2004 Nissan Maxima SE
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 5-passenger 4-door sedan
Engine: 3.5L (3,498 cc) DOHC V-6, aluminum block/aluminum heads
Power (SAE net): 265 hp @ 5,800 rpm
Torque: 255 lb.-ft. (346 Nm) @ 4,400 rpm
Compression ratio: 10.3:1
Bore × Stroke (mm): 95.5 × 81.4
Transmission: 5-speed automatic/6-speed manual
Wheelbase: 111.2 ins. (282 cm)
Overall length: 193.5 ins. (491 cm)
Overall width: 71.7 ins. (182 cm)
Overall height: 58.3 ins. (148 cm)
Curb weight: 3,432 lbs. (1,557 kg)
Market competition: Acura TL; Audi A4; Saab 9-3; Volvo V60

Image is the name of the game at the reborn Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. And the '04 Maxima sedan is pulling double duty — slotted to serve both as the Nissan brand's flagship near-luxury entry as well as a performance sedan.

It works: The all-new Maxima — with its combination of blistering acceleration and high-end innovations — convinces as an image-builder in both categories.

The job is made easier by Maxima's new, bold exterior design. After 23 years, the always-powerful car has shed its historically unassuming shell for a sporty, coupe-like design — a nod to Maxima's North American influence.

The sixth-generation Maxima now moves to Nissan's front-wheel-drive FF-L platform, shared by Altima, the Murano cross/utility vehicle and the next-generation Quest minivan, and is built for the first time outside of Japan on the same line as Altima at Nissan's Smyrna, TN, plant.

Past iterations of the Maxima sold in Japan under different monikers but always with smaller and less performance-oriented engines. Therefore, styling never could reflect its North American performance heritage, Nissan North America officials lament.

Now Nissan finally gets the opportunity to present a Maxima with a cohesive image. Officials call it “injecting a little ‘Z-ness’ into the vehicle,” but the design actually is as much an outgrowth of a new look begun with the Altima than it is the 350Z sports coupe.

Officials are understandably wary of pointing out any similarities between Maxima and Altima, Nissan's more mainstream, more down-market sedan. The purpose of Maxima's redesign partially was to differentiate the two midsize entries, despite the move to a common platform.

Early expectations of the forthcoming Maxima saw Nissan injecting something radical into the formula — perhaps a V-8 or rear-wheel drive. Instead, the auto maker relies on the discerning eye of the consumer to notice the smaller — but significant — differences between the two edgy sedans.

Nissan starts with the powerplant, cranking up its already-excellent VQ-family 3.5L DOHC V-6 to produce 265 hp and 255 lb.-ft. (346 Nm) of torque, an increase of 10 hp and 9 lb.-ft. (12 Nm) of torque from the last generation and significantly more than the 240 horses propelling Altima. Or perhaps equally important, distancing the Maxima from less performance-pedigreed rivals such as the Honda Accord, this year invigorated with its own 240-hp V-6.

Handling also is tuned to match, thanks largely to the return to an independent rear suspension. The '04 Maxima has grown in most dimensions and feels weightier. The SE model is tuned to be the sportier of the two trim levels, coming with a sport-tuned suspension, including unique calibrations for springs, dampers and swaybars, as well as 18-in. wheels.

The SL, on the other hand, ups the luxury ante, equipped with leather-appointed seats, xenon headlights, simulated wood trim and heated seats and mirrors.

Only the SE can be specified with Nissan's 6-speed manual transmission and, curiously, the auto maker offers two versions of its automatic: a new 5-speed for the SE and its older 4-speed for the SL.

Of the two versions, the sportier will reign, with the SE trim level expected to capture 65% of sales. But most will not be true performance enthusiasts, as only 10% are expected to opt for the 6-speed.

Nissan defines Maxima as falling into the “midsize upper” segment with some near-luxury competitors. It definitively is moving upmarket, competing against the Acura TL, Audi A4 and Toyota Avalon, leaving Altima to duke it out with Accord and Toyota's Camry in the standard midsize segment.

Anyone who doubts Maxima's ability to compete in a higher segment need only sit in the vehicle's rich, compelling interior, and look up — through its standard skylight. A traditional sunroof is optional, but this Skyview skylight — a fixed strip of glass that doesn't generate noise or reduce headroom — proves to be as attractive as it is innovative.

Other nice options: Nissan's nifty “bird's-eye-view” navigation system, Bose audio and a driver memory system that recalls mirror, steering wheel and seat settings.

Another option is the Elite package, whose main feature is a conversion of the rear-seat bench into two distinct bucket seats — they're even heated. A lot of engineering work went into this package, which completely changes Maxima's interior appearance, but Nissan expects only 10% of consumers to take this pricey extra.

Nissan deliberately is reducing Maxima sales to a projected 70,000 units to boost Altima in the segment, while creating an image of exclusivity — part of the strategy to emphasize differences between the sedans.

Better yet, price will serve as a differentiator: When Maxima goes on sale in March, it will fetch from $28,000-$35,000, a handsome move up from Altima.