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Nashville Scene Like Night and Day

Nissan and Infiniti cover all the bases with new Maxima and I30

By Marc Stengel

NOVEMBER 15, 1999:  Let's see. Hmmm. Pretty day, clear skies.... I think I'm in a Maxima mood this morning. Just the thing for barnstorming down to Columbus, Ga., along the sweeping backroads of Alabama's Piedmont region and Georgia's Chattahoochee watershed. Nissan's fifth-generation Maxima, all new for the millennium, is a dream drive among midsize sedans. Its jewel of a V6 boasts an easy-to-remember 222 horsepower for 2000--a 32-horsepower bump over last year. Suspension is nimble and sporty, as befits a touring sedan whose power output and skid-pad performance rival the capabilities of Nissan's dearly departed 300ZX all-out sports car.

So I'm not really surprised, after my 750-mile round-trip, to find myself both exhilarated and refreshed. Back at home, the Maxima settles in for a snooze, exhaling that satisfying sigh of manifolds and brake disks cooling in the fresh evening air. As night falls, and it's time to take the Missus out for a candlelight fling, I think...yes, let's take the Infiniti this time. How fascinating it is, in fact, that Nissan's new Maxima and Infiniti's new I30, like identical twins separated at birth, should have matured into such unique individuals. Numerically, empirically, by virtually every quantitative measure, they're the same car. But when you drive them, they're as different as night and day.

Call it the power of ambiance. Consider, for example, the I30's standard upholstery in creamy, supple leather and all those woody highlights in the doors, dash, and console. The I30 ensconces its occupants, whereas the Maxima just gives them a place to sit. An expensive-sounding hush envelops the Infiniti's riders. Indeed, the car has more than 200 extra pounds of sound-deadening insulation than does its sibling. And this, in turn, accounts for the eentsy bit of extra horsepower on the I30's spec sheet: 227 horsepower to the Maxima's 222.

Everything about the I30's interior is luxury touchy-feely. Buttons and knobs have that soft-response, delayed-action, hydraulic feel to them. Nissan says the only common piece to each car's interior is the glove box. Ironically, there's another interior feature that each car shares, and it's a mistake: The stereo volume control appears directly over the HVAC thermostat adjuster. They are identical knobs, and it is virtually impossible, with your eyes on the road, not to confuse the one for the other.

Outside each car, it's obvious that the I30 is a statesman and the Maxima is a sportsman. What's more, the front of the Infiniti, with its undulating European folds and creases, is what catches the eye. By contrast, it's the rear of the Maxima that is most visually arresting. By way of cheeky justification, Nissan design guru Jerry Hirshberg says this is the aspect of the car that most outsiders will generally see, so why not give it a special zip. And zip it has, with its bobtail flirtiness and striking, inset lenses for the rear lights. At the other end, Maxima fairly disappoints with a generic look that deserves its own term: Japanonymous.

The Maxima's split visual personality is only a reflection of its behavior. For unlike the auto-shifting Infiniti, the Maxima is available with either a four-speed auto transmission or a five-speed manual. I've driven both, and the mood swings are remarkable. Over long stretches of highway, the auto is ideally tuned to the road. Its shifts are clean and swift, and an overdrive cut-out switch allows responsive, third-gear motoring in the twisty bits.

But get your hands on the manual five speed, as I did at the 2000 Maxima's worldwide debut in Carmel, Calif., and you're suddenly at the controls of a genuine, aggressive sporter. I lapped up the gorgeous coastal scenery as if I were competing in the Mille Miglia. Then, as if to prove just how far short of this Maxima's potential I had driven, I slipped into the passenger seat and let Indy Racing League champ Roberto Guerrero show me, lap after lap at Laguna Seca Raceway, just how the Maxima's max really feels. The car and he seemed flawless as we pegged redline at each gear change and, in sequence, braked massively, drifted lazily sideways through turns, and then feathered gently but promptly back to wide-open throttle at full racing speeds.

Back in the real world of my own capabilities, I find the Maxima's chief strength is its world-class V6 mated to a light and responsive handling feel. The motor, in fact, is so impressive that Renault has gambled its own future by acquiring debt-besieged Nissan just to gain access to this powerplant. Perhaps my only complaint about the driving style of the muscular Maxima is its inherent understeer at extreme speed. Of course, it's typical for front-drivers like the Maxima and I30, with so much weight over the wheels, to resist flicking their tails out in fast, tight corners. It's all the more noticeable in the Nissan, however, because this car's prowess tempts the driver to believe he is in a rear-drive sporter that can be throttle-steered right up to the limit.

The Maxima is the nominal bargain of the two, with a base price in the mid-20s. Add in the fun bits like the $900 moonroof and $300 traction control, however, and you're within shouting distance of the richly equipped I30, whose $29,465 base price climbs only to $30,710 after adding heated seats and traction control. Almost everything else is standard on the Infiniti. So it's not their prices that set these two cars apart--it's their personalities. In the light of day, the Maxima is a tiger on the road. But it's the sleek and posh I30 that rules the jungle at night.

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