(first posted 8/10/2016) Alright, well maybe as a humbler GXE model, this 1990 Maxima isn’t the best example to make for the whole four-door sports car case. But compared to bulkier-looking modern sports sedans (and all modern cars in general) there is something undeniably athletic about this 1990 Maxima’s lean, sleek looks.
It’s a different kind of athletic for sure, with its body more akin to that of a long-distance runner whereas modern sports sedans, depending on how you see it are either like a someone who lifts weights 7 days a week or someone who spends 7 days a week on the couch eating pizza and guzzling beer.
Since its introduction for the 1981 model year, Maxima has always signified the Nissan brand’s largest and most luxurious sedan in North America. Its first two generations were positioned as premium, comfortable, and somewhat unexciting sedans, much like its primary competitor, Toyota’s Cressida.
However, with Nissan’s decision to launch a full-fledged luxury division in Infiniti, the purpose and future of the Maxima came into question. Rather than just leave the Maxima out to wither (and die, like the Cressida), Nissan chose to give the Maxima’s image a significant overhaul, emphasizing performance and positioning the third generation Maxima as an alternative to European entry-level luxury sports sedans.
No matter the label, the third generation Maxima was one of the sportiest front-wheel drive sedans on the market at the time, offering a choice of two 3-liter V6s, four-speed automatic or 5-speed manual transmissions, two levels of sport-tuned independent front- and rear-strut suspensions, front- and rear-stabilizer bars, along with available antilock brakes and adaptive sonar suspension.
Carried over from the previous generation, the standard engine was the SOHC 3.0L VG30E, making an identical 160 horsepower and 182 lb-ft torque. Added for 1992 on SE models, was the VE30DE. Derived from the former engine, the VE30DE added dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder. Hood clearance also necessitated a 30-degree head as opposed to 46-degrees. Producing 190 horsepower and 190 pound-feet torque, this engine was exclusive to the 1992-1994 Maxima SE and not available on any other vehicle.
While the standard engine may have been carry-over, styling certainly was not. Growing some 4.3 inches in wheelbase, 6.1 inches in length, 2.8 inches in width, and 0.4 inches in height in the process, the third generation Maxima traded in its predecessor’s rather generic ’80s Japanese angular styling for a whole new design language that was sleeker, smoother, and sexier. In fact, the only obvious styling trait carried over from the previous generation was the rectangular wraparound design of its headlights.
With softer corners, flowing sheetmetal, aggressively flared wheel arches, and steeply raked windshields, the Maxima exuded its most dynamic looks yet. Whereas competitors like the Mitsubishi Galant VR4 piled on the gingerbread with ribbed lower bodyside cladding, body-color wheels, and an obnoxious front air damn, the Maxima took a more understated, elegant look.
As Nissan Motor’s largest and most luxurious car sold in North America at the time of its launch (the manufacturer’s Infiniti Q45 flagship was still a year away), the 1989 Maxima rightfully boasted a number of standard and available luxury features.
Standard features included alloy wheels, AM/FM stereo with cassette player, power windows, air conditioning, and remote keyless entry. Select options included head-up display, keyless entry and window roll-down via a driver’s door keypad (similar to FordMoCo), premium Bose stereo, automatic climate control, power front seats, leather upholstery, power moonroof, and anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes.
Inside, all Maximas presented occupants with a straightforward interior, with all controls logically laid out for easy driver reach and view. In contrast to its boxy predecessor, the 1989-1994 Maxima utilized a more cohesive design of the dashboard, center stack, and door panels, incorporating soft, organic curves for a look that was both visually appealing and contemporary.
Interior space was generous, with Nissan claiming to have designed the cabin to accommodate five 6’2″ occupants. Accommodate in what degree of comfort was something Nissan neglected to specify, but indeed the Maxima boasted more interior space than most other midsize sedans, with the possible exception of rear head and legroom, which were limited by the Maxima’s sloping roofline and average for its class wheelbase, respectively.
A driver’s side airbag was offered, although it wasn’t made standard until 1993. Even when so equipped, the annoying-to-many motorized shoulder belts were retained, and would not be eliminated for the remainder of this generation.
Contemporary reviews of this generation Maxima were generally praiseworthy, with highlights including the Maxima’s lack of noticeable torque-steer, braking abilities, and power delivery at both low and high rpms. Compared to other sporty front-wheel drive offerings that doubled as family sedans, the Maxima generally ranked high in comparison tests, with its level of comfort praised as much as its performance.
The definition of sports car is so loose with no real definition set in stone, but I think most can agree that this Maxima is not what comes to mind when the phrase “sports car” is mentioned. Although it may not have been a true sports car, the 1989-1994 Maxima was a smart choice for buyers looking for a sporty and fun-to-drive, yet roomy, feature-rich, and affordable (under $25,000) sedan.
By rebranding the Maxima as an entry-level luxury sports sedan, Nissan greatly boosted the Maxima’s potential and gave it greater purpose, prolonging its life indefinitely. Although it has swelled up significantly in size, its image as a sporty and premium large sedan has remained constant up through the present, staying true to its roots.