Thursday, April 5, 2012

A SPORTS CAR WITH A CVT? HMMMMM.


You’ve probably seen the commercial on TV.
A guy’s wife comes to him with the news that he is about to become a father, and he smiles widely. Then it hits him. He is going to have to give up the Nissan 370Z sitting in his carport. The smile quickly fades as he hugs his wife.
The next scene he is standing in his carport, looking at his Z. Then he begins to tug at the rear of the car, and it becomes larger. Another tug here, another one there, and all of a sudden he is looking at a car with a backseat. A Nissan Maxima, in fact.
The point is simple. The expectant new father doesn’t have to give up anything. The Maxima is a four-door “sports car” that is both fun to drive and can accommodate his growing family.
He turns and runs back into the house, shouting joyously, “We’re going to have a baby! We’re going to have a baby!”
“Nissan Maxima,” the voiceover intones to wrap up the spot. “The four-door sports car. Innovation for daddy. Innovation for all.”
Well, my first thought about this was that it wasn't a bad commercial. At least it didn’t have me diving for the remote to change the channel when it came on.
My second thought was that there are a lot of other four-door sedans on the market that like to claim sports-car cache, so Nissan isn’t exactly positioning itself in an exclusive market.
Then I forgot about it until I had the opportunity to drive a new 2012 Maxima earlier this year, when a couple of issues became very evident and made me question the “sports car” label for the Maxima:
-- The Maxima is front-wheel drive.
-- The Maxima has a CVT.
Taking on the second matter first, a CVT -- or continuously variable transmission -- essentially eliminates the shifting of gears, even automatically, because the transmission ratios are constantly adjusting to engine speed. There are no shifts to make.

I have always thought running through the gears was part of what added to the sports car experience. It’s why I don’t particularly like automatic transmissions found on many high-end roadsters.
What Nissan has done, however, is equip the Maxima with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters that simulate the shifting of gears by holding the CVT at predetermined revs, depending on what “gear” you have selected.
Thus if you want to hold “second gear” for quicker acceleration, you can. You can also downshift to for engine braking if you want. There are six such simulated gear ratios available.
In other words, you pretty much get the same options you do in a standard automatic transmission, except with the Maxima, if you are driving in automatic mode, you gain the advantage in the fuel savings a CVT generally provides.
The fact that there is not a fixed number of gear ratios also makes for smoother and quicker changes when you do use the paddle shifters.
Probably the main thing you have to overcome is the odd driving impression you may get from the first few times you drive with a CVT. It has been described as feeling you when when driving a manual with a badly slipping clutch.
There is no noticeable lag in the shift from first to second, second to third, etc., as in a standard automatic because, well, it isn’t shifting from first to second, second to third, etc. As I said earlier, the CVT is constantly adjusting gear ratios.
So the paddle shifters and false shift points don’t make the Maxima a sports car in the purist’s sense of the word, but they do add a bit of fun back into the driving experience.
Now, as for the issue of front-wheel drive.
Again, no true sports car, which is designed for handling whether you take it on a track or not, is going to be FWD. Just no way.
But the odds you're going to enter a Maxima in a weekend sports car club race are pretty thin, I’m thinking, so it’s  probably not going to make a whole lot of difference to the average driver whether the Maxima is FWD or RWD.
I didn’t have any issues with “torque steer” with the Maxima, which you get sometimes with FWD models with powerful acceleration. When it comes to everyday driving, that has the potential to be the biggest issue with FWD models.
So, yeah, I think that with the Maxima that prospective new daddy just may have found a viable alternative for his growing family.
There is certainly plenty to like with the Maxima, which, besides being billed as  “four-door sports car,” is the flagship sedan of the Nissan fleet.
The 3.5-liter V6 engine pumps out 290 horsepower and 261 pound-feet of torque, which results in decent acceleration and fuel economy in the 19 mpg city, 26 highway range.
The interior is roomy and has the feel of an entry-level luxury vehicle with high-quality materials used throughout the cabin. Essentially, the Maxima is providing the kind of comfort and conveniences you might expect from the company’s luxury Infiniti line but at Nissan prices. For about the same price as an Infiniti G25 sedan with a 2.5-liter V6, you get the Maxima's 3.5-liter with its extra boost and the same quality as the Infiniti.

You can get the Maxima with an optional Sport Package that among other things replaces the standard 18-inch aluminum-alloy wheels with 19-inchers and gives the SV model Maxima a sport-tuned suspension, but it’s probably not really necessary.
The Premium Package has some nice upgrades, though. It adds $3,300 to the Maxima SV's MSRP of $34,450. The S serves as the base Maxima and starts at $32,060, but you can’t get either the Sport or Premium package with it.
In fact, the only option package on the base S model is the Limited Edition (LC) Package that includes, among other things, smoked appearance headlights, a compass in the rearview mirror, and some other design elements to give it an upgraded look.
Babies are after-market additions.

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