Nissan's formula for success in coming years is easy to understand: more.
More power and more car than the competition for little or no more money.
The 2002 Maxima illustrates the philosophy, offering a segment-busting 260-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 along with a host of suspension and technical improvements for about the same price as the 222-horsepower model it replaces.
Introduced in 1981, the fifth-generation Maxima was completely redesigned and re-engineered for 2000 and gets only superficial style changes for 2002. But the stuff you don't see makes it a hoot to drive and should put it high on the consideration list of anyone who values performance.
One caveat: As part of a marketing strategy for its yet-to-be-introduced 2002 Altima, an all-new rendition of Nissan's bread-and-butter model with a screaming 240-horsepower V-6 option, the company is slashing Maxima production and offering it mainly in its pricier trim levels.
Nissan expects to sell about 110,000 of this year's Maxima, but is making only 80,000 of the 2002 models.
The budget-conscious might want to wait until mid-September for the V-6 Altima--which has slightly more interior room and almost as much punch as the Maxima.
If you don't want to wait, the new Maxima hits showrooms in early August in three trim levels--GXE, SE and GLE, with the latter two expected to account for 95% of sales.
All models get heftier front and rear anti-sway bars, a reworked rear suspension that Nissan says enhances cornering stability, speed-sensitive power steering and four-wheel disc brakes with four-channel anti-lock braking and electronically controlled brake-force distribution.
For its 21st birthday, Maxima also gets the bigger engine, with 246 pound-feet of torque available over a broad power range. The new engine is an enlarged version of the 3-liter V-6 that Ward's Auto World has named one of the industry's 10 best engines for seven consecutive years.
In addition to the increased displacement and oomph, the engine gets a silent timing chain and a throttle-by-wire system that uses electronic signals in place of the traditional cable linkage between the accelerator pedal and fuel injection. A backup electronic system provides emergency "limp home" throttle response in case something in the main system breaks.
In the transmission department, Nissan is providing a snappy 4-speed automatic as standard in the GXE and GLE, and as an option in the SE. The SE gets an all-new 6-speed close-ratio manual, but it won't be available until October. Until then, all SEs will come with the automatic.
On the outside, the 2002 Maxima gets clear taillight lenses, a new front grille and front air intake, new high-intensity discharge headlamps in a four-bulb configuration, and Nissan's expanded logo, which is about twice the size of the old one.
The SE and GLE also get 17-inch alloy wheels and speed-rated radials and fog lights. The base GXE gets 16-inch wheels.
Nissan packages the SE with body-color door handles, leather-wrapped steering wheel and rear spoiler, which some buyers probably will wish wasn't a standard feature.
The GLE gets power front seats, leather upholstery, automatic climate control and a 200-watt, seven-speaker Bose stereo with six-disc in-dash CD changer and speed-sensitive volume control.
As a driving machine, the Nissan doesn't match BMW's 3-Series, the car Nissan insiders say was the target they were shooting for. Maxima's suspension needs a lot more refinement to match the Bavarian.
The Nissan automatic is gated for easy gear selection by drivers who like to stir things around even without a manual, and its shifts are firm and fast. The manual works well too, but could use a more precise feel. The clutch takes some getting used to, with most of the grab coming at the very top of the pedal's travel.
Still, for a mid-size family sedan in the $25,000 to $28,000 price range (exact pricing is expected later this month), Maxima's performance-oriented power train and other sporty touches beat the heck out of the competition.
Final words: a real deal for the import-minded buyer who wants something more than a daily commuter car or a ho-hum family mover.
Times staff writer John O'Dell can be reached at email@example.com.
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2002 Nissan Maxima
* Pricing not announced. Expected to range from $25,000 to $28,000.
* Standard on base GXE includes dual-stage front air bags; cloth seating with front buckets and 60/40 split rear bench seat; power-adjustable driver's seat; tilt steering wheel that includes controls for audio system and cruise control; power windows and door locks with keyless remote; two 12-volt power outlets; air conditioning; power side mirrors; four-speed automatic transmission; 16-inch alloy wheels and P215/55R16H radial tires. SE model adds leather-wrapped steering wheel; sport-styled seat cloth; fog lamps; rear spoiler; 17-inch alloy wheels and P225/50R17V radial tires; titanium-colored instrument gauges; sport suspension; six-speed manual transmission. GLE model adds 17-inch alloy wheels with P215/55R17H radial tires; Bose seven-speaker stereo with cassette and six-disc, in-dash CD changer; automatic temperature control; leather seating; power front passenger seat; simulated wood trim.
* SE and GLE models include navigation system; traction control; power sunroof; heated front seats, steering wheel and side mirrors. On SE only, four-speed automatic transmission; limited slip differential; upgraded Bose stereo and CD changer; leather seats; automatic climate control.
* Front-engine, front-wheel-drive mid-size sedan with seating for up to five people.
* 19 miles per gallon city, 26 mpg highway with automatic; 21 mpg city and 28 mpg highway with manual, as estimated by Nissan.
* 3,248 to 3,305 pounds, depending on equipment.