2010 Nissan Maxima review

We always were taught not to make fun of people's names. Somehow, I've always felt the same rule applied to cars.

However, when driving the 2010 Nissan Maxima SV recently, I realized what an appropriate name it has. To me, Maxima denotes something that's the top of the line. (Just as Altima, the next in the Nissan line, denotes a vehicle that aspires to that top spot.) In contrast, I can't even remember the name of Suzuki's appealing new sedan, the Kizashi, much less intuitively get a message from it.

Years ago, just about the time I really started to appreciate the Maxima sedan, Nissan "promoted'' it to, for lack of a better word, the executive level. The reason was to make room for the 2002 Altima, which had grown from a compact vehicle to a mid-sized car and was the rising star in the Nissan product lineup.

The strategy worked then and continues to work now. Nissan sold 203,568 Altimas in 2009, more than its two smaller sedans - the Versa and Sentra - combined.

But just because the Altima was so successful, Nissan saw no reason to drop its Maxima sedan. They decided that the larger car still had a place in its sales strategy. Last year, Nissan introduced a total redesign of the Maxima as a 2009 model. That new Maxima sold 53,351 units. Those buyers made a good choice, and those who buy the tweaked and improved 2010 version also seem to be making a good purchase.

We tested a 2010 Maxima SV during the late-February rains that pummeled Eastern Massachusetts. It proved to be a worthy sedan on all fronts, though it's not quite the "sports sedan'' that it's billed as by Nissan. The company offers a "Sports'' package with stiffer suspension and 19-inch wheels that give the Maxima a sportier look and ride; however, there's no manual transmission offered. Nor does Nissan offer an all-wheel-drive version.

Instead, drivers will have to settle for Nissan's excellent CVT (continuously variable transmission), which smoothly transfers the 290 horsepower and 261 lb.-ft. of torque from the Maxima's acclaimed V-6 engine through the front wheels. There was no problem with "torque steer,'' a situation where the front wheels fight each other under heavy acceleration.

Nissan recommends premium fuel for maximum performance. We didn't try regular; however, I'd try it if it were my own vehicle, watching closely for a noticeable drop in performance and keeping an ear alert for any engine pinging or knocking.

On the road, the Maxima's steering was precise and the sedan handled itself nicely over Greater Boston's pot-holed and bumpy late-winter roadways.

Mrs. G's initial reaction on getting into the Maxima's passenger seat was, "It speaks luxury." Those few words say a lot.

Nissan calls the Maxima's interior a "super cockpit." That description conjures a claustrophobic feeling to me, but the opposite turned out to be the case. The interior was spacious and luxurious with leather seats and wheel, nice quality eucalyptus wood trim throughout, and generally intuitive controls.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise was that the Maxima had an optional heated steering wheel. Not only was the wheel heated, but it also was leather-wrapped and contained illuminated cruise-control and audio buttons. If you've never experienced a heated steering wheel, you'll find it as welcome as a heated seat, especially if you're a driver who is constantly in and out of the car or finds it difficult to use other controls while wearing gloves. The only downside is that the switch is low and to the left of the steering wheel, requiring you to look down to activate it lest you hit the adjacent remote trunk release by mistake.

Our Maxima didn't have either the sport ($2,030) or premium ($3,230) packages. However, it did have some added starters, including the $1,850 technology package (navigation system), $700 monitor package (rear-view monitor), and $400 cold-weather package (heated seats, outside mirrors, steering wheel). A set of mats and a destination charge finished taking the $33,180 base price to $37,030.

It used to be that I'd balk at the cost of the Nav system/rear-view monitor; however, I've come to appreciate them, especially in backing out of spaces in large parking lots. Avoiding a fender-bender and the attendant aggravation and surcharges has its own value, depending on how cautious you are behind the wheel.

Our Maxima had a USB port in the center console, and we quickly found it to be extremely iPhone and iPod friendly, the equal of any interface we've seen.

My perception was that the Maxima had grown, but its dimensions - 190.6-inch overall length and 109.3-inch wheelbase - are virtually the same as the Altima's. Instead, it's the combination of near-luxury and performance that sets the Maxima into a niche where it will compete with the likes of the upscale Acura TL, Audi A4, Hyundai Genesis, Lexus IS 250, Volkswagen CC, and even the corporate sibling, the Infiniti G37.

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