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Nissan aims its new Maxima at some strong rivals

With the redesigned 2016 Maxima -- on sale today -- Nissan is aiming to convince luxury brand shoppers that the Maxima serves up more premium features for the money than the Audi A4, Acura TLX or BMW 3-series.

With beefed up power and handling, the Maxima combines sporty performance (see test drive impressions below) and a comfortable, roomy passenger cabin. With models ranging from $32,410 to $39,860, the Maxima compares in price to the lower end of the spectrum for cars like the BMW 3-series ($32,950 to $62,800).

Test drives: We review 5 small SUVs
Test drives: We review 5 small SUVs

Maxima's large-sedan competitors like the Chrysler 300 are trying a similar strategy, says analyst Karl Brauer of Kelley Blue Book. "Companies have to go after premium buyers with their large sedans because the midsize sedan segment has gone so far upscale," Brauer told MoneyWatch in an e-mail. "The new Chrysler 300 in Platinum trim makes a very convincing luxury statement, and the new Maxima is taking the same approach."

The Maxima shares the engineering and production platform used by Nissan's midsize, high-volume entry, the Altima. But with the Maxima, Nissan is aiming not for high-volume sales but for high profit per car sold, Brauer said. "The Maxima at the high end of its pricing range should be far more profitable than the Altima," he added.

Now, let's put wheels on the road and see how the new Maxima looks, drives and rides. Here are some impressions I got during a test drive at a Nissan event in New York City:

  • Styling More striking than the previous generation Maxima, the 2016 model features muscular-looking front fenders. The side pillars are blacked out to give the look that Nissan calls a "floating roof." Maxima designers say it was inspired by the canopy of a jet fighter. This design look worked well on dark-colored Maximas but was less successful on the white test cars.
  • Performance While the Maxima doesn't quite live up to the company's description of it as a four-door sports car, it's a very lively drive for a large sedan. Acceleration is quick, thanks to the 300-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine that's standard on all versions of the Maxima. Even at highway speeds, hitting the gas pedal gives a swift, satisfying response.

    The new transmission, in smooth continuously variable mode at lower speeds, changes to quick shifts when you push it at higher speeds. A button on the center console lets you shift to "sport" mode if you want to tackle curving back roads or otherwise push the Maxima. Partly from a reduction in weight, the new Maxima increases the estimated gas mileage in highway driving to 30 MPG, a 15 percent improvement over the last generation. City driving is rated for 22 MPG.

  • Roominess and comfort The Maxima does indeed provide more leg room for backseat passengers than the entry-level luxury cars it's targeting, as the company likes to point out. A combination of the Maxima's suspension and its so-called zero gravity seats create an unusually comfortable ride at highway speed over rough pavement. (I had been over some of the same hard-riding stretches in a different vehicle earlier this month.)
  • Safety The top three versions of the Maxima -- the SL, SR and Platinum -- have the latest safety equipment that started with luxury brands like Mercedes-Benz. That includes a drowsy driver warning that sounds an alarm if it detects a changing style of driving that could mean the driver is sleepy. Forward collision avoidance is coupled with adaptive cruise control, which keeps the car a certain distance from the vehicle ahead. If the radar sensors determine a crash is imminent, the system hits the brakes. Blind spot warning, which tells you if another car is in the lane next to you, has well-positioned signal lights at the driver's eye level.
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