Pros: 255hp, available SE suspension, reliability, spaciousness, not a Camry
Cons: Styling quirks, torque steer, Hard to get some options w/o others, ride (SE)
The 2002 Nissan Maxima now sports a 255 hp 3.5L V-6 instead of the previous models' 3.0 L version. It also has some minor styling changes. The Maxima aimed at competing with high end Camrys and Accords, though in SE form it is somewhat more expensive and capable than either. While the Maxima is a great car that will never make you sorry you bought one, it missed in just enough areas to keep me from buying one.
EXTERIOR: The Maxima isn't ugly. In fact, in SE form, with 17" wheels and wider tires, it is somewhat aggressive looking. From some angles, it's attractive. But it also has some very bad angles that just don't work for me. Fit and finish on the exterior is good, like most Nissan products. I'm not a fan of the snout nose or the tail lights on this car, but I do like the general stance of the car, and I like it better than the Camry or Accord. I prefer the VW Passat for looks by a longshot, however.
INTERIOR: The Maxima had decently nice materials for its price class. Especially when you lay off the options, it seems well appointed for the price. I found the Leather seats comfortable and reasonably supportive. When comparing the Maxima to the new Altima, please note that the leather in the Maxima is MUCH better than that in the Altima, which resembles coated paper more than any hide I'm familiar with. These seats are wide enough for comfort, but not totally flat. No, they're not sports seats, but this is really more of a multi-use family car than a pure sports sedan, so that's fine with me. The car comes well appointed, with most of the goodies folks expect in this class. Unlike true luxury sedans, it doesn't have a telescoping wheel, memory seats, or climate control. But that's not a big deal to me. The Maxima is quite spacious for its weight. The much more pricey BMW 540i weighs 500 lbs more but seems smaller inside. But then again, some of that weight is engine and a stronger structure. The optional Bose stereo system was disappointing. It didn't sound that great, especially for the $1,000 plus price tag.
SIDEBAR: This brings me to a problem that as much as anything else turned me off to the Maxima. Despite making a lot of them, Nissan does not allow you to option out a Maxima the way you want. Want side airbags? You have to get the Bose stereo upgrade and the Sunroof package. That's nearly $2000 on options I may not want. Want leather seats? Again, you've got to take the Bose and sunroof. Want traction control? You'd better get it, because this car has too much torque not to have it! Well, you now have to get the "meridian edition" option as well as side airbags. You see my point. I found that I had to get a loaded Maxima to get the things I did want like side airbags and traction control. With the various options, the Maxima now drives out (tax, tag, etc) at nearly $30,000, even with the substantial discounts now available. Whoa. Suddenly it's not such a great value. I'd prefer the VW GLX with aftermarket 17" wheels/tires for just a little more. As a $25,000 car, the Maxima has more appeal to me than a $30,000 car. But then it's more of a mundane ride, sans airbags, stereo, sunroof, etc.
PERFORMANCE: Of course the extra horsepower makes this car faster than before. More than adequate, in my book. The front wheel drive system is unfortunate, because it suffers from some pretty nasty torque steer when starting out into traffic. There are also some potential handling dynamic problems with fwd, but I don't notice them since I don't drive to the extreme like that. Handling is crisp and responsive, with little of the body roll found on other models in this class. The tradeoff, however, is a rather buckboard-like ride over and some tire rumble. The solid rear axle is somewhat old-fashioned, and I expect future Maximas to have rear wheel drive and an independent rear suspension. If you like driving for fun, pick the SE model. If you drive slow and smooth, you may prefer the GLE. This is not a BMW. Unfortunately you have to choose good handling OR a nice ride. It doesn't achieve both.
RELIABILITY, DEALERS, RESALE: Nissans are very reliable cars. You should expect few major problems and a hassle-free ownership experience. My local dealer has a good reputation for sales and service. My impression is that this is where Nissan has an edge on Toyota, which in my experience has some of the best vehicles and worst dealers out there. The 3yr/36K bumper to bumper warranty is only average, but Nissan also extends the warranty on the powertrain till 50K miles. One area in which the Maxima falls off some is resale value. They drop quite a bit in value compared to some other makes, but they aren't terrible. Just be sure you want to keep it for the long run. If leasing, you might find an entry level luxury car like the Acura TL , Audi A4, or the BMW 3 series close enough in price to warrant a look. (the acura is similarly priced anyway)
Safety on the Maxima is good, but not the best out there. Crash tests are ok, but I prefer a somewhat more solidly built car like the VW Passat.
Overall, I like the Maxima. It just doesn't quite cut in in terms of safety, styling, refinement, and personality when fully equipped. It's just close enough in price for me to choose a slighly more expensive luxury branded car. It's a very good choice for the practical minded who want a little more personality and fun than an appliance-like Accord or Camry offers. I don't have kids, so space isn't a big issue, but I prefer the similarly sized VW Passat. It's not as reliable, not as fast, and not as feature packed, but it's safer, better looking, and has a certain undefinable quality that makes it more fun to own.