CARY, NC – With gasoline priced $4 per gallon, its seems like the wrong time to introduce a large sedan.

But Nissan North America Inc. is confident its core-brand ’09 Maxima will pump up delivery totals.

Nissan is calling for average annual sales of about 70,000 units during its lifecycle, matching the prime years of the previous-generation Maxima. This despite large-car sales that were 28.5% lower through May than the first five months of 2007, according to Ward’s data.

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The reason behind this bravado? The Maxima has one of the highest loyalty rates in the U.S., says Mark Perry, product planner for the new seventh-generation model going on sale in the U.S. June 26.

Perry says he encounters people in focus groups on their third, fourth or even sixth Maximas.

“I want to reach through the glass and hug them because they’re helping put my kids through college,” Perry jokes here at a media preview for the car, noting about 1.7 million Maximas sold in the last 15 years are on the road in the U.S.

Those who own Maximas not only are loyal to the car, but to the Nissan brand.

Some 55%-60% say they wouldn’t consider stepping outside the brand for their next car, Perry says, which compares to the industry average of 40%.

For the ’09 model, Nissan is predicting 40%-45% of buyers will be current Maxima owners.

With this in mind, the auto maker tread carefully when it developed the ’09 model. Nissan sough to preserve the “sport personality” Maxima owners admire, Perry says, while also reaching out to buyers who were alienated by the current-generation’s “soft” design and driving character.

Historically, the Maxima sedan’s exterior concealed its high-performance character, Perry says, adding: “Maxima has been accused in the past of being a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

For ’09, the 3.5L V-6 VQ engine in the Maxima boasts 290 hp, up 35 hp from the current-generation car, while peak torque is rated at 261 lb.-ft. (354 Nm), an increase of 3.6%.

But to reach these performance targets, Nissan will tell buyers premium fuel is required, not just recommended.

Perry isn’t certain if this will be a deal-breaker for the price-conscious American consumer, but he insists Nissan “had to follow” where other near-luxury sedans are going in terms of performance. The auto maker had to be blunt about the costly fuel-grade stipulation, if only to avoid an outcry from buyers who deferred to lower-octane regular in the face of a “premium-fuel-recommended” guideline.

One of those near-luxury sedans Nissan is trying to match or beat is the Acura TL, Perry admits. The TL has undergone a full redesign for ’09 and historically is one of the top models buyers cross-shop with the Maxima.

The ’09 Maxima is the fourth model on Nissan’s new front-wheel-drive “D” platform, which also underpins the smaller Altima sedan and coupe.

Early in the Maxima’s development – most of which took place at Nissan’s Farmington Hills, MI, technical center – Nissan had to decide whether to move the car to a real-wheel-drive platform.

But the auto maker concluded it could get the type of performance it wanted from the D chassis without taking this step.

Lots of areas differentiate the Altima from the Maxima, including suspension components, which Nissan plucked from the Infiniti M45’s part’s bin, Perry says.

But the undulating design of the new Maxima is perhaps the greatest differentiator.

Perry says the car’s Coke-bottle shape, most noticeable when looking into the side-view mirrors, caused Nissan to invest $2.5 million and add six more robots in the paint shop at its Smyrna, TN, plant to accommodate the Maxima’s generous humps.

Another differentiator between the two models is a new sound generator for the Maxima, from supplier Calsonic Kansei Corp., which kicks in at about 4,500-5,000 rpms, pulling noise from the intake manifold into the cabin.

“From an NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) standpoint, the car was almost getting too quiet,” Perry says.

Nissan is aiming the new ’09 Maxima at single males, or married men without children, who have an annual household income of $110,000.

The average buyer age for the current model is about 52, but Nissan hopes to reduce that to the mid-40 range, Perry says.

Two trims, S and SV, will be offered for ’09, with two packages, Sport or Premium, available for the Maxima SV. Buyers are expected to favor overwhelmingly the SV trim, with a 40% projected take-rate. SV Sport and SV Premium models should account for 25% and 25% of the mix, respectively.

An advertising campaign for the ’09 Maxima will launch on NBC in early August, during the 2008 Summer Olympics.

For now, the Maxima is a North America-only car and Perry declines comment on whether it will be offered in Russia, where buyers love large sedans.

The Maxima will continue to be assembled at Smyrna, with engines coming from nearby Decherd, TN. The continuously variable transmission, currently sourced from Jatco Corp. in Japan, will shift to a Jatco plant in Mexico later this year, says Robert Sump, vice president-Nissan Technical Center North America Inc.