COAL: 1996 Nissan Maxima – No, I Haven’t Driven a Ford Lately

1996 Nissan Maxima

My 1996 Nissan Maxima


Detroit. The Motor City. Motown. Caropolis. (OK, I just made this last one up). It is 1995, and I am realizing one of my life-long dreams of living and working in the heart of the automotive universe. Greektown! Greenfield Village! The financial mismanagement! OK, I’m jumping ahead.

Here I was working at Ford Motor Company (albeit as a contractor and not an employee) driving a foreign car. Not just domestic competitors like GM or Chrysler, not even a captive import or foreign transplant like a Honda Accord, but a genuine VIN-starts-with-a-J made in Japan Acura Integra GS-R. So one of my first concerns when I started at Ford was where I would park.

Many assembly plants of the day were legendary for having remote parking lots for foreign cars located on the far reaches of the property. Luckily, the world headquarters building was a bit more enlightened, with all employees parking in the same lot (well, except for executives, who got to park in a heated underground garage).

At first, I was somewhat self-conscious parking my Acura in a sea of mostly late-model Fords, Lincolns, and Mercurys, but I quickly got over it. At least it made it easier to find at the end of the day.

It was around this time that some of the shortcomings of the Integra began to manifest themselves. For starters, visiting my friends and family in central Ohio now meant a three-hour drive (each way). The short gearing on the GS-R which made for swift acceleration also made 4,000 droning rpm at 80 mph. This, coupled with the relative lack of sound insulation made it a really lousy freeway cruiser.

Furthermore, I was frequently driving coworkers and friends to lunches and evening outings, and having to move the seat to let people in and out of the back seat was starting to become a hassle. To my logical mind, a 2-door coupe didn’t offer any inherent advantages over a 4-door sedan, and considerable disadvantages. Lastly, I was done with buzzy 4-bangers, so I wanted a smooth-running V6, although I still wanted a stick shift.

By virtue of being a Ford contractor, I could qualify for X-Plan pricing on any car Ford made. I went to a Ford dealership, but they didn’t have anything that interested me. The Taurus was still in its oval phase, and the interior was cheap and plasticky. Moreover, it was no longer available with a 5-speed, which was a deal-breaker. I gave more serious thought to the Contour, which did offer a V6 with a manual transmission, but it was too cramped, and also suffered from a cheap plasticky interior.

Neither Honda nor Toyota offered a manual transmission with their V6 sedans, so it was down to the Nissan Maxima by process of elimination. Plus, I always had a soft spot for Maximas. The third-generation iteration was (and remains) an iconic design. I lobbied (unsuccessfully) for my dad to get one in the late ’80s. The fourth-generation version was a little less chiseled and a little more chubby looking than the third-generation model, but it was still an attractive car, especially in the chrome-free SE guise. The SE also had the way cool black-on-white gauges (that turned to white-on-black at night).

Despite being the center of the American auto manufacturing universe, there were a fair number of Honda, Nissan, and Toyota dealerships in the Detroit area, more than I would have guessed anyway (which would have been none). So in the summer of 1996, I stopped in at Dearborn Nissan (which was doing surprisingly brisk business) and took delivery of my 1996 Maxima SE, black on black leather.

1996 Nissan Maxima SE

So black even the white bits are black.


Following my now usual pattern, this car had pretty much all the options, including a few I had not experienced before, such as the Bose sound system and automatic climate control. The latter was practically a revelation to me: Being able to set and forget a desired temperature rendered instantly the obsolete manual climate control systems of my previous cars, which seemed fussy in comparison with their constant need for temperature and fan adjustments. But the absolute best feature was the cornering lights. I absolutely loved the bright side lighting when turning at night. Are there any cars that still have these?

The Nissan VG30E 3.0 liter V6 was indeed one of the best engines you could buy at the time. It was smooth as the clichéd sewing machine, and the 160HP/182 lb-ft, while wimpy by today’s standards, was adequate for the day and comparable to competitive offerings. And of course, I never got tired of looking at the black on white gauges, pictured below.

1996 Nissan Maxima

1996 Nissan Maxima Dashboard – Still love those gauges!


However, all was not perfection (it never is, it seems). Had I never experienced the best manual transmission in the industry in the Acura, the 5-speed in the Maxima would have been fine. Unfortunately I did, and the transmission on the Maxima seemed truck-like in comparison with its relatively long chunky throws. The strut front suspension was on a whole lower level of sophistication than the double-wishbone suspension on my Acura. I just kind of plodded over bumps and potholes that I felt I had much more control over in the Acura.

But perhaps worse of all, the “single piece of metal” solidity that the Acura exuded was nowhere to be found in the Maxima. The body was solid enough, but the steering column always felt like it was shimmying out of sync with the rest of the car.

1996 Nissan Maxima

1996 Nissan Maxima


Overall, however, the good outweighed the bad, and I was largely pleased with the Maxima during its time with me. The same cannot be said for my stay at Ford Motor Company. As I alluded to in my previous COAL, the project I was working on was basically a cash furnace. Even a company as large as Ford has a pain threshold, and apparently in the case of our project that threshold was around 15 million dollars.

Fortunately, I was now an experienced IT consultant with some high-demand skills, so I had my choice of contracting gigs to choose from. I ended up taking a short-term contract in Troy, MI at Ryder Automotive Carrier Division, a lesser-known division of Ryder back when they still had the consumer truck rental business. At Ryder I was doing mostly FoxPro and C programming, and a smattering of Level 3 support. It was basically a placeholder job, allowing me to set aside some money while I figured out what to do next.

So what was next? Stay tuned for next week.