COAL: 2004 Nissan Maxima SE – Not a Toyota?

2004 Nissan Maxima SE

With this week’s installment I will get back more to a chronological order for my car purchases. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I very much liked the Sienna minivan we owned but I worked very hard to sell it in order to purchase something else which caught my eye. That something else was the sixth-generation Nissan Maxima.

I had driven previous generation Nissan Maximas as rental vehicles in the past, and while the 3.5 liter V-6 powertrain helped the car live up to its ‘90s slogan of being a “4-door sports car” the styling was nothing particularly notable. That’s not to say I didn’t like the styling – the fourth generation car I rented was stylistically similar to the mid-90s Nissan Altima that I had briefly considered before going with the Honda Civic in 1994. The exterior and interior were nice enough but weren’t interesting enough to dislodge me from the Toyota brand.

The sixth-generation Maxima, introduced in mid-2003 as a 2004 model, was a whole different story. This car was much more aggressively styled and had more of a presence on the road, particularly in the 3.5SE trim level with huge (for the time) 18 inch wheels similar to those found on the contemporary 350Z. I had seen the car in advertising and in magazine road tests, but once I saw one in person I decided I really wanted to have one. Admittedly, I was taking a bit of a risk by moving away from Toyota, but boy was this thing good looking.

Nissan Maxima SE rear view

I figured that I’d be all set from a buying standpoint as the big box car retail chain from which I was buying my Toyotas also sold Nissans at another location. That was the good news: the bad news was the Nissan store was north of Baltimore and a long way from my house. The drive was worth it to me to get “no haggle” pricing (which I like, but some people hate), so off I went. At the time, I hadn’t made any of the arrangements to sell the minivan, so I took it with me to the Nissan store to see what they’d give me for the van while I test-drove the Maxima.

One test drive in this car and I was even more hooked. Much has been written about the Nissan 3.5 liter V6 engine, which in this application made 265 horsepower, so all I will say is that it lived up to the hype. It was smooth and responsive and was one of the most powerful cars I’d driven in a long while. I tested the 3.5SE trim which came with either a 6-speed manual or 5-speed automatic. I would have preferred the manual transmission, but as I recall those were just about impossible to find at the time I was looking to buy (roughly 5 months after they were introduced). If memory serves, the “luxury” 3.5SL model had the same engine but only a 4-speed automatic, for reasons that I can’t fathom. The SE and SL were fairly close in price, as I recall, and I liked the leather interior and other features of the SL but the odd 4-speed automatic was not as well-suited to the powertrain as the SE’s 5-speed automatic.

My dream of owning one of these ran into a couple of snags when I returned from the test drive. First of all, the dealer gave me the estimate of what they’d give me for the minivan, and it was…not as high as I would have liked, shall we say. (Laughably low would be the more appropriate reaction). Second of all, as the Maxima’s price was relatively high, I was interested in leasing it instead of buying it as I’d done with several previous cars, and for some odd reason the big box Nissan store didn’t do leasing (although their sister Toyota store did). The combination of those factors stopped my purchasing dreams pretty quickly.

2004 Nissan Maxima SE rear 2

However, as events transpired we were able to find a buyer for the van at a price that was much more palatable (and represented a much less severe financial penalty). As a result, my Maxima buying plan was back on track, but I had to pick another dealer. I don’t remember exactly how I picked the dealer but it certainly wasn’t on the basis of wonderful customer service. The dealer did have several things going for it: they had the car I wanted (more or less, as they didn’t have any manuals); they were willing to do a lease; and they were offering a reasonable price for the car, so I went with them. They weren’t particularly close to home either, but not quite as far as the first store.

The Maxima I chose was the 3.5SE with the 5-speed automatic in silver with a black cloth interior. Mine had an option package with a power moonroof and upgraded stereo, along with a couple of other minor convenience items like a security system. I preferred the regular moonroof to the standard “Skyview” roof that was an odd fixed pane of glass that was only about a foot wide but extended nearly the length of the car. I thought that was a styling gimmick that wasn’t particularly practical or useful, and as I recall Nissan had a few problems with the fixed glass roof shattering under certain conditions.

2004 Nissan Maxima dash

On the plus side, the Maxima was definitely a thrill ride compared to the Camrys and Siennas of the past. The suspension was tuned to be firm but still offered a reasonable ride with the large wheels and tires. The suspension and tires were able to harness the V6 engine’s power pretty well, but with some torque steer as I recall. The engine’s 265 horsepower was the largest of any car I’d owned to date (even my Thunderbird SC could only muster 215), and I will admit to dipping into that power on a regular basis. On the minus side, the interior was acceptable but some of the interior trim pieces were fairly cheap feeling hard plastic with visible mold lines. The chunky turn signal and wiper stalks were nice, though. The Bose stereo in this car was great sounding at volumes that would make your ears bleed, but was a bit lackluster at more normal volumes. The car had a large center screen to accommodate versions with a navigation system, but as ours didn’t have that the screen was a monochrome yellow LCD display with trip computer, radio, and HVAC readouts along with a lot of blank space around these ‘80s looking displays. The SE trim brought “sporty” orange gauge lighting for the silver faced gauges, two things that have more or less dropped out of modern cars (thankfully). I remember being surprised as well at the black smoke that accompanied full-throttle accelerations – no one ever found anything wrong with the car, but it seemed a bit odd for a modern vehicle.

2004 Nissan Maxima interior

Also on the negative side was maintenance at the dealer I used – I called not long after I bought the car to arrange for the first maintenance appointment, and was given a nice early one at 7:30 am. Great – that will give me plenty of time to get the oil changed and get to the office at a reasonable hour. So I went to the dealer that morning with the intention of getting there a few minutes before 7:30 to be timely, and was very surprised to see a line of Nissans extending from the closed service door, through the new car lot, and out onto the street. What I didn’t realize (and they didn’t tell me) was that EVERYONE got a 7:30 am appointment, and if you were dropping off the car your vehicle wasn’t even brought in for service until sometime mid-afternoon. If you were waiting, your wait time was a direct function of how far in advance of 7:30 you showed up, so maybe you’d be done in an hour or maybe it would be several hours. In subsequent services, I made a habit of dropping the car off in the morning, getting a shuttle to the office, and reversing the process after work. Inconvenient, but at least I could predict when I’d be arriving at the office. Luckily for me there weren’t any major repairs needed during my ownership period so this service inconvenience didn’t happen that often.

2004 Nissan Maxima rear view

Those who are regular readers of my COAL series will be amazed to learn that I kept this Maxima all the way to the end of its 36-month lease. Sure, the interior was a bit cheap and the silver plastic trim on the dash and steering wheel were outdated about 6 months after I bought it, but it looked great from the outside and it was a blast to drive. Amazingly, because I kept the vehicle through the whole lease term I didn’t lose any money at the end of the term. In fact, if I recall correctly, we were able to trade it in just before the end of the lease and make a few hundred dollars to apply toward our next vehicle. That next vehicle wasn’t exactly the exciting thrill ride the Maxima was, but I was looking for inexpensive transportation…

As with previous COALs, there are a few interesting photobomb vehicles from my neighborhood in the background, including a couple of my cars that we’ll talk about in a couple of weeks plus a bonus Mitsubishi Galant and a Ford Bronco II! For reference, the bottom blurry photo (one of the last I did with a film camera) was from September 2003 when I bought the car and the other sharper digital photos from April of 2006 not long before I traded in the car.