Rare Rides Icons, The Nissan Maxima Story (Part III)


August 24th, 2022 5:33 PM

After its first few years as an 810, 910, Datsun by Nissan, Maxima by Datsun, Datsun/Nissan, and similar, the Maxima settled into its permanent home under Nissan branding. The well-equipped compact sedan sold over 198,000 copies in the United States between 1982 and 1984 (‘82 is the earliest year sales data is available) before an all-new Maxima arrived in 1985. With its second generation, Nissan veered off to distinguish the Maxima from its most direct competition, Toyota’s Cressida. Picture it, October 1984.

The sedan trend of the early- and mid-Eighties was toward downsizing and front-wheel drive, as consumers sought efficiency in packaging and fuel economy. Additionally, younger customers began sending their dollars toward expensive European offerings from German companies, which meant the “sporty sedan” was newly a relevant segment of the market. Detroit and Japan played follow the leader to varying degrees of success (Deville Touring Sedan, anyone?). For their part, Nissan leaned into front-drive and sportiness with the new Maxima.

It was the first Maxima designed with the North American consumer in mind, and the first one designed for its purpose. Once again the Maxima was a version of the Japanese market Bluebird, a platform called U11 in Bluebird usage. Despite its switch to front-drive motivation, the new U11 Bluebird for 1984 looked very similar to the outgoing model. 

Wheelbase increased slightly, from 99.4” to 100.4”. Likewise, the Bluebird sedan was slightly larger than its previous 171.3”, at 171.7 inches. Wagons were about four inches longer than their sedan counterparts. The width increased from 65 inches to 66.5 on the new Bluebird. 

Body style offerings with the swap to front-wheel drive. Nissan decided to focus on the Z as its two-door model, so the coupe went away. What remained were the four-door sedan and hardtop, and five-door wagon. One might assume the Maxima for export market consumption was very similar to the U11 Bluebird given it shared a platform, but no!

Body styles between markets were similar (more on that in a moment), but for the first time, there was a Maxima on offer in Japan as a variant of the Bluebird. Maxima was offered only as a four-door sedan and five-door wagon in North America. Japanese customers were permitted to enjoy a Maxima wagon but received a consolation prize.

Exclusive to the Japanese market, Maxima was offered as a six-window pillarless hardtop. Its official title: Bluebird Maxima II. Though it would have been an easy import, the hardtop body style did not hold the same appeal in North America as it did in Japan, as in the latter a hardtop was long seen as an upscale body type. Shown above is a 1986 Maxima hardtop, specifically the V6 2000 Turbo Legrand. 

Both the sedan and hardtop Maxima shared the same dimensions, while the wagon was larger. And though they rode on the same 100.4-inch platform as the Bluebird, all Maximas received their own styling and were notably larger than their JDM brethren. Sedans had an overall length of 181.5 inches, about 10 more than the Bluebird. Wagons were 184.8” long, or seven inches longer than the Bluebird wagon. Shared between markets was the 66.5-inch width. the Overall height for the Maxima sedan was 54.7”, and 55.7” for the wagon.

The new Maxima’s engines were all of the V6 variety and three in number. Two of those were exclusive to the Japanese market Maximas, and one was interesting! Two different versions of the 2.0-liter VG20E V6 were offered, in naturally aspirated and turbocharged guise. With natural breathing, the 2.0 managed around 120 horsepower, while the turbo upped that figure to 170 horses.    

The sole engine for the export market Maximas was the now familiar 3.0-liter VG30 V6. Shared with many Nissan vehicles over the next decade, the VG30 spread to Infiniti, Nissan’s Hardboy truck, the Pathfinder, and eventually the Mercury Villager. The engine produced 153 horsepower and 182 lb-ft of torque. When it was added to the 300ZX, it made 160 horsepower and 173 lb-ft of torque. Transmissions across all Maxima body styles were a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual.

On sale for the 1985 model year, the PU11 Maxima debuted October 17, 1984. Though it swapped driven wheels and was an entirely new car, the new Maxima didn’t stray far from the boxy styling of the prior model. Headlamps were updated to newly permitted composite units in place of the previous sealed beams. Overall the look was about as restrained and serious as it was on the first Maxima, but with a more intentional direction to styling. 

A squared-off front end led to a similar side profile as before, though front-drive proportions were evident. Nissan did not pile on the trim: Chrome was used sparingly and appeared mostly around the windows and on the door handles. The new Maxima’s rear was like a copy of the old one but updated ever so gently. 

Brake lamps were smaller than they were before, but otherwise looked almost identical. Both front and rear bumpers were body-colored on the new car, a noted improvement over the stark black battering rams of the old Maxima. Nissan enjoyed the sales success it found with the old Maxima, and did not stir the styling pot for its new iteration. 

After two model years, a refreshed Maxima appeared for 1987. Slightly updated front and rear clips looked more cohesive, and mandatory automatic shoulder belts appeared inside an updated interior. It was at this point that Nissan began to embrace sportiness and add technology to the Maxima’s resume. Maxima’s MSRP climbed notably over these few years.

Niceties like touchpad keyless entry, standard power windows and trunk release, alloys, and the odd voice warning reminder brought the Maxima upscale. Features like heated leather seats became optional extras and were priced like luxury items. There was a new electronics package that swapped analog instruments for digital ones and added a trip computer. 

Trim was shuffled with the move upmarket, as GL became GXE (the base trim at the time), and the sporty SE appeared with its monochromatic looks and more serious personality. The SE also had dual power seats, often was equipped with the five-speed manual, and had a security system as standard. As far as looks, SEs stood out via their black side mirrors, black body trim, and a rear spoiler. 

In 1988 there was a new Sonar Suspension System in place of the trip computer, added as part of the electronics package. The advanced feature used sonar to scan the road ahead and adjust shock damping for better ride control. Both trims of the Maxima were sportier than the soft and broughamy likes of the Cressida, as Nissan succeeded in separating itself from the competition. 

The X70 generation Cressida was also new in 1984, and though it was arguably more luxurious it was also considerably blander, less powerful, and considerably more expensive. In 1988, the X70 Cressida and PU11 Maxima were in their final model years. The Cressida received minor updates over its run, while the Maxima had honed its identity and become more expensive. 

That year, a single Cressida trim was offered at $20,960 ($53,672 adj.). Maxima started at $17,774 ($45,514 adj.) for a GXE, while a standard SE was $17.974 ($46,026 adj.). The unpopular wagon was only available as a GXE for $18,974 ($48,587 adj.), while the most expensive Maxima was the SE Special Edition, fully loaded at $19,274 ($49,355 adj.). 

Sales told the story of the company that was winning the upmarket sedan shootout. In 1988 Cressida sold just 14,195 copies, but the Maxima sold several times that figure: 74,451. The sports sedan take on the upmarket sedan was working for Nissan. Keeping that in mind, Nissan created a sedan legend in 1989 and marketed it as the 4DSC. We’ll pick up there next time.

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[Images: Nissan]

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