Japan's Nissan continues its strong comeback from the financial brink of just a few years ago. The resurgence fueled by a succession of impressive new vehicles.
Nissan's mid-size sedan, the Altima, signaled the new era for the company here in the United States. Pleasingly styled and powerful, Altima won several awards including North American Car of the Year in 2002.
So, where did that leave the company's popular Maxima sedan? Nissan North America spokeswoman Lisa Cook says it was in no danger.
"When Altima came out in '02, we had the four-cylinder [version] and the six-cylinder," she said. "And so some people thought, because of that, because it was going to take the role of the volume leader, that Maxima would go away. But we never had plans to do away with Maxima."
The Nissan Maxima has been around for 23 years and, says Lisa Cook, has a large and loyal customer base.
"What people love about the Maxima is it is a sports car with four doors and it basically is the best that we have to offer," she said.
The new version for 2004 is boldly styled, in keeping with Nissan's stated approach of having no boring products.
With an award-winning, 3.5-liter 265-horsepower V-6 engine coupled with a smooth-shifting six-speed manual transmission, our test car was an eager performer. Handling is light and precise, the ride pleasantly firm.
A criticism Maxima shares with sister-car Altima: materials used in the interior, some plastics and door-panel covering, seem almost flimsy, cheap-looking and not in keeping with a car in this price range. And, as Lisa Cook says, Maxima has moved up.
"We are not competing with the [Honda] Accord and [Toyota] Camry V-6's anymore," she said. "We're letting Altima take that territory. But where we see Maxima going is more the Acura TL, the Avalon - that's Toyota's flagship - so we compete with them, the Audi A-4 and, from a domestic standpoint, we see some Chrysler 300-M consumers."
Base price for a Maxima is just under $27,000. The GSE sporty version we drove comes in at just over $31,000.
The first car we ever test-drove as VOA's automotive reporter was a Nissan Maxima. Nine years later, this latest generation remains true to its heritage: a practical sedan that's good to look at and fun to drive. That's no small achievement.