2004 Nissan Maxima SE
Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Greg Wilson

The Nissan Maxima was, arguably, the first Japanese six cylinder luxury performance sedan sold in North America, pre-dating “near-luxury” cars like the Acura Legend by about seven years. Toyota did offer the Crown and the Cressida, and Mazda the 929, but these sedans were more luxury cars than performance cars.

The Nissan Maxima began as an uplevel trim of the 1981 Datsun 810 – a rear-drive, mid-size sedan with a fully independent suspension, four-wheel-disc brakes, and the 240Z’s inline 2.4 litre six cylinder engine under the hood. In 1982, the 810 badge was replaced with “Maxima”, and a five-speed manual transmission was made available in addition to the automatic – a trend that continued with all future Maximas. Maxima’s switched to front-wheel-drive in 1984, and a V6 was introduced in 1989. There have been six generations in all, and since 1995, Infiniti has been offering an almost identical car called the I30 and I35.

2004 Nissan Maxima SE
Click image to enlarge

Until this year, the Maxima was built in Japan on its own platform, but for 2004, the Maxima shares the new Altima’s platform, suspension and basic V6 drivetrain and is built in the same plant in Smyrna, Tennessee. For some Maxima enthusiasts, this is a hard pill to swallow. The Maxima is no longer an independent, made-in-Japan sports sedan – it’s now kind of a fancy Altima.

Doubtless, Nissan made the change to save on manufacturering costs. Even then, some critics wonder if the Maxima can survive given the fact that the Altima is a similar car with almost as much horsepower – and Nissan’s luxury division Infiniti, is still offering the front-drive I35 and the new rear-drive G35 luxury sport sedans.

Still, the new Maxima is less expensive than many Japanese and European sports sedans, and as before, occupies a special niche somewhere between uplevel family sedans and entry-level luxury sedans.

The Maxima lineup

2004 Nissan Maxima SE

2004 Nissan Maxima SE
Click image to enlarge

For 2004, the Maxima comes in two trim levels, SE and SL, with the SE available with four or five passenger seating. The four passenger SE model is new, and has some special features which I’ll tell you about in a moment.

The basic SE 5 seater starts at $34,500, and includes a good selection of standard features with the notable exception of leather upholstery. Power comes from Nissan’s 265 horsepower 3.5 litre V6 (20 more horsepower than the Altima SE V6) an engine that has been voted one of the world’s “Ten Best Engines” by Ward’s Auto World magazine. Maxima SE 5-seat models also come with a standard 6 speed manual transmission or optional 5-speed automatic with manual mode; a limited slip front differential (with manual transmission only), disc brakes with ABS and brake assist and electronic brake differential at all four wheels, fully independent suspension with firmer springs, struts and shocks, and 18 inch V-rated tires with alloys.

Inside there’s a new “Skyview Roof” which consists of two front and rear sunroofs that don’t open, but allow light into the front and rear seating areas. They do have sliding sunshades for those times when you don’t want sunlight. Other standard features on the SE 5-seater are cloth upholstery, 60/40 folding rear seatbacks, a 320-watt 8-speaker Bose premium audio system with AM/FM/cassette and 6-disc in-dash CD changer, heated front seats and 8-way power driver’s seat, dual-zone automatic climate control, power windows and locks, and front, side and head airbags.

Options on the SE 5-seat model include leather upholstery, sliding glass sunroof, stability control and traction control (with auto transmission only), power lumbar on the driver’s seat, power tilt/telescopic steering wheel, HID headlamps, and rear spoiler.

The new Maxima 3.5 SE 4 seat model, $38,700, has two rear heated bucket seats separated by twin centre armrests with storage containers and a 12 volt power outlet. Two cupholders reside under a couple of flip-up doors. There is a lockable centre rear ski pass-through, but no folding rear seatbacks on the 4-seat model. Other unique standard features on the 4-seat model include a power rear sunshade, and auto power up/down rear windows with an “anti-pinch” feature. It should be noted that the “Skyview Roof” is standard on the 4-seat model, but unlike the 5-seat model, a sliding glass sunroof is not available as an option.

2004 Nissan Maxima SE

2004 Nissan Maxima SE

2004 Nissan Maxima SE

2004 Nissan Maxima SE

2004 Nissan Maxima SE

2004 Nissan Maxima SE

2004 Nissan Maxima SE
Click image to enlarge

Reflecting its higher price, the SE 4-seat model includes many features which are optional on the 5-seat model, such as leather seats, power tilt/telescopic steering wheel, 4-way power front passenger seat, power lumbar and memory function on the driver’s seat, compass, HID projector beam headlamps, rear spoiler, and folding outside mirrors. In addition, the SE 4-seat model is available with an optional DVD-based navigation system with 7 inch screen. The 5-seat model is not available with this option.

At the top of the Maxima pecking order is the 3.5 SL, $39,300, which has a more softly sprung suspension, a standard 4-speed automatic transmission, 17 inch tires and alloy wheels, wood trim and aluminum sills, stability control, power sliding sunroof, HID headlamps, and leather upholstery. The only options on this car are the navigation system and traction control.


Now based on the Altima, the new Maxima is bigger inside and outside than the previous model. A 73 mm (2.9 inch) increase in the wheelbase and a vehicle width increase of 36 mm (1.4 inches) provides a much roomier cabin, especially for rear passengers. Trunk space has also increased slightly from 15.1 cu. ft. to 15.5 cu. ft.

The front seats offer good side and thigh support – and I liked the power lumbar adjustment for variable middle back support. The six-speed shifter is conveniently-positioned for reach but its semi leather-metal shift knob feels somewhat uncomfortable on the palm of your hand. Though I drove this car in the summer, the heatable steering wheel and heated front leather seats will doubtless be a blessing on a cold winter’s morning.

Ahead of the driver, the three-pod instrument cluster is similar to other new Nissan’s, but it doesn’t tilt up and down with the steering wheel like the others do. Still, its bright orange numerals – lit even when the headlights are off – are easy to read. Outward visibility is generally good although the rear deck is a bit higher than I would have liked.

The centre console is finished in a silver, metal-like finish which looks a bit stark to my eyes. The optional navigation screen is located at the top of the console, and just below it are the navigation, stereo and heater controls. There are also radio and cruise button on the steering wheel spokes. The navigation screen has a bright, colourful display that’s easy to read, and includes your current location and address – although as you can see, the system didn’t know the address of the golf course I was using as a photo backdrop. The screen can be viewed in different scales, and the lowest scale displays the names of all the streets surrounding your immediate location. The system is easy to operate, using a button to scroll across the map and enter your destination. Visual and audible messages tell you when and where to turn to arrive at your destination.

The navigation screen also displays the time, outside temperature, radio station, and temperature setting for the driver/passenger automatic climate control.

Rear passengers in the SE 4-seat model get special attention, starting with seat warmers, a must with leather upholstery in the winter. Rear occupants also have cupholders under flip-up covers, separate centre armrests with storage, a power point for cell phones or games, auto up/down power rear windows, and a power rear sunshade. The rear bucket seats are more comfortable and supportive than a traditional bench seat, and legroom and headroom are OK for adults.

The twin glass roof panels did provide more interior light, and are somewhat of a novelty for rear passengers. But there was always an urge to open them during nice weather, and this they won’t do.

Driving impressions

The new Maxima feels bigger than the old one, which it is, and not quite as maneouverable – yet with its new independent multi-link rear suspension which replaces the torsion-beam rear suspension, (stiffened slightly in the SE model), the Maxima has terrific handling and control over twisty, bumpy turns, and offers a high level of grip. Its Goodyear Eagle RSA 245/45R-18 inch V-rated all-season tires (upgraded from 17 inch last year) can take a lot of the credit, but overall its the front strut/rear multi-link suspension that’s responsible for the new Maxima’s improved handling and ride. We’re not talking 3-Series here, but among front-wheel-drive luxury sedans, its very competitive.

2004 Nissan Maxima SE

2004 Nissan Maxima SE
Click image to enlarge

The Maxima’s 3.5 litre DOHC 24-valve V6 has ten more horsepower than last year: 265 horsepower @ 5800 rpm and 255 lb-ft torque at 4400 rpm compared to 255 horsepower at 5800 rpm and 246 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm in the 2003 Maxima. The increase in power and torque was created, in part, by modifying the intake duct and exhaust muffler. The 3.5 litre engine, which is also seen in the Altima, Quest, G35 and 350Z, features continuous variable valve timing control, a variable air induction system, and electronically controlled throttle.

Nissan quotes a 0 to 60 mph time of 6.8 seconds – that’s quick, but the new Maxima weighs 100 kg (220 lb.) more than the 2003 Maxima, so it can’t be much quicker even with 10 more horsepower.

The six-speed manual shifter offers acceptable, if not exceptional shifting action with medium length throws and relatively easy effort. However, I found clutch engagement abrupt with a rather high engagement point. I had trouble shifting smoothly without a conscious effort to do so.

My biggest complaint was with the steering. Its engine-speed sensitive rack and pinion power steering has a strong return-to-centre motion, which I found too severe. For example, when exiting a corner, the steering wheel attempts to straighten the car out immediately – you have to hold it firmly to allow a smooth exit from the corner. As well, the published turning circle of 40 feet is not exactly tight – and Consumer Reports quotes the turning circle as 44 feet.

So though the Maxima has lots of power and a great suspension, the jerky clutch and uneven steering prevent it from being a great sport sedan.


If you exclude luxury brands like Acura and Lexus, the Maxima has only a few competitors: the 200 horsepower VW Passat GLX 5-speed ($39,175), 220 horsepower Mazda6 GT V6 5 speed ($31,995), and automatic-equipped versions of the 240 horsepower Honda Accord V6 ($32,500), 210 horsepower (soon to be 225 horsepower) Toyota Camry SE-V6 ($30,755), and 240 horsepower Pontiac Grand Prix GTP ($33,260). Among the luxury brands, the 200 horsepower Acura TSX ($35,000), 260 horsepower Acura 3.2TL Type S ($41,800), 215 horsepower Lexus IS300 ($37,775), and 210 horsepower Lexus ES300 ($43,800) may also be considered competitors. then are the European sport sedans – I could go on and on.

As you can see, the Maxima has more horsepower than its competitors. It’s also one of the roomiest cars in its class, and one of the best-equipped when it comes to standard equipment. But it doesn’t have quite the powertrain refinement and attention to interior detail found on many of its competitors.


A kind of a “super Altima”, the new 2004 Nissan Maxima SE-4 seat model is a roomy sports sedan that treats its two rear passengers very well. The Maxima’s considerable power and spirited handling is somewhat spoiled by a sensitive clutch and uneven steering feel.

Technical Data: 2004 Nissan Maxima SE

Base price $38,700
Freight $972
Options $3,400 (Navigation system with DVD, 7 inch display)
Price as tested $43,072
Type 4-door, 4-passenger mid-size sedan
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 3.5 litre V6, DOHC, 24 valves, CVVT
Horsepower 265 @ 5800 rpm
Torque 255 @ 4400 rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual
Tires P245/45R18 V-rated all-season
Curb weight 1571 kg (3463 lb.)
Wheelbase 2825 mm (111.2 in.)
Length 4915 mm (193.5 in.)
Width 1821 mm (71.7 in.)
Height 1481 mm (58.3 in.)
Trunk capacity 439 litres (15.5 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 11.5 l/100 km (25 mpg)
  7.3 l/100 km (39 mpg)
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain Warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

Connect with Autos.ca