Crucial Cars: Nissan Maxima

From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without. In this installment, we go in-depth on perhaps the first affordable performance sedan of the modern era: the Nissan Maxima.

1989 Nissan Maxima photo

Do you know about the original four-door sports car? We're talking about the Nissan Maxima, of course -- but a lot of people would have guessed something else. If you want to talk about cars that don't get enough credit for being cool, the Maxima's right up there at the top. This car should be a legend in its own time, yet all it is to most folks today is an overgrown Altima with a price tag to match. But we're not talking about the current Maxima, see, or even the previous one; we're talking about that sweet spot back in the 1990s, when the Maxima gave you performance you couldn't get anywhere else for the price. So we're going to take a minute and set the record straight. We also want to talk about some cool mods that Maxima owners are still rocking on the street.

4DSC

Wearing that simple acronym—4 Door Sports Car—on a sticker affixed to its rear window, the 1989 Nissan Maxima started a revolution. Actually, some would argue it was the preceding Maxima (1984-'88) that commenced the true sportiness, what with its 3.0-liter V6 engine and available adaptive suspension, and you could even go back to the first two generations (1976-'84), which shared their powertrains with the iconic Z two-seater. But if you ask us, the official beginning of the Maxima's dominance was when they slapped that "4DSC" sticker on the window. Nissan had brought together the strengths of the earlier models into a cohesive whole, and the result was the perfect antidote to the common Camry. What made the 4DSC Maxima so great? Styling, for one thing. Even after almost three decades, this is one slick-looking sedan, with smooth lines that clearly distinguish it from its blocky, '80s-tastic predecessor. But the real star was the SE model, which featured a 190-horsepower 3.0-liter V6 that put it in the upper echelon of performance sedans. If you wanted a quicker midsize four-door in those days, you had to go European -- and even then, the Maxima SE had a fighting chance. Consider this: with the five-speed manual transmission, the Maxima SE did zero to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds. Shoot, the Mercedes-Benz E420 with its 275-hp V8 would have had a hard time keeping up. Naturally, this Maxima cost a fraction of what the Europeans were charging, and it also offered cool stuff like a legit sport-tuned suspension, a Bose audio system, a sunroof and attractive alloy wheels. The icing on the cake was its incredible reliability, with 200,000-mile-plus specimens becoming increasingly common as the years went on. Check out this vintage commercial on the 1989 Nissan Maxima: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YfSiS1M3MfA

The Torsion Beam Fiasco and General Decline

To be fair, the subsequent Maxima (1995-'99) was a great car, too, even though it carried over the SE's 190-hp V6 (now standard on all models) and didn't really break new ground otherwise. That was still good enough to make it the enthusiast's choice over the humdrum family sedans in its class. But some bemoaned its droopy rear-end styling, and even more shook their heads at its solid-axle torsion beam rear suspension, an explicit cost-cutting move that effectively conceded the handling crown to the previous car with its four-wheel independent setup. The "4DSC" sticker had disappeared from the rear window, and that wasn't a coincidence. To this Maxima's credit, reliability remained a strong point, and many are still on the road today with insanely high miles. But it wasn't as awesome as its predecessor, and unfortunately that was the start of a trend. Since then, each subsequent Maxima has grown more powerful but less engaging, culminating with the current model, which comes only with a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) and is indeed little more than an overgrown Altima.2014 Nissan Maxima photo

But for a decade or so, the Maxima was the best affordable performance sedan that money could buy. When you look around today at high-powered midsizers like the Accord V6 and Camry V6, you gotta give a little nod to the four-door sports car, the granddaddy of them all.

Street Mods for your Maxima

If you want to put your finger on the pulse of the Maxima community, check out the forums. They break it down by generation, and if you look at the two we highlighted -- 1989-'94 and 1995-'99 -- they've got tens of thousands more threads than the rest. No offense if you own a different Maxima, but we weren't kidding that those are the ones to have. Now, supposing you want to put your personal stamp on your Maxima, there's no end to the possibilities. Slap a turbo kit on it for more power? No problem, the powertrain's certainly robust enough for that. Crazy subwoofers in the trunk? Been there, done that, with extensive DIYs in the forums. You'll see a lot of the '89-'94 models slammed to within a millimeter of their lives, and some of them look damn good, too. Ground effects, sick rims -- you name it, the Maxima can rock it. The best part is, these cars are so old that you can buy one for a song, leaving you plenty in the bank to customize to your heart's content.

Tell Us Your Maxima Story The Maxima is a car that engenders serious loyalty. We know a number of "Maxima families," and all of them got started with one of the early models that never let them down. Have you had that kind of Maxima experience? Tell us about it in the comments.

Last updated June 8, 2017

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