Nissan coined the term 4DSC or ‘4 Door Sports Car’ way back in 1989 to describe its newly updated family sedan – the Maxima. Combining practicality with a sporty drive, it was a popular recipe that many other manufacturers also adopted.
While there are plenty of quick 4-door sedans out there these days, back in the late ‘80s those looking for quick family-friendly sedans had very limited options.
Aside from Nissan’s new kid on the block, you could choose from a handful of six-cylinder BMW 5 Series and Mercedes E-Class sedans. Quick, sure, but not exactly within reach of the average family man or woman. The Ford Taurus SHO was another local contender, but its platform was already 5-years old by the time the Maxima hit the roads.
A Niche Within A Niche
Image Credit: Maxima.org
So, the third-gen Nissan Maxima slotted in just below its German rivals in pricing but delivered comparable performance thanks to a 160hp 3.0-liter V6 and some very sporty dynamics. A more powerful 190hp version arrived in 1991 and options like a manual transmission and limited-slip differential set it apart from the more laid-back alternatives in its class.
The Maxima soon developed a strong following, thanks to a hard-to-match price/performance/practicality mix. Over the years, it got more powerful, and luxurious. And heavy.
So, is it still true to its 4DSC heritage, or has Nissan allowed its large sedan to creep into a middle-aged malaise?
To answer that question, we looked back through the evolution of the Maxima saloon over the years, as well as some notable rivals it had along the way.
Eight Generations Of Separation
The Maxima is now in its eighth generation. An impressive run, but it’s the end of the line for this stalwart, due to be discontinued in 2023, with no replacement planned. It was axed thanks to the enduring popularity of SUVs and the cheaper yet more tech-savvy Altima sedan stepping in on its turf.
But way before SUVs were a thing and hi-tech meant you owned a digital wristwatch, the first gen Maxima arrived on the scene…
First Generation – G910
1980-1984: The Maxima name was first used on the second-gen Datsun 810 sedan. Although the designation initially referred to a trim level rather than the model’s name. The engine used was a detuned 120hp 2.4-liter inline-six from the iconic 240Z sports coupe. Rear-wheel-drive and a 5-speed manual transmission were standard. Not a bad list of ingredients for a sporting sedan.
Ironically, the higher-spec Maxima trims initially made do with a 3-speed auto ‘box, but from 1983-on the 810 name was dropped and the car was rebranded as the Nissan Maxima.
Competitive advantage: For a similarly sporty formula, you had to look to the pricier Germans. The E28 BMW 528i and 533i were in a different price and performance class, as were the W124 Mercedes E-Class sedans.
Still, the Maxima was decidedly good value and far more exciting to drive than similarly priced competitors like the Toyota Cressida and VW Passat.
Second Generation – PU11
1984-1988: The second-gen Maxima arrived in the US for the 1985 model year. A move to front-wheel-drive may have upset the purists but the newly available 157hp 3.0-liter V6 engine was ample compensation.
This motor was from the 300ZX sports car and when paired with the standard 5-speed manual (a 4-speed auto was optional) it made the Maxima a spirited performer.
The Dawn Of The Sporty Sedan: The early ‘80s weren’t exactly flush with sporty 4-door sedans. This made the Maxima a relatively unique proposition, especially in the US. Smaller sporty sedans were becoming popular in Europe, but in the US, you still had to stretch to the pricey 5 Series and E-Class if you wanted space and pace.
Third Generation – J30
1988-1994: This generation marked the start of Nissan’s 4DSC marketing campaign. It backed it up with an updated 160hp 3.0-liter V6 (later adding a 190hp offering) and retaining the driving enthusiast’s 5-speed manual transmission.
Independent rear suspension contributed to the sharper handling of this third-gen model, and even the 4-speed autos came with a sport mode that held onto gears longer. Every model came with a 4DSC sticker in the window – just in case you mistook it for yet another wafty family barge.
Limited Rivals: The closest competitor to this new 4DSC was the rare and sporty Ford Taurus SHO. It arrived a year after the third-gen Maxima, but was based on the 5-year-old Taurus chassis. Still, with a 220hp Yamaha designed 3.0-liter V6 and rear-wheel-drive, it was without doubt a very capable 4DSC competitor.
Fourth Generation – A32
1994 – 1999: The Maxima got a complete redesign in 1994, with a new VQ Series 3.0-liter motor. It still made 190hp, but torque was up to 205lb-ft, making this fourth-gen model the quickest Japanese sedan on sale in the US. The 0-60mph time was just 6.6-seconds, quicker than the pricier BMW 530i.
Cost-cutting saw the rear suspension revert back to a simpler torsion beam setup, and the limited-slip diff was now only available on Canadian Maximas. Still, the 5-speed manual was retained (a rarity in this class), and the Maxima was still very much a 4DSC.
More Competition Arrives: The Ford Taurus SHO remained a strong competitor, now available with a torquier 3.2-liter motor for the newly added automatic versions. A new generation SHO arrived in 1996, now with a 235hp 3.4-liter motor but paired solely with an automatic.
Most leaned to the side of luxury and comfort, except for the very competent 190hp V6 Camry.
Fifth Generation – A33B
1999-2002: The next step in the Maxima’s evolution saw it get an updated 227hp 3.0-liter VQ motor. A 5-speed manual was still available, but the heavier bodyshell saw the 0-60mph sprint drop to around 7.0-seconds.
The 2002-on facelifted models righted that wrong thanks to a more powerful 3.5-liter 255hp engine, 6-speed manual transmission, and an optional limited-slip diff. A full second was taken off the 0-60mph time, and this was a definite high-water mark for the Maxima in its role as a 4DSC.
Still A Good Value : The Taurus SHO was out of the picture between 1999 and 2009, leaving some strong Japanese rivals to challenge the Maxima.
Nissan’s recently introduced Infiniti sub-brand took the Maxima upmarket with a posher design and more luxurious interior. Unfortunately, at that level, it was priced too close to the all-conquering E39 BMW 5 Series. That once again left the Maxima as a conspicuously good buy in this size segment.
Sixth Generation – A34
2003-2008: The sixth-gen Maxima was the model that moved the 4DSC far more upmarket. It was initially available with a 6-speed manual, but by 2007 all trims were available only with a laid-back CVT transmission. The good news was that the 3.5-liter got a few more ponies (now up to 265hp), and the independent rear suspension returned.
Both helped put some of the sportiness back into the Maxima, but it was certainly more of a luxurious cruiser than ever before.
Softer But More Luxurious: The shift of focus away from sportiness meant that the Maxima was now more closely comparable to rivals from Toyota, Mazda and Honda.
Auto reviews of the time still rated the Maxima as great value with strong performance and impressive luxury features – but perhaps not quite the 4-door sports sedan that it once was.
Seventh Generation – A35
2008-2014: Another generation, another bump in power, and even more luxuries added to the mix. The CVT was now the only transmission choice from the outset. But with 290hp on tap, the Maxima certainly wasn’t slow.
The 0-60mph dash was now around 6.0-seconds and the overall design was far sleeker and sportier than before. The competition was strong though, with rivals from numerous manufacturers offering even more power, and some – like the BMW 535i – could still be had with a manual transmission.
The Beginning Of The End For The 4DSC: Road testers of the time complimented the Maxima’s sharp steering and Infiniti-like interior quality, but it was no longer the default sporty sedan it once was. Customer tastes had moved on, and so had the Maxima.
Smaller rivals like the Honda Accord and even Nissan’s own Altima were now becoming the go-to sporty sedans. The Taurus SHO also returned in 2009, packing a twin-turbo 365hp V6. It had moved up a class in terms of pricing and performance.
Eight Generation – A36
2015-2023: The current generation Maxima has now been around for 8 years, an age in automotive terms. The 300hp 3.5-liter V6 still provides decent performance, but the CVT-only transmission discourages sporty driving, and the competition has long since moved to more efficient and powerful turbocharged engines. It’s the last year for the once class-leading Maxima, with no plans by Nissan to replace it.
The End Of The Line: The current Maxima has morphed and grown over the years into something of a jack of all trades. It’s larger than most midsize sedans like the Mazda 6 and Honda Accord, yet not quite as spacious as the full-size vehicles like the Toyota Avalon it is priced to compete with.
Performance levels are good, but not class-leading. And entry-level offerings like the Audi A4 and Acura TLX offer a more upmarket badge and a sportier drive. Nissan still pushes the sporty 4-door angle, but in its current form, the Maxima is no longer the 4DSC its predecessors were. That said, it remains a very competent family-friendly sedan with surprising speed when you want it.
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