CARY, NC – Large sedans have fallen off buyers’ shopping lists in recent years as midsize models become more roomy, while pushing the boundaries of performance well beyond that of the pillowy, geriatric set.

Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. has pinned much of its brand identity in the U.S. on its Maxima, which arrived in front-wheel-drive form in 1985. In the 1990s, the vehicle epitomized the front-drive sport sedan and distanced itself from bread-and-butter 4-door family cars.

But the Maxima has been eclipsed in recent years by Nissan’s midsize Altima in sales, and, perhaps, stature.

Nissan sold 131,182 Maximas in the U.S. in 1999, Ward’s data shows. Last year, sales dropped to an alarming 52,574, down 24.6% from 2006’s tally.

The current 270-hp V-6 Altima has been lauded by reviewers as a solid competitor in the high-stakes midsize-sedan segment, with deliveries up 22.6% to 284,762 units last year.

Perhaps not intentionally, the Altima appears to be eating the Maxima’s lunch by stealing more than a few buyers looking for that unique sport-sedan experience.

Nissan set out to distinguish the ’09 Maxima from the Altima, giving the car a new identity. The auto maker sought to resurrect the 4-door sport coupe image that was lost with the 6th-generation Maxima, which was “a little soft,” concedes product planner Mark Perry at a media event here.

Did Nissan succeed? It appears so. The new 7th-generation Maxima, available in four trims, S, SV and SV Sport or SV Premium, is a tight, powerful package and a worthy recipient of the “flagship” title for the Japanese brand.

Pontiac’s former adage, “wider is better,” holds just as true for the ’09 Maxima.

Based on Nissan’s D platform, which underpins the current Altima and the new Murano cross/utility vehicle, the Maxima’s wheelbase is reduced 1.9 ins. (4.8 cm) from the outgoing model, while its front and rear tracks gain 1.4 ins. (3.6 cm) and 1.2 ins. (3.0 cm), respectively.

This seemingly miniscule change makes the car feel bigger on-road. The Maxima Sport model deftly maneuvers down the winding lanes around Raleigh-Durham with little body lean at speeds well above the legal limits.

A 17% improvement in torsional rigidity is realized in Sport and Premium Maximas over the base S and SV trims, thanks to the addition of a seat-back panel fitted between the rear seats and trunk.

Nissan upped the output from its venerable VQ 3.5L DOHC V-6 by 35 hp to 290 hp, compared with the outgoing Maxima. Torque is boosted to 261 lb.-ft. (354 Nm), a gain of 9 lb.-ft. (12 Nm) from the last generation.

However, the boost in power does not increase the Maxima’s noise, vibration or harshness levels.

A continuously variable transmission is the only gearbox offered, and Nissan says the improved device is capable of calculating more than 700 algorithms instantly to boost responsiveness.

Matched to paddle shifters on the steering wheel, the engine-transmission combination is a treat, with phantom step gears to create the sensation of toggling through ratios. The paddle shifters might soften the blow for driving enthusiasts who will have to cope without a 3-pedal version. Nissan says the measly 5% take rate in the previous Maxima spelled the manual’s doom.

During heavy acceleration, downshifting to third using the paddles elicits a lovely chorus of exhaust tunes, aided by a new sound enhancer supplied by Calsonic Kansei Corp.

At high rpm, the device routes an appropriate amount of induction noise directly into the cabin.

Yet another bit of sport gimmickry is the new “drive sport” mode, activated by moving the console-mounted lever to the left. In DS mode, throttle response sharpens, adding extra thrust. But, actually, the car accelerates well enough without it.

’09 Nissan Maxima SV
with Sport package
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive 4-door sedan
Engine 3.5L DOHC V-6, aluminum block/aluminum heads
Power (SAE net) 290 hp @ 6,400 rpm
Torque 261 lb.-ft. (354 Nm) @ 4,400 rpm
Compression ratio 10.6:1
Transmission Continuously variable
Wheelbase 109.3 ins. (278 cm)
Overall length 190.6 ins. (484 cm)
Overall width 73.2 ins. (186 cm)
Overall height 57.8 ins. (147 cm)
Curb weight 3,586 lbs. (1,627 kg)
Base price TBA
Fuel economy 19/26 mpg (12.4/9.0 L/100 km)
Competition Acura TL, Chrysler 300, Hyundai Genesis, Pontiac G8
Pros Cons
Real leather good fake leather graining bad
Respectable 20 mpg average Murano looks attractive
Roomy interior Who wants to pay for premium fuel?

One of Nissan’s primary goals with the new Maxima was a better interior. Mission accomplished, except for one minor quibble: the dated faux-leather graining on the plastics.

Real leather can be found standard on the SV, Sport and Premium trims, with the latter donning “premium” leather.

Both pass muster. The steering wheel’s parallel stitching in the Premium trim is particularly attractive.

The Nissan navigation system, available on all three SV trims, is excellent, with great resolution, intuitive controls and vivid colors from the LCD screen.

Nearly all seating positions are comfortable. Nissan nixed the two rear bucket seats of the outgoing Maxima in favor of a bench that accommodates three. As expected, the middle rear seat is comfortable only in moderation.

The new, boxier exterior design gives the Maxima squared-off dimensions at the corners but sexy Coke-bottle curves in the hood and side body panels.

Futuristic taillamps – each employing 12 LEDs – are standard, and very cool.

With the national average price of a gallon of regular unleaded hitting $4, Nissan’s decision to maintain performance by making premium fuel a “required” option, and not just “recommended,” will no doubt raise eyebrows.

Requiring premium, which generally costs at least $0.20 a gallon more than regular, is bound to hurt sales. Customers who opt for less expensive regular unleaded can expect less power and a fuel-economy penalty of up to 5%, as premium is needed for the engine to run at maximum efficiency.

During our test drive here, even under heavy flogging, the Maxima turns in a respectable 20 mpg (11.7 L/100 km) on average, according to the trip computer.

Not bad for a car with plenty of jump and weighing 3,586 lbs. (1,627 kg).

However, wildly popular CUVs, such as the Murano, offer similar fuel economy, a factor that could weigh on prospective buyers’ minds.

Also, the Maxima’s chief competitor, the Acura TL, is new this year, which could take a bite out of the segment pie that is getting smaller daily. If the Maxima fails, it won’t be for lack of trying.

The new ’09 Maxima goes on sale in the U.S. June 26. Nissan hopes to hold pricing to ’08 levels, roughly $28,000-$34,000.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com