The PU11 Nissan Maxima was among the Japanese sedans to experience a complete identity shift in the mid-Eighties. Nissan was rebranding itself from a discount Datsun identity and took Maxima upmarket. Packed with technology and on its way to the 4DSC identity that defined the model, the Maxima deserves a place at the table with the V20 Camry and CA Accord. Let’s get technical.
Maxima’s genesis was as a renaming of the rear-drive Datsun 810, shortly after it arrived in its second generation guise. Datsun took its JDM Datsun Bluebird 810 and edited it for North American usage. Bluebird was a long-running name at Datsun, and the 810 arrived for its first North American model year in 1977. In 1981 the 810’s second generation arrived and was again an edit of the Bluebird. This time the car underneath was the Datsun Bluebird 910. It was separated into two trims: The base Deluxe, and upmarket Maxima.
It was a time of naming turmoil at the Datsun-Nissan corporation, and the 810 was immediately rebranded as Maxima for the 1982 model year. Badging at the trunk lid read “Datsun by Nissan.” More renaming occurred for the ’84 model year, which was the last of the first-gen Maxima. This last-of wore full-size Datsun and Nissan badges together on the rear. It was time for a full conversion to Nissan and a new Maxima.
In the fall of 1984 for the 1985 model year, the new PU11 Maxima arrived. Again Maxima shared a platform with its Japanese Bluebird cousin (now called Bluebird Maxima), but there was a notable difference: Maxima was now front-drive. Nissan knew the way forward with a midsize sedan was front-drive, as consumers in North America shrugged off the shackles of a rear-drive past.
The overall proportions were decidedly front-drive, though not entirely removed from the prior generation. Front fenders grew shorter, the front overhang larger. Headlamps were newly flush and the all-important composite design, a much welcomed and aerodynamic replacement for the quad sealed beams of the year before. Like with other Japanese sedans around this time, the look was more cohesive and better put together than earlier Eighties predecessors.
Notably revised were the large black rubber bumpers, which got a plastic color-keyed covering in 1985. Gone were the vestiges of the five mile-per-hour impact bumpers, which still protruded either side of the front plate in 1984. The same three-box profile continued from the 810 generation, with color-matched door rub strips and color-keyed dogleg door handles. As before, the Maxima was offered in a sedan and wagon format, though the PU11 was the last time Maxima was offered as a wagon.
A nod toward the model’s future appeared with the PU11’s 1985 introduction when trims were reworked into GL and SE. SE was Maxima’s sports trim and picked up the black trim removed from the base model GL. SEs received spoilers as well as disc brakes at all wheels.
Though it was a compact like the Camry and Accord, the Maxima was a few inches larger than those two competitors in its mid-Eighties guise. In the change from rear- to front-drive, the Maxima gained an inch in wheelbase, up to 100.4″. But exterior length was much different. Previously the rear-drive sedan and wagon had exterior lengths of 171.3 and 173.2 inches, respectively. In 1984 that grew to 181.5 inches for the sedan, and 184.8 inches for the wagon. All PU11 Maximas were built at Nissan’s Oppama Plant in Yokosuka.
Aside from the larger size, powertrains changed entirely in the PU11 Maxima. In rear-drive guise, North American consumers were offered either 2.4- or 2.8-liter engines, inline-six in configuration and powered by gasoline or diesel. Both engines were from Nissan’s L series and originated in the late Sixties. In 1985 this changed to the new VG series engines which were V6 configuration. There were 2.0-liter and turbo options in Japan, but all North American Maximas were equipped with a 3.0-liter VG30E V6.
The VG30 was a sturdy, excellent engine that was shared with the likes of the 300ZX, Pathfinder, and the Mercury Villager. One-hundred and fifty-three horsepower were on offer in its initial Maxima usage, and 182 lb-ft of torque. Transmissions were a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual. The five-speed was the transmission of choice on the SE, though a four-speed auto could be optioned. The VG30 was notable as the first V6 engine ever mass-produced in Japan.
Japanese Bluebird Maximas were a bit different than their North American cousins, as all used the smaller 2.0-liter V6 to avoid higher taxation. The sedan body style was available in its home market, but the wagon was not sold there. The most exclusive Bluebird Maxima was one off-limits to North America: A pillarless hardtop. That version was sold in Japan only at Bluebird Store locations.
Inside, the PU11 Maxima looked much more refined than its predecessor. Even in 1984, the Maxima’s interior was a loose conglomeration of hard plastics of different textures and a triumvirate of colors. There was much-unused center stack space covered in hard, texture-free plastic. In 1985 the look was more cohesive, as silver metallic trim covered the center stack, and buttons looked more alike to one another. There was even a new graphic equalizer. Tweedy blanket-like seating surfaces were replaced by button-tufted velour, which was also used on plush door panels.
The Maxima remained in its initial guise for only the first two model years, as in 1987 it received a makeover. Trim was revised generally, with more body-colored plastic and less black trim. Alloy wheels moved from a more complicated design with cut-outs and divots to a more Germanic-looking aerodynamic design. Updates carried to the inside as well, with revised interior materials. Nobody’s favorite – automatic shoulder belts – were added as standard equipment from midway through the ’87 model year. The GL trim became GXE.
Equipment was generally revised with the refresh, as Nissan took the Maxima upmarket to its Japanese sedan competition. The Maxima was not to be compared to Camry or Accord, but rather Toyota’s only luxury sedan offering at the time, the rear-drive Cressida.
Luxury features were found on both trims, as consumers slid their fingers over electric number pad entry buttons on driver and passenger doors. Power equipment was standard and included both front seats and the trunk release. Also new was that most Eighties of features, a voice alert system to inform when a door was ajar.
Maxima offered niceties not found in many other Japanese cars of the day, like optional leather seats, heated front chairs, and a full digital dash and trip computer (part of the pricy Electronics Package). Across all trims of sedan and wagon, alloy wheels were standard. No wheel covers to denote a penny-pinching buyer, as all Maximas were expensive.
Nissan added more technology in 1988 when an impressive new update was made to the Electronics Package. The trip computer was no more, and in its place was the Sonar Suspension System. A very advanced offering, SSS sent out sonar waves to scan the road surface ahead. An onboard computer read the wave feedback and adjusted the shocks to enhance ride control. The SSS was in addition to a separate option on SEs and a limited number of GXEs that featured three-setting adjustable shocks.
With its sporty nature, Nissan effectively positioned the Maxima as the driver’s choice compared to the softer and more sedate Cressida. The model’s aspirational pricing was evident as the PU11 developed and was revised in North America. In 1985 the GL asked $13,694 ($36,493 adj.) and was the same as the SE. The wagon existed only as a GL and was $14,594 ($38,891 adj.). By 1988 the base GXE commanded $17,774 ($43,190 adj.), while the SE was slightly more at $17,974 ($43,676 adj.) before options, and the GXE wagon was $18,974 ($46,106 adj.). The top ask was for the SE Special Edition, which added standard fog lamps, leather sport bucket seats, and additional exterior trim. SE Special was $19,274 ($46,835 adj.).
Nissan made a desirable sports sedan of the SE trim and successfully commanded much more for one in 1988 than it did in 1985. The PU11 Maxima was a short-lived generation, and 1988 was its last model year. Nissan was ready with their best Maxima ever for 1989: The J30. Sportier and better to drive than its competition, the 4DSC arrived in a big way. But that’s a story for another day.
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