2020 Nissan Maxima SR: Still The Sporty Benchmark

Before the rise of sportbacks and four-door sedans with coupe-like styling, there were only a handful of car styles. Those included sedans, hatchbacks, and coupes. Of course, convertibles were around, but those aren’t important right now. The waters started to get murky once German automakers introduced sedans with sloping rooflines and created an entire segment of Gran Coupe models. So, when Nissan refers to the Maxima as a four-door sports car, the majority of people will probably smirk.

2020 Nissan Maxima

“No way is that Maxima a four-door sports car,” thinks the driver behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz CLA. “This is a real sports car and so is that new BMW 2-Series Gran Coupe.” I’m sure that’s how every CLA owner talks when no one’s around and a Maxima pulls up out of the blue.

Either way, while few will actually look at the Maxima and think that it’s a true four-door sedan, the claim was a bold one back in the day when things were simpler. The main question I wanted to answer when Nissan let me borrow a Maxima SR for a week centered around this whole four-door sports car thing. Does the Maxima really hit all of the same notes as a purpose-built, two-door machine that’s only purpose in life is to make you smile? The answer is resoundingly a no. But that’s mostly because my definition of a sports car is a vehicle that has two doors and whose sole purpose is to boggle your mind with breath-taking performance. Outside of that reasoning, the Maxima certainly makes a case for itself as a sporty sedan for consumers that have grown up, but still look for cars as a way to get a rush of endorphins.

2020 Nissan Maxima

The Maxima SR Nissan let us borrow had minimal options, but still managed to cost $44,030. That’s quite a lot of money for a large sedan, but at the end of the day, spending that kind of cash on a Maxima is a better option than buying any kind of sporty SUV.

Performance

This is where sports cars really flex their muscles. You don’t spend your hard-earned money on a sports car that has lackluster performance. If performance isn’t high up on the list of priorities, then it’s not really a sports car. Whether you’ve pulled a lawn chair into your garage or out for a drive without a destination in mind, sports cars are all about chasing that high without using drugs.  

2020 Nissan Maxima

In this regard, the Maxima is kind of a mixed bag and it’s where the sports car name doesn’t make much sense. No, the Maxima won’t performance like a sports car – even a low-powered one in a straight line. But, and this is a big one, the Maxima is the sportiest option in the large sedan class. Up against options like the Kia Cadenza and Toyota Avalon (the Dodge Charger is kind of an interesting beast), it’s clear to see and feel just how much of an oddball the Maxima is – kind of like the Aye-Aye. 

Under the hood of the Maxima is a 3.5-liter V6 engine that produces 300 horsepower from a trusty VQ series of engines. Beyond being able to hurl the Maxima down the road in a sprightly manner, the V6 produces a guttural noise that will be familiar to anyone that’s ever been in one of Nissan’s cars with a V6 engine. Up against the Charger, 300 hp doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s plenty quick enough on the open road. So, the Maxima’s got the power.  

2020 Nissan Maxima

Then, there’s the way the Maxima handles around corners. For a large sedan, the Maxima comes with stiff suspension and a rigid chassis that results in a surprisingly sharp vehicle when turns arise. Large sedans are, well, large. Their massive bodies usually result in copious amounts of roll and a lackluster experience on a windy road. None of this is true with the Maxima. There’s very little roll and the combination of the stiff ride and burly V6 result in a sedan that feels like it’s got the heart of a sports car. Handling? Check, the Maxima’s got that, too.

But, and there’s a massive, big ol’ but here, the CVT is downright horrific. The CVT in the Maxima should be the star of a horror movie, because it’s scarier than some invisible entity that’s chasing you down at 3:33 AM. It’s dimwitted, slow to act, provides simulated shifts oddly, has copious amounts of rev hang, and a terrible partner to the V6 engine. CVTs are getting better and for the majority of drivers they’re fine. But in a sports car, where the whole vehicle’s identity is being sporty, CVTs sap every ounce of joy out of the equation. It’s unfortunate, because a standard six-speed automatic would’ve been better than the CVT. Good gearbox? Nope, big red X here.

2020 Nissan Maxima

So, here’s where it becomes difficult to classify the Maxima. It’s sportier than other options, actually pushes you to go quicker around corners, and looks darn good. So, in some ways it’s kind of like a four-door sports car. But that gosh darn CVT is awful and I’m left wanting more power and rear-wheel drive to fully make the dive into calling the sedan a sports car. Maybe I’m getting too hung up on the whole title, but epithets are important. The Maxima certainly has some traits to warrant the confusing label, but as a whole, you won’t want to use the fact that you own a Maxima as a fun fact about yourself and refer to it as a sports car.

Interior

The Maxima is old, but the interior is still gorgeous. The quilted leather seats are fantastically comfortable, and the seating position for all of the seats are low in the vehicle. The positioning of the driver’s seat is especially noteworthy for being nearly perfect. And then there are the little things, like the D-shaped steering wheel, which has Alcantara and the massive metal shift paddles. Combine all of these things with orange stitching and metal pedals and you really do get the feeling that you’re in a sports car.

2020 Nissan Maxima

Because of the Maxima’s design and age, there are a few flaws. In the back, the middle seat is unusable for passengers over 5-feet tall because your head will be smushed up against the roof. Don’t go looking for the latest infotainment system in the Maxima, either. The screen is ancient and despite coming with Apple CarPlay, our test vehicle simply refused to register our plugged in iPhone.

2020 Nissan Maxima

The upside with the old infotainment system means that it’s really easy to use. While there’s a dial that you can use to control the infotainment system, you don’t have to, because it’s a touch screen and there are hard buttons for nearly every function. Sometimes, old can be good, and in the Maxima’s case, having a simple infotainment system doesn’t hurt its overall appeal.

Exterior

Warning, unpopular opinion coming. Nissan hasn’t updated the Maxima since 2015 and from the outside, it doesn’t really need to. This sedan is still gorgeous, all these years later. Its combination of flowing lines and dramatic edges means it draws the right amount of attention. People won’t take photos of the Maxima at a gas station, but your narcolepsy won’t kick in when you peek out the window to catch a glimpse of the sedan on your driveway.

2020 Nissan Maxima

The quad exhaust outlets, rear diffuser, black wheels, and black rear spoiler are just great. And in this shade of Orange, the Maxima manages to be stunning. Based on age alone, the Maxima could use an update, but this thing is the 50-year-old Victoria Secret model that’s still got it.

Conclusion

The 2020 Nissan Maxima is an interesting proposition in the large sedan segment. Nearly every other option in the class has moved toward being luxurious, offering smooth powertrains and a serene ride. That isn’t the case with the Maxima, which continues to be a rough-edged sword. Its V6 is raw, its ride harsh, and the way it handles is astonishing. It really does have a raucous nature that enjoys being thrashed around corner after corner. The one massive drawback that’s holding the Maxima back from being the best sporty four-door sedan for adults is its CVT.

2020 Nissan Maxima

Still, unless you have six figures to spend on a German sedan or want to roll the dice by trying to find a needle in a haystack on Autotrader by searching for an American sedan with a V8 engine and a manual transmission, you’re almost locked into the Maxima. Sedans, specifically sporty ones, have come a long way over the past few decades. But they all owe a big thanks to the Maxima, even if the 2020 model isn’t as sporty or as enjoyable to drive as the third-gen model that was introduced for the 1989, which proudly wore a “4DSC” (four-door sports car) decal.  

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