next review: 2014 Toyota Avalon Limited (6th place)
- Introduction
- Rating the ten large sedans
- Ranking the ten large sedans
- Quick summaries of the ten large sedans: Pros, cons, conclusions

See also:
Review: 2013 Nissan Altima 2.5 SL
Review: 2014 Nissan Pathfinder SL
Review: 2011 Nissan Quest SL
Review: 2013 Nissan Rogue SL
Review: 2010 Nissan Maxima 3.5 SV

Vehicle tested: 2013 Nissan Maxima
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $31,000
Version tested: 3.5 SV
Version base price: $35,080
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $41,790
Vehicle price as comparable (MSRP)*: $38,900
Estimated transaction price as comparable**: $33,126
Test vehicle provided by: Antwerpen Nissan; Clarksville, Md.

Key specifications:
Length: 190.6 inches
Width: 73.2 inches
Height: 57.8 inches
Wheelbase: 109.3 inches
Weight: 3,568 pounds
Trunk volume: 14.2 cubic feet
Turning circle: 37.4 feet
Engine: 3.5-liter V6 with 290 horsepower
Transmission: CVT automatic
EPA city mileage: 19 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 26 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 22 miles per gallon (premium)
Assembly location: Tennessee
For more information: Nissan website

* "Prices as comparable" reflect 2014 models with leather seats, a sunroof, a navigation system, a premium audio system, heated front seats, and certain other premium features.

** Transaction price estimates are based on data from Truecar.com and dealer quotes.

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