#2 – 2005 Nissan Maxima 3.5SL

It’s expected, when undertaking a project like this, that one would start with some introspection on previously driven cars. This is mostly done to ask the all-important question: “Do I remember enough about this car to write a review without having to track down another?” The answer, I’ve found, is almost always “No.”

Luckily, the car I was thinking about most, the Nissan Altima, is a relatively common car and I shouldn’t have a problem finding another one. And of course, within a week of starting this blog, a Nissan Maxima appeared. Not an Altima, but close enough and I couldn’t wait to give it a try.

You’re probably wondering why I’m so excited about a basic Japanese car, and the simple answer is: I wanted to try out a CVT now that I have a few more cars to compare it to.

Astute readers out there are yelling “But the 2005 Maxima doesn’t have a CVT!” Well Ok, I didn’t know this yet, so I headed for the nearest road and put my foot down.

And it was heaven. This was a 3.5L V6 Maxima SL with 265 hp, and it felt like a dream. The shifts were the smoothest I’ve ever felt in an automatic car. Revs go up, car shifts, revs go down, repeat. At this time I still thought it was a CVT, and I thought maybe Nissan built some sort of shifting replication feel into the car, and I liked it. Of course I now know it was just your standard automatic and this was just a superb example. Which is funny because if you google “2005 Nissan Maxima Transmission” you get several hits saying how the transmission in this car is horrible and jerks and breaks and blah blah blah. This must have been one of the lucky ones because it wasn’t exactly low-mileage and really, I cannot say enough about how nicely this car shifted. And it had power to go along with it, the smoothness was definitely not because of a wimpy engine.

Anyway, on to the rest of the car. I have determined that the SL badging on the trunk stands for “Super Luxurious.” It has all the standard luxury features, leather, heated seats, xenon headlights (impressive for a 2005 model), moonroof (unfortunately for me it had the optional traditional moonroof and not the silly-looking but curiously weird fixed skyview roof that is narrow and extends the length of the car roof), screen built into the dash…

Oh wait. Is that a large display screen full of 7-segment digits? I don’t really understand their reasoning behind this one, a decent radio display could have taken care of this information without looking like it was from the 90’s. By the end of my test drive I had come to appreciate it, simply because it let me set daytime and nighttime brightness levels that adjusted the orange hue to my liking. I’m probably the wrong person to be writing car reviews, it doesn’t take much to please me. Either way, this is still not a design choice I would have used.

Again it had a horrible non-linear automatic gear shifter. Do people bump the shifter while driving? Is it that eating a hamburger while driving makes it impossible to not flail and bump things? Or do car manufacturers think that this gives people the same satisfaction that one gets from shifting a gated manual? I don’t know, and I don’t like it.

This probably isn’t sounding super luxurious to you. And you’re right. Because then, as I was about to call it a day and exit the vehicle, I noticed a row of buttons hidden to the left of the steering wheel on the dash.

Ooh, does that one fold in the mirrors? I hit the button. Nothing. Thought maybe I should put the key back in the ignition and turn the car on before expecting buttons to do anything. Tried again and yes! The mirrors folded in. I am very particular about sounds, and I just really like the sound of power-folding mirror motors. I should mention right now that this car was driven in a major city quite a bit and damaged accordingly. But yet, the mirrors have survived probably hundreds of hours in those cramped parking lots and not taken their share of the damage. I’m going to credit the power folding mirrors with this.

Next button. Hmm. It almost looks like a steering wheel. But not quite like the steering wheel in this car. (Author’s note: It does quite resemble the steering wheel in the old Z cars, if this was intentional I appreciate the retro styling. They carried some of this over into new Nissans but not as much as this button implies.) So I hit this button, and nothing. Following my hunch, I waited a minute, and next thing I knew…the steering wheel was toasty! If that isn’t luxury I don’t know what is. Actually, I take that back. Real luxury would be a heated and ventilated steering wheel for the summer. But that’s beside the point. This was cool. I liked it a lot. It almost made up for the lack of seat bolsters.

So in conclusion, cool car. I was much more impressed than I had planned. And after the experience of driving this wonderful, if slightly dented, example of a Nissan, I can safely answer the question posed by the most recent Nissan television commercial. “Wouldn’t it be great if your car never had to shift?” No, Nissan, it would not be great.

Addendum: A week or so after driving this car, I was walking down the steps of my apartment and in the parking lot I saw it… And in the exact same tone as the Top Gear crew spotting a Dacia Sandero for the first time, I said (out loud) to myself “Hey, that’s a Nissan Maxima with the standard fixed glass skyview moonroof!” And my day was considerably brightened.

#1 – 2003 Toyota 4Runner Limited

I wanted to start these road tests with an exotic or interesting car, but the whole idea was to take a look at cars that I would not normally drive, and what better way to do that then to start with a Toyota. Which is also an SUV. As someone who likes small European sports cars, this is out there.

The model I drove is a 2003 4Runner in the Limited trim level which includes 4WD and a 4.7L V8 engine. I like V8s, we’re off to a good start. Also during my preliminary research, I found out that this vehicle is branded as the Toyota Hilux Surf in the rest of the world, so it has a good pedigree. (Go check out some episodes of Top Gear on BBC/BBCAmerica if you don’t know why the Hilux is so revered. The Polar Special is probably my favorite example.)

The 4Runner weighs over 2 tons, which I don’t think is too unusual for an SUV, but the V8 seemed to pull it just fine. I put my foot down and the SUV moved forward with some pep. I should mention that this was a used car with about 147k miles on the odometer, and I have no clue how well the previous owners maintained the car.

I wasn’t able to take the car for a proper road test to try out the brakes, but they stopped it well enough. I would’ve liked to see how they respond at speed…because as far as driving dynamics went, this thing felt like a boat. The driver’s seat feels very high above the road, and you don’t feel bumps in the road. Also when turning, you leeeeean. And then leeeeean the other way when you straighten out.

I don’t think most people will be taking their 4Runner on an autocross course, so as long as they understand that then we’re all good. Just watch out for people driving aggressively on the highway, they might think their luxury V8 yacht is a jet-ski, and it’s not. (Going back to the previous paragraph, it’s a possibility that this car could need suspension work so that may have explained some of the mushiness that I noticed.)

And now on to the interior. I got in the cabin and the first thing I could think of was: “This car is designed for men.”

Before I go any further on that thought, let me explain something about my taste in, well, everything. I have a cell phone that both male and female reviewers have said is “aimed towards the male market.” I look at this phone and I see a cell phone with red buttons and red accents. I am a female, and I really enjoy red and black. This is apparently unusual. Also in case you can’t tell, I really like cars, I like taking things apart, and I fly model airplanes as a hobby. Most things that are marketed to men I see as neutral so it’s not something I say often.

Back to the Toyota. The trim on the inside of the car was supposed to look like black granite, and all of the knobs were designed to look like big chunky gears. (The picture doesn’t do any of this justice, sorry) All of the controls felt very smushed in, like someone just said ok, we have 26 square inches, fit as many buttons in as you can. But I didn’t have much time, I’m sure that over time one would get used to where everything is. It also has one of those horrible, not-linear automatic gear shifters. (I suppose I should learn what those are called, especially considering their prevalence these days.)

Aside from that it was a standard car. Leather seats, rear legroom was great, cargo area had some nifty features to help keep you and your stuff (and in the case of the previous owner, your dog) organized.

I did appreciate how someone, somewhere decided to make sure I knew that the door cubby was only for bottles, and not for glasses. (There are cupholders for that you heathens.) There was also a handy cheat sheet on the sun visor telling you under what conditions to mess with your differential. (Kicking myself for not getting a picture of this)

Lastly, my favorite part of this car. In my time of working at a car dealership I have noticed that car brands often have little features that aren’t a big deal, but are great for convenience. I would list some of these here but I need to save something exciting for future posts, so I’ll just say that what Toyota did here is amazing.

Yes, there is the normal sun visor that folds down and can also go sideways, but there is also a secondary visor that you can fold down to cover the top of the windshield while the primary visor is covering the side window. I have terribly sensitive eyes and wear sunglasses even when it’s cloudy so this is the kind of thing I can get behind. Maybe other manufacturers do this too, but hey, I’m new to this game so I’ll just have to wait and see.

So that’s the 4Runner. My horizons have been expanded already. Next up, try to find the Lexus equivalent, I guess that would be the GX?