I am a huge fan of the Nissan Maxima. It was my first car and the platform I cut my modding teeth on to become the wrenching fool you see today, so you can imagine my level of excitement when I got the chance to drive a brand new model, with the better handling SR package, no less. Unfortunately, I learned that perhaps the Maxima’s best days were alongside my rose-colored memories—stuck in the past.
(Full disclosure: Nissan wanted me to drive the 2016 Maxima SR so badly that I had to borrow a fully-fueled press car from fellow journalist Chris Chin and drove it particularly hard throughout the wooded areas of northern New Jersey.)
When 4DSC Meant Something
Come with me on a journey to 1993, when music didn’t sound like dueling fax machines, and playing video games wasn’t considered a viable career path. Everything made sense. That is, everything except Nissan’s Maxima.
You see, back in the day, the third generation Maxima wore a “4DSC” decal on its rear side window, an abbreviation for “four door sports car.” The badge might has well have said “fat-free pork rinds,” as a front-wheel-drive sports car with four doors almost by definition could not exist. Yet here we were.
Despite its mechanical handicap, the old Maxima carried itself quite a few degrees more purposefully than what you’d expect from something with five seats and a seriously nose-heavy weight distribution.
The formula that Nissan employed was as follows: couple an over-engineered four wheel independent suspension with a capable and torquey 300ZX-derived V6 engine and mate it all to a fun-to-shift five-speed manual transmission.
That, and the fact that the Maxima was light enough to vigorously chuck into a corner without expecting the laws of physics to deliver an equal-and-opposite roundhouse kick to your head. It was faster than most anything in its class in both a straight line and around a corner.
A slightly altered formula in the next generation Maxima included an even lighter 3,000 pound-ish body motivated by a more powerful engine and a fittingly robust five-speed manual transmission. Cost-cutting measures implemented after economy fell out on Japan in the mid-1990s meant that the rear suspension was no longer independent. The car relied a rear beam tying the back wheels together, an technological step backwards that unsettled the car during bumpy, off-camber turns.
Even with the demotion of some suspension component quality, the fourth generation Maxima was a quantum leap forward mechanically. It blitzed its zero to 60 mph run in just over six seconds, helped in no small part by its rev-happy VQ-series V6 engine that sported a mammoth (for its time) 10:1 compression ratio and all-aluminum longblock.
The VQ earned a spot on Ward’s 10 Best Engines list for the next decade, as the engine was Nissan’s go-to powerplant for efficiency and reliability. It would also serve loosely as the basis for the GT-R’s unbeatable VR38DETT, and it all started with the fourth generation Maxima - a car every bit as deserving of its 4DSC namesake as its boxy predecessor.
Fast forward to the present, and you’ll find that a lot has changed in the automotive world. Cars have become more powerful, while increased safety standards and creature comforts mean that they also permanently carry around the equivalent weight of a few of your pizza-loving friends. The transparent feel of well-made hydraulic power steering racks have made way for more efficient torque-sensing electric units that try their best to simulate sporty. Manual transmissions in flagships have all but disappeared in favor of column or wheel mounted paddle shifters serving as the only conduit between you and the car’s forward gears.
The increasing bloat and detachment disenfranchised a generation of enthusiasts, but Nissan heard their complaints. “Fear not, friends,” Nissan whispered. “The 4DSC is alive, well, and better than ever.” Unfortunately, it seems they also had their fingers crossed.
New But Not Improved
The 2016 Nissan Maxima SR (The SR stands for Sport Rally) is supposedly the ultimate in a long line of Nissan flagship sedans. It boasts a sport-tuned suspension, dual drive modes, a front performance chassis damper, an integrated Dynamics control module, an Xtronic continuously variable automatic transmission and several other things that don’t mean anything to anyone outside of Nissan’s marketing department.
The 3.5 liter VQ-series engine now produces 300 horsepower, 110 up from its original iteration in 1995, but still falling short of the 332 horsepower 3.7 liter variant used in the 370Z and various Infiniti models. It can perform its zero to 60 mph sprint in just under six seconds, can theoretically return about 30 miles to the gallon on the highway, and can seat five normal-sized human beings in relative comfort. It has a leather-appointed interior, fake aluminum trim, and a touchscreen navigation system that would be just on the right side of okay for most people to use on a daily basis.
Those are the numbers, figures, and facts. Now here’s why they don’t matter.
The Maxima, over the last few decades, had always been a surprising car, both for the driver and those around it. If some unsuspecting bro in a Fox Body Mustang wanted to challenge your Maxima from desolate stoplight to desolate stoplight, here’s the likely course of events:
The Maxima’s engine would scream into life, the front tires would convert themselves partly into smoke, and the Mustang owner would see taillights in less time than it takes him to say “Cars and Coffee.” It was a sleeper, but one that looked as understated and mild-mannered as any hum-drum econobox on the discount rent-a-car lot. It was something that you’d feel comfortable putting your college-age daughter in, and something that could let her rip the block the hell up if she wanted to.
This was true with every Maxima generation in recent memory, but it was, and is, completely lost on the brand new iteration. Even the fancy-pants sport trim doesn’t save it.
That Damn CVT Again
One huge hurdle the car can’t overcome is its absolutely dreadful continuously variable transmission, or CVT. Instead of using a traditional six- or seven-speed automatic, Nissan implemented the gearbox (pulleybox?) with the least feel and the worst reliability record they’ve ever made. Smart.
The way it works is, instead of actual gears, there’s a combination of belts, cones and magic whatchamacallits that keep the engine in the right rev range all the time, at virtually any speed. Nissan could always claim better MPGs, and in theory, every other automatic transmission would be inferior because they wouldn’t have unique design feature.
As an engineering and marketing exercise, the Maxima’s CVT is an absolutely massive achievement. As a method of conveying enjoyment to the driver, it’s akin to Chinese water torture, as it might be fine to live with for now, but sooner or later, you’ll crack and realize that the only thing you can think about is how to make it stop.
The fault lies in the fact that all CVTs feel lazy and disconnected by their very nature. The engine’s revs hang almost endlessly, and your mind is always waiting for a shift that never comes. The CVT’s operation runs counter to everything you’ve felt and learned as a child growing into a car-owning adult. Transmissions have gears, and they must be felt.
The funny thing is, sneaky Nissan knows this and has implemented—get this—simulated shift points. That’s right, instead of just installing a regular automatic transmission with gears that won’t make funny noises after 50,000 miles (a huge issue with first generation CVTs), they adapted their iffy tech to fake what is essentially the cornerstone of a normal-ass car, and had the unmitigated gall to add paddle shifters. For shame.
The driving dynamics of the car, unsurprisingly, suffer immensely from this single faulty component. It’s the proverbial turd in the punch bowl—no matter how good the punch may have been and no matter how small the turd is, the drink is utterly ruined.
To illustrate this point, I’ll present a likely scenario you’ll have while driving a 2016 Nissan Maxima SR: You’re on a mountain road and don’t see any traffic ahead or behind you. You had let the dealer overcharge on the floor mats just so you could snag the last SR they had on the lot, and dammit, you’re gonna find out firsthand what monotube shocks can really do.
You press the “Sport” button, slide the shifter into “M”, grip the flat-bottom steering wheel and prepare for maximum attack. You click the left paddle to downshift purposefully. No momentum shift. You downshift again. Nope. The car’s weight hasn’t shifted in the slightest. You give the left paddle one mo’ ‘gain. You’re now in the second of your seven simulated gears and there is no change in speed, although the revs are higher than you’d expect and the engine’s drone has become a bit unsettling.
You think, in a moment of weakness and desperation, “OK maybe I’ll let the car do the shifting.” After sliding the knob back in “D”, you mash the gas and wait for the wail of the high-strung V6. Instead, you get a sensation befitting a rental Camry that knew a life consisting of nothing but neutral drops.
The transmission’s simulated gear program hunts for maximum efficiency, while the touchy-as-hell sport mode tells the throttle to open to its maximum, almost in protest to however little you’re actually pushing the accelerator. It shifts abruptly from first to fourth in succession, then back to third with an disarming judder noticeable enough to know that something definitely needs tweaking. You put it back into normal mode and drive it back to the dealership with your hopes of driving a Japanese four door sports car in tatters. And scene.
The SR-only taut suspension and bespoke handling, competent as those things may have been for this chassis, play second fiddle to an inherently broken experience. The car has a distinct lack of the jack-of-all-trades and wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing swagger that made the previous generations so formidable and desirable. This car likely couldn’t show a current Mustang its taillights even if you had a three second head start and a tailwind.
Simply put, it’s not a competent performer, and as an experience, the power delivery is extremely inconsistent. That’s not exactly something you want with 300 horsepower driving the turning wheels.
The cost of all of this unearned 4DSC lunacy? A base price of $37,700, or the price of 10 Maximas on Craigslist or eBay, each one of which would wipe the floor with this new behemoth in driving enjoyment.
Now, I know suggesting a manual transmission this late in the game is tantamount to heresy and financial suicide for Nissan, but if there were, for instance, a very limited run of six-speed manual-only Maximas and those were the top-trim, enthusiast-spec SR-appointed cars, the platform would be one of the best, if not the best handling and performing car on the front-wheel-drive sedan market. It would obliterate the competition and you could rightly tell Harry down the street with his flappy paddle Camry to eat it.
I won’t hold my breath, though.
My ultimate concern is that this car is such a poor offering for enthusiasts like myself that still have an emotional attachment to the Maxima namesake. It’s disconcerting that today’s young aspiring car lovers won’t associate the name with performance or driving fun. “Maxima” won’t mean anything, and that’s a damn shame.
Instead, they’ll see a car that over-promises and under-delivers at every shift; a long-in-the-tooth, past-its-prime platform that relies more on throwback nostalgia to garner its sales than actually delivering what its original customers didn’t know they sorely needed.
Nissan, you can do better.