Datsun used to dominate the import market in the days before Hondas commanded dealer mark-ups and waiting lists. Many blame their eventual also-ran status on their inexplicable, expensive and unproductive rebranding of the early 80s. But where the newly renamed Nissan dropped the ball, in my opinion, was in offering compacts and subcompacts that were ultra-conservative alongside more expensive cars which were often bizarre and gimmicky.
There are much better examples than the two cars captured in this shot, and that’s intentional. The Pulsar embodies the tail end of their tone-deafness in the late ’70s through the ’80s, while the Maxima shows the ultimately fruitless renaissance that followed. Kudos to CC Cohort contributor mistergreen for capturing such a relevant piece of Nissan’s US market history.
As for the Pulsar, it’s a transition car, exhibiting the slow reassessment of Nissan’s priorities. While still gimmicky, it was styled in California, with obvious commonalities with the Hardbody and Pathfinder, and was right for the times. As a five year old, I found those taillights—in late 80s parlance—radical. Hindsight, however, reveals the car to be what it really was: a cynical styling exercise. I imagine that, for discerning adults of the day, this may have been more apparent (some, of course, would beg to differ).
In either case, sitting in and driving the car likely revealed its origins in Nissan’s hoary B platform. This car’s turbo badging was added by a whimsical or delusional owner; a twin-cam CA 1.6 (later 1.8) powered the more expensive SE model, but most came with the 71-hp E16 8-valve (later 92-hp twelve valve GA16i) as found in the base model pictured here:
Nissan began fully exiting its period of medieval aesthetics in the very late 80s with very competitive, well-developed models such as the Z32 300ZX twin-turbo, Infiniti Q45 and Sentra SE-R. One of the first and most successful of these cars was the 1989 Maxima: the silver painted aluminum wheels and lack of the “hamburger” insignia mark this as a pre-facelift 1989-1991 model. It was most certainly a hot ticket in its day, showcasing the company’s enthusiastic and early adoption of the quickly clichéd “organic” styling of the following decade.
Unlike Honda, Nissan offered its buyers a multitude of option packages, and their relatively high take-rate reflected the car’s successful upper-middle-class cachet. The GXE featured here came standard with Bose audio, keypad entry and alloys, as well as a class-leading 3.0 single-cam V6. The SE model with its sport suspension and blackout trim earned all the critical acclaim, but the luxury oriented GXE was successful in prying many out of the Legends and Cressidas.
The revised version of the SE came with a quad-cam V6 with variable intake cam timing and a limited slip differential. This frequently forgotten but essential piece of hardware also came on sporty versions of the Sentra, Stanza, Altima, 240SX and the Pulsar’s replacement, the NX, to give you an idea of the seriousness of Nissan’s intentions in the early 1990s. Four wheel steering featured on the 300ZX was also available on the 240SX, Infiniti J30, and Q45 touring, to name a few. The Q45a even offered a very ambitious, fully active suspension system, something no other car on the US market offered until Mercedes introduced its 2000 S, CL and SL Class flagships. After years of dangerously conservative offerings, Nissan was a company with something to prove.
That all began, of course, with this Maxima (ironically called the J30 platform within the company). A much more natural competitor to the Taurus than the Accord was, its success in sales was not matched by any other of Nissan’s stellar offerings of the era. Nissan entered a dark era as the 90s progressed, culminating in its merger with Renault (of all companies) after the Asian financial crisis of 1998. The company’s mid and late 90s offerings were still fun to drive, with evident quality, but that all changed following the company’s acquisition (ignoring some rear-drive models). Of course, that’s a story for another time.
The shots of these two models back-to-back is simply too good to ignore, displaying both a very important point in the company’s history and, in the Maxima’s case, a rather mundane example of the apogee of Japan, Inc.
4DSC (Four Door Sports Car) One of the most mindset changing ad campaigns ever conceived. Up until this point a four door car could never be considered sporty, but Nissan convinced young upward mobile Americans that four doors were cool and sporty. It convinced me to get a new one. It still ranks as my 2nd finest car behind my E39 530i. If you factor in the value, the Maxima was in the family until it had 238K on the od, then it would be #1 Great car!
Pulsar badging was kept for the Aussie market for the Sentra though NZ got badge correct Nissans I have a 93 Y10 wagon quite a good car considering it has 340.000kms racked up it burns no oil starting means merely turning it on no cranking involved it simply runs only some of the power accessories don’t work fortunately it is NZ new so its all in English so the wiring faults will be easy to fix when I can be bothered.
Maximas that model had bad transmissions and survivors are rare.
I had a EXA/NX 1.8 litre. Honestly,not really a sports car, but I used mine for high speed, high temperature runs through outback Queensland, over very long distances.
You could sit at very naughty speeds (about 140 km/h) with the air con on for hours without it missing a beat and when you reached about 110km/h, something in the aerodynamics made it really feel clamped to the road.
Excellent brakes too- very important when dealing with suicidal wild life and wandering cattle!
I always liked the Pulsar, which came out whilst I was in the Industrial Design program at Georgia Tech. Jerry Hirschberg came out and spent a day with our class discussing the Nissan Design Center and the design language they were developing at the time.
A few years later, I dated a girl who drove a Pulsar – it wasn’t as impressive once you got past the styling.
As for the “four door sports car” moniker for the Maxima, Road Atlanta used them to pace their 300ZX driving school cars back in the day – it was *faster* in all respects…
The Maxima was the fastest accelerating car you could get for a while but only to 180kmh when the speed limiter kicked in or the tranny died.
Very interesting, getting to hear Hirschberg speak at the time he was implementing his (ultimately unsuccessful) design language at Nissan. It seems as though Nissan had a period of bipolarity, if that’s a term. Going from super boxy cars, to super ovoid, curvy cars in a few years’ time with a few transitional models (Pathfinder, Hardbody, Pulsar).
I will disagree with people’s complaints about the mid-late ’90s Nissans. These were great cars to drive, often more powerful than the competition, with good quality and reliability, in my experience. They just didn’t have the brand equity by this point, really, and a far, far, far too extensive line-up. Their global offerings were too varied, with each platform having far too many submodels. That, coupled with a tone-deafness in the meat of the car market in the US, really screwed them.
If only they’d been more innovative and aggressive with the Stanza and Sentra, while offering fewer models overall, they’d have more clout among the average American buyer.
I remember some of these came out with push button entry; six keys in the door handle requiring a code to unlock.
I always liked the design proportioning on this Maxima, closest thing they made to the 1985 Cue-X concept.
You put your finger on one of the things I always liked about the four-door-sports-car Maximas: They prove you really can have good proportions on a FWD sedan, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
I also liked the lack of unncessary gewgaws, something the current crop of Nissans and Infinitis would benefit from.
You don’t think that was what became the Infiniti Q45?
Good call. We never got this in oz. Infiniti has just relaunched over here and their shapes all look like melted plastic.
Actually, Australia did get the original Infiniti Q45, although sales were miniscule. NZ has never officially got Infiniti – although there were a couple imported new to test the market. The recent Aussie Infiniti relaunch was held here and all the cars remained here afterwards, and we’re also getting the diesel ones second hand ex-UK now too.
Thanks for the headsup, Scott. I had a 1983 280C sedan that I loved, so the pleasures of Nissan done properly are known to me. This blog has piqued my interest in the Q45, gunna keep my eyes peeled.
They only sold something like 100-120 Q45s from memory, which ran until the facelift that tacked on a little grille to make it look more conventional, so that must have been a few years.
Yeah, I’ve had a closer look since this post. What works detail-wise on the Cue-X is missing on the Q45. There are a few listed over here, so eventually I’ll check one out. For now, though, I think the Maxima is the better looking car.
It probably influenced both. I believe that this generation Maxima was also styled in Japan.
There is an awful lot of 1980 Ferrari Pinin 4 door concept going on in the Cue-X
That saloon concept was probably responsible for keeping PF afloat in the 80s/90s. Ferrari rejected the idea of a 4 door for the public, but if you look at their output for a certain Sultan’s brother and multiply that by the number of millions of dollars per vehicle…
I’m partisan PF, but I think the longer hood makes the Nissan the better solution, regardless of how derivative it is.
I see Audi 5000 in that Cue-x
The CUE-X was the concept car for the Infiniti “QX” Q45. They shared the same distinctive six window greenhouse. The ’89 Maxima was more of its own thing but the inspiration for the four window greenhouse came from the ARC-X concept car.
I loved the pre-facelift version of this Maxima in Super White with the black leather interior. The car was so contemporary especially inside. When I first saw the taillamps they reminded me of those on the Ford Tempo, for some odd reason.
Besides being memorable the 4DSC campaign presented the Maxima as a good alternative to the 740 Turbo, 900/9000, Quattro and E36 4-door. Brightly colored sport sedans with black-out trim were all the rage and I loved them.
One of the things that really drew me to the Maxima was it’s resemblance to the E34 BMW.
Oh Nissan please start offering manual transmissions on the Maxima again. Then I’ll seriously consider one, I love the 4DSC idea.
Oh, Nissan please just offer a decent Maxima again
It’s the same size as the 2013 altima, but at least it’s better looking. A redesign is coming soon.
Lol, the NZ “Maxima” has been a rebadged JDM Teana for years, so is rather different from the US-spec Maxima. But Nissan NZ has decided the Maxima/Teana has become too boring so is replacing it this year with the Altima.
My dad owned a 91 Maxima that looked identical to the car pictured. I was not the biggest fan of these back then, but my Dad loved it. It was his favorite car, actually. Had leather interior, sunroof, all powers, Bose stereo and was quite quick for the times. It wasn’t a trouble free car, but the engine was indestructable. He put 295,000 miles on that car and the engine had never been apart. I did take care of all maintenance on it though. It took a few timing belts, a water pump, new injectors and a a transmission rebuild eventually, but all in all was a good car. The engine did have an issue wth breaking exhaust manifold studs off in the head. I lucked out and had one break such that I could get it out without needing to remove the head and drill it out. others were not as lucky.
Yeah, the timing belt, you had to do the timing belt or trouble
It went downhill with the 95 maxima when they did away with the independent rear suspension. The 1 word to discribe the maxima from 95-03 is stale. Yes fast but not fun…just stale. The the 04 altima based maxima had a plastic interior mquality that makes a dodge avenger look high end.
Call me a nissan hater but all nissans ive ever driven have been a step below their toyota honda and mazda counterparts in every way…just a small step above mitsubishi
I didn’t like the ’95 on, that’s why I never got another, they just weren’t the same 🙁
I have owned a coupe of Nissans since this Maxima (2000 Sentra and 2012 Altima) and I agree with you in terms of interior feel and fit and finish. I also agree that they went downhill badly in the 90’s. The 2000 Sentra was a reliable car and I liked the 5 speed it had; I didn’t like the solid rear axle though. I think that things improved towards the end of the last Altima run. I felt that the Altima driving dynamics are better than the Accord and Camry but the interior is still cheap.
I had an ’04 Maxima, with the 6 speed manual. I will grant you the plasticky interior complaint as valid, but that car was powerful, fun, comfortable, and had a great Bose stereo in the DPP (Driver Preferred Package) in the SE. It was about US$32K in late ’03. Lots of money, but a really good car–save the interior.
I LOVED these Maximas when I was a kid. Too bad they’ve all but disappeared from the roads today, at least in my neck of the woods. The generation that followed was also attractive, sporty, and even more upscale looking. After that, the succeeding generation was a too cautious update that looked outdated quickly. Then with the larger Altima, Nissan had to blow up the Maxima to a pudgy genericmobile. The current Maxima is better than the last, but a far cry from the one pictured here.
This was undoubtedly the best Maxima ever. Nissan has always done best when building cars geared towards enthusiast sensibilities. I don’t know if I’d really agree that the Renault-era cars have been a letdown, but I’ve honestly never examined them that closely.
Perry mentioned most of the comeback vehicles for Nissan around this time – Sentra SE-R, Maxima, 240SX, 300ZX, Q45 and J30 – but my favorite of all was probably the Infiniti G20. The original one was the perfect example of Nissan at its peak, the replacement of its low point. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a car line fall so far so quickly. At least the ’95 Maxima had that awesome VQ engine.
The long-forgotten Axxess was another terrific car from this era, it replaced the bizarre Stanza Wagon.
The Axxess was a great vehicle. My dad bought one new in 1990 and kept it for 12 years and over 300,000 km with no problems other than a new clutch. Much more fun to drive than my mom’s Chrysler minivans.
My wife and I had a 93 Maxima from 93 to 03 and covered 250,000 miles with it. The original battery lasted until year 8 and it still had the original exhaust when traded in despite having spent 8 winters in northeast Ohio. There was no sign of rust on the car at year 10. We changed transmission fluid every 30,000 miles and never had an issue with engine or transmission. All in all it was probably the best car we ever owned. I did not think it was really very comfortable but performance was particularly outstanding though it was just a base model with auto trans.
Nissan seems to me to have always been pretty schizophrenic with their styling. 510? Conservative. F10? Just weird in a purely culturally Japanese way. 260Z? Jaguar-level sexy. Pulsar with the wagon back? Possibly useful but cheesy and weird. Sentras went from rounded styling to sharp edged just as everyone else was doing the opposite. Murano (especially convertible)? Japan’s Aztec. Maxima has always been pleasant if occasionally boring. (Even Accords were wierder.). But now we’ve got the Cube, which IMO jumps the shark.
I bought a new 99 Maxima GLE and drove it for a dozen years. Ultra-smooth and reliable 3.0 engine and transmission, nice leather, good Bose sound system. The multi-link rear suspension was a weak point in handling but the power/weight ratio was excellent as the car weighed only 3,090 lbs. Ignition coil packs and oxygen sensors were problematic. While the current generation Maxima is not as bloated as the last one, the CVT was a deal killer for me and I bought a G37 sedan instead.
The Maxima lost its market position as Nissan’s 4door-SC to the G35/37 as it became larger, gained the CVT (and some torque steer) and was priced too close to Infiniti. Also, once the Altima became available with the V6 and added Maxima styling and quality interior features at a lower price, it took away additional sales.
I worked with a guy who bought a new 4DSC in 1990. Red, charcoal leather, sunroof, it was quite a switch from the low-optioned Taurus MT-5 that he traded in it. That generation of Maxima nailed the young professional demographic, then lost the plot after the redesign.
Hey! I took these pics. I’m glad to see you wrote an article for them! Although these cars weren’t in the best shape, they are so similar that I had to stop and capture them. I have a feeling they’re owned by the same person or family, but I’m not sure. I loved both these cars when new and new-ish. A couple of friends here in the LA area have beautiful Pulsars (both with SportBaks) but I haven’t seen any collectors with this generation of Maxima yet. I hope that changes.
You have a lot of excellent pictures.
As for the Maxima, the ones to have at the 89-90 GXEs with the digital gauges, head-up display and Sonar Suspension and the 92-94 SEs with the quad-cam VE30DE engine and 5-spd with LSD.
I should’ve posted a picture of the interior of these cars. Such nice flowing shapes and high quality materials.
These were built during Japans automotive heyday. I think few here would argue that the late 80’s through mid 90’s were some of the best years for Nissan, Honda, and Toyota. Especially their sedans. Is the ’88-’93 Accord not the best one produced before or since? I still see these old Maximas and gen 3 Camrys everywhere in South Florida. With regards to the Pulsar, I always thought it was a cool design, especially the T-top and funky taillights. A friend had one in high school and, although slower than my 4-speed ’89 Sentra, was still a blast to drive. I sincerely hope Nissan gets their mojo back someday soon.
I agree. The 89-94 Maximas were very “attractive”. I hated the “bubble-ness” of the 95-98’s and despised the 99-01’s even more. And what was up with those awkward, half crescent, not-quite circular taillights anyway? But, I will admit, I am one of those Nissan collectors. I have had 3 92 maximas. Even now, I found this website as I am doing my research to see if I can find another cheap low mileage VE30DE engine and a turbo…or if I can stroke it out to a 3.2 or 3.5 liter, no turbo. I love it because it does resemble a 98 BMW 5 series…even plan on painting it Leguna Seca Blue! Here are a few pics. I have the body kit, roof spoiler, back-up camera, deep dish 19inch rims, and everything else to make this car a show-stopper.
I haven’t seen a quad headlight conversion on that model Max before. It changes the appearance quite a bit.
Thanks. It was a b!@#$ finding them. They are off a 94 BMW E36.
I’ve driven 1st gen (5-speed at that!), 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 6th gen Maximas and the 89-94 3rd gen is probably my favorite. I had a 91 GXE back in the late 90s and that was the best car I’ve owned so far. Minimal trouble and generally just maintenance save a couple window regulators and a clock that needed a resistor resoldered periodically til I sold it with 170K+ on the clock. I wish I would have kept it another year or two. Great sounding VG30e, very good build quality…solid interior, good sounding Bose, good quality leather…the best fitting seats I’ve had in a car even. GM thought enough of the design to model the proportions of the last Eighty-Eight after this car.
The 95 GLE and 97 GXE I had after that were good as well (quiet and refined) but the plastic was thinner and had less character, flat seats for fat Americans but it had the VQ–a stellar sounding engine in its own right. I’ll disagree with others about handling with the multi-link beam though…the 4th gen was always better planted feeling and the tail was far more inclined to follow the front of the car whereas the 3rd gen could get a little tail happy if you didn’t watch how you drove it.