FRAZIER PARK, Calif. -- Crank that plump and sporty steering wheel to the left, then ease it back toward center through the apex of a tight turn for a smooth exit before swinging to the right into the next of a long series of switchbacks running up Lockwood Valley Road, two lanes of blacktop draped across the Sierra Madre Range of California near Frazier Park.
Through curvy twists and bends we're prodding our vehicle -- Maxima, Nissan's mid-size touring sedan -- to run this convoluted course at a quick clip in order to see how nimble it can be due to the new menu of mechanical features which include Nissan's super-rigid D platform, fast-response rack and pinion steering, a fully independent suspension system, big disc brakes linked to electronic vehicle control devices, and a high-tech aluminum V6 engine with class-capping power figures.
Nissan describes it as a four-door sports car under the flagship banner of Maxima for 2009 in a generational remake which reaches from the rails to the roof.
Note the aggressive shape of the package: Inspiration for the design came from the twin-hull shape of a sleek catamaran sailboat.
Exaggerated blisters on front fenders are separated by a broad hood that slopes down from the rear-canted windshield to a low prow scored with three horizontal bars of a chrome grille.
The double-hull design lends visual breadth but also contributes to the car's keen score for aerodynamics.
In addition, the design achieves nil lift at the front end, meaning front wheels will remain pinned against the pavement when running at speed without wind interference attempting to push the vehicle upward.
At the back of an arching roof the rear pillars work out a unique design that suggests a coupe-like silhouette.
And the tail is tall with a smooth deck over the trunk.
Trailing below Maxima's back bumper are dual exhaust mufflers with chromed tips on the pipes.
For the seventh generational design of Maxima 2009, Nissan actually chops the length of the wheelbase by almost two inches to enhance the car's maneuverability.
While the overall length of the body measures 3.8 inches shorter than the previous Maxima model, it's 1.5 inches wider.
Wheels are big and fat -- measuring 8 by 18 inches with 10-spoke aluminum alloys.
Wheels also spread an inch wider on the new chassis, as the wheel track width expands to 62.4 inches front and back.
Pushing wheels to edges of the platform adds stability to the stance and enhances Maxima's agility when cornering.
This is an impressive vehicle: It's glamorous in styling of the body, strong and stiff in the construction of the steel structure, filled with electronic controls for agility and safety, then saturated with fancy features for passenger comfort.
But buckle up for a wild ride because Maxima romps -- and, as our tests reveal, it's downright addictive to drive.
Part of the thrill stems from Maxima's all-powerful new engine.
The juicy VQ-series 3.5-liter V6 has twin cams on top and four valves for each cylinder plus CVTCS (continuously variable timing control system).
It delivers top-grade beef -- 290 hp at 6400 rpm with 261 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm.
The engine links to an advanced continuously variable transmission (CVT) labeled Xtronic.
It never shifts from one gear to another because the CVT eliminates step-ratio gears of a conventional automatic transmission as well as the resultant shift shock. Instead, two variable diameter pulleys and a strong steel belt work to match the engine's output with the vehicle's speed, ultimately producing seamless acceleration.
The Xtronic CVT featuring downshift rev matching and adaptive shift control (ASC) with manual shift mode (MSM) and optional solid magnesium paddle shifters perched on the steering wheel for hands-on-wheel shifting manipulations.
Maxima's suspension is totally independent with lightweight aluminum components. Up front is a strut design isolated on a subframe. The multi-link arrangement in the rear -- also isolated on a subframe -- produces firm stability to keep the tail in line by minimizing camber change when tracking around a tight corner.
A vented disc brake stands at every wheel and all tie by computerized links to the anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake assist (EBA) and electronic brake force distribution (EBD). Further, every Maxima model carries a traction control system (TCS) plus Nissan's vehicle dynamic control (VDC) device which automatically checks lateral skidding on slippery pavement.
Maxima's cockpit provides twin front bucket seats and a rear bench with two sculptured positions but room for three.
Nissan offers the 2009 Maxima in two different trims -- the 3.5 S and 3.5 SV.
Maxima 3.5 S is the price-leader edition although it carries a lot of standard equipment.
The list of stock gear includes a twin-zone automatic climate system, power controls for windows and door locks and exterior mirrors, cruise control and trip computer, intelligent key with push-button starter, driver's seat with 8-way power and passenger's seat with 4-way power, seats clad in premium cloth upholstery, a power moonroof, and an audio system with eight speakers and AM/FM/CD6/MP3.
Maxima 3.5 S adds more premium equipment -- leather covering the seats, foglamps in front fascia, turn signal repeaters in the exterior mirrors, the driver's bucket with power lumbar and thigh extension, and a Bose sound kit with nine speakers and speed-sensitive volume control plus RDS (Radio Data System).
But optional packages apply even more equipment.
The Sport Package brings sport-tuned suspension settings plus 19-inch wheels, a spoiler on the tail, xenon high intensity discharge (HID) headlamps, paddle shifters, perforated leather uphostery and Bluetooth hands-free phone.
The Premium Package install a dual-panel moonroof with power retractable sunshades, xenon HID headlights, heated front seats and steering wheel, paddle shifters, premium leather upholstery, Eucalyptus wood trim, a RearView Monitor, Bluetooth and XM satellite radio.
Nissan sets the MSRP on a 2009 Maxima 3.5 S at $29,290, or $31,990 for the Maxima 3.5 SV.