First drive: 2016 Nissan Maxima Platinum

The 2016 Nissan Maxima is no sports car, but it's more electrifying than ever

With a 300-horsepower engine and gorgeous styling all around, the 2016 Maxima will have you smiling from ear to ear. It’s no sports car, but it doesn’t need to be.

I met my first Nissan Maxima in the early 2000s. I was walking down the sidewalk with a buddy of mine, on our way to the theater, when the sharp growl of a 3.0-liter V6 piqued our young interests. It was emanating from a fourth-gen A32 Maxima, a car known for its marriage of unassuming looks and surprising athleticism. Its award-winning engine barked to life, piercing through the silence as it leapt away from a stop, and our teenage voices cracked with excitement.

In recent years, the Maxima’s appearance has caught up with its speed, resulting in the best-looking — and best performing — version ever for 2016. Taking major styling cues from the bold Sport Sedan Concept, the vehicle features Nissan’s signature floating roof, a commanding V-Motion front end, and gorgeously carved profile lines running down the sides. It’s civilized and aggressive all in one.

Related link: Nissan’s 2015 Murano is the most stylish, charismatic crossover around

As I drove toward Woodinville, Washington to get behind the Maxima’s flat-bottom steering wheel for the first time, I was expecting a good car. However, looking at the spec sheet, which lists a mandatory CVT, front-wheel drive, and electric steering, I was skeptical of the vehicle’s “four-door sports car” (4DSC) moniker. But the proof is in the pudding, as they say, so I shuffled my way to Woodinville to give the sedan a go.

Sedan in a sports car costume

I flung my bronze four-door into the first corner and was impressed straight away. The Maxima is not a small car at 16 feet long, but it feels extraordinarily planted and agile for a big front-wheel driver. Weighing just 3,471 pounds in base trim, it’s actually 10 lbs lighter than the equivalent BMW 328i, despite being nearly a foot longer. Kudos to the redesigned platform for that, one that shaves 82 lbs off the previous version.

2016 Nissan Maxima Platinum
Andrew Hard/Digital Trends
Andrew Hard/Digital Trends

Exiting the corner with just a touch of understeer, I put my foot down and let the car’s 300-horsepower V6 do its thing. The VQ-series engine — which is 61-percent new for 2016 — sang its beautiful song in response, making the 190-hp powerplant that highlighted my teens seem like a Prius. For a moment, I forgot that the Maxima was equipped with a continuously variable transmission, because most of the time it doesn’t feel like one.

In recent years, the Maxima’s appearance has caught up with its speed.

The sedan’s XTronic CVT is new for 2016, and it’s tailored to be adaptable. At low speeds, it functions like many other CVTs, scanning the power band for the most efficient rev range. This shows in the four-door’s fuel economy ratings of 22 mpg city, 30 mpg highway, and 25 mpg combined. Premium fuel is recommended, though.

Smash the accelerator, and the car employs something called “D-Step Programming,” which engages eight simulated gears to emit a more traditional performance feel. The transmission sits above many of its counterparts with its smooth delivery and surprising responsiveness, and with 3.5 liters of displacement backing it up, there’s no rubber band feeling here.

That being said, the Maxima is not a sports car. It’s just not. Despite the savvy CVT, it’s not as punchy out of the corners as a traditional gearbox, and the electric steering — while nicely weighted — lacks the feedback and bite of a hydraulic or rack-and-pinion unit.

But behind the wheel, in the aircraft-inspired cabin, you won’t care that the 4DSC taillight logos are a big fat lie. You’ll be having too much fun. The Maxima is a sporty and well-crafted performance cruiser, and there’s not a dang thing wrong with that.

Blue Angels

My driving portion done, I settled into the passenger seat to let my partner take the reins. Speaking of seats, the Maxima’s ventilated Zero Gravity buckets are some of the nicest chairs in the biz, as they feature the perfect combination of adjustability, support, softness, and high-quality textiles. In a word, they’re luscious.

The handsome controls are right where they need to be.

To design the interior, Nissan’s development team traveled to the Naval Air Station Pensacola, home of the Blue Angels. I couldn’t locate the missile controls for the life of me, but the interior “command center” made me feel special. The console is rotated toward the driver like in the GT-R, and the handsome controls are right where they need to be. The “Mahogany” trim is a little chintzy though, so I’d opt for the “Liquid Chrome” inserts if you can.

An 8-inch touchscreen, 7-inch gauge cluster display, navigation system, backup camera, voice recognition, and 18-inch alloys all come standard, allowing the Maxima to compete with entry-luxury vehicles like the Audi A4, Acura TLX, and aforementioned 328i in some ways. If there’s one letdown, it’s the screen, which I found a little sluggish and jittery. It’s no worse than the other systems on the market, but if you’re expecting the same type of responsiveness you get on your smartphone or tablet … don’t.

2016 Nissan Maxima Platinum
Andrew Hard/Digital Trends
Andrew Hard/Digital Trends

The four-door also isn’t as roomy as you might think, especially for rear passengers. Without the Dual Panel Panoramic Moonroof, there’s 34.2 inches of legroom and 36.7 inches of headroom back there, and those numbers fall short of the Chevrolet Impala and Toyota Avalon.

Tech and packaging

Do you prefer a touchscreen or conventional dials in your ride? It’s no matter here because the 2016 Maxima has both.

Situated right behind the shifter is a nifty control wheel called a “Display Commander.” I preferred it to the touchscreen personally — not just for the awesome name — but because it allows you to scroll through the menus much more quickly. With it at my fingertips, access to the Bose sound system, SiriusXM radio, and NissanConnect subscription service was a snap.

Available in Platinum trim ($39,860) only, NissanConnect bundles remote start via smartphone, stolen vehicle location, and automatic collision notification with other functions. There’s even a Driver Attention Alert (DAA) system that measures steering wheel inputs and responses over time, and will prompt the operator to take a break if needed.

Nissan’s made the selection process a snap for the new car: five trim levels and no options outside of dealer accessories. As I hinted earlier, the $32,410 base model is well-equipped, featuring 15 inches of screen real estate, nav, a backup camera, and more as standard. Heated leather seats come along with the $34,390 SV version, while accoutrements like the moonroof, Bose stereo, Forward Emergency Braking, and Blind Spot warning are packaged with the $36,890 SL model.

Related link: Nissan’s Juke RSnow doesn’t care if winter is coming or going

Designed for adrenaline junkies, an oddball SR trim is available for $37,670 as well. The tuned suspension is unique, as are the 19-inch rims, paddle shifters, and Integrated Dynamics-control Module (IDM), which uses brake inputs to level out the somewhat jittery over bumps and rough surfaces. If you can’t live without the 360-degree Around View monitor, DAA system, power rear window sunshade, or NissanConnect, you’ll have to pony up for flagship Platinum variant.

Conclusion

After piloting the Maxima around Woodinville’s sun-soaked backroads, I had a chance to hop in Nissan’s 370Z Nismo. Now thats a sports car. It’s simple, fun, and if we’re being honest, a bit silly. The Maxima is not silly. It’s fun, sure, but it’s smooth, refined, and civilized — the perfect choice for someone who’s moved on from enormous rear wings and exhaust cutouts but still wants something exciting to cruise around in.

Thus, the car is best judged with a blank slate, not by its 4DSC badging. Using that metric, it’s a smashing success, and simply more interesting than its competition from Toyota, Chevrolet, Chrysler, and Ford.

The growl is still there, too; that same growl that I heard in my youth. It’s a different tone, and it comes from a different shape, but I have no doubt it will inspire plenty of “oohs” and “ahhs” at stoplights in the years to come.

Highs

  • Splendid acceleration and handling for a car of its size
  • XTronic transmission is one of the best CVTs out there
  • “Cockpit-like” cabin is sharp, comfy, and well-designed
  • Looks great
  • 30 mpg highway

Lows

  • Infotainment touchscreen is sluggish at times
  • Bulky A-pillar slightly hinders forward visibility
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