Rare Rides Icons, The History of the Nissan Maxima (Part V)

The new third generation Nissan Maxima (J30) took a bold new direction compared to its predecessors. Larger, more luxurious, more tech savvy and better designed than the first two, the third Maxima was the first to address the North American market. The sudden transformation of the Maxima was so complete that it diverged from its older sibling the Bluebird to become an entirely separate model. First today we consider the 4DSC style.

In its short-lived second generation from 1985 to 1988, the PU11 Maxima retained the same basic three-box shape as its rear-wheel-drive predecessor. And while it was easily identifiable as a Nissan product, it had little character of its own and looked a bit dated at the end of its run. The J30 Maxima was softer and more modern and was designed just between the hard right angles of the 80s and the organic 90s softening of absolutely everything (ahem, 1997 F-150).

The front of the new Maxima retained the same basic look of large wrap-around headlights and indicators as its predecessor, but the J30’s lighting seemed more proportional to its front clip. The old Maxima’s single slatted grille was updated to have a chrome surround in 1989. It’s worth noting that many of the trim elements were body-colored for the SE model, but we won’t cover them separately here. .

Nissan lettering appeared in the lower driver’s side corner of the grille, as the centrally placed Nissan logo would not arrive on the Maxima until 1991. Below the simple headlight arrangement was a sleeker bumper than before and with fewer ribbed details. It also had a black lower valance to make the front appear lower to the ground. Driving lights were placed in the corners of the bumper – they were placed closer to the corner than on the PU11.

The 1989 Maxima’s hood was a styling restraint, with only the weakest power bulge fading in front of its leading edge. The fender wrapped over the top of the front end and formed a closed line that lined up at the seam where the headlight met the corner marker. The fenders were devoid of hard edges, unlike the outgoing model.

The strong fender flares above the wheels were also absent, as Nissan opted for a much softer approach for the J30 Maxima. The fender, bonnet and door met on a sportier and more relaxed A-pillar than the previous one. The line of the window was more curved than before; less square than the PU11. Window seals were better integrated and less bulky than before as the industry as a whole improved window seal design.

The chrome trim around the perimeter of the window was more subtle and thinner than before. This smooth then streamlined theme continued with the door handles, which were now housed in a rounded piece of the door trim. Each handle had its own style that added some visual interest to the otherwise largely unadorned door.

Underneath, the door rub strips (remember those?) were body-colored and less clashing than the black trim still used on the PU11. The rubbing strip continued over the rear door to the rear fender, where there was a lot more styling than on the outgoing Maxima. Most notably, Nissan added a BMW Hofmeister bend to the rear door.

And although the C-pillar was thicker than before, it was also sleeker. The rear window was no longer rolled up to meet the pillar but was rectangular in shape (again with a thinner strip of chrome decoration). The C-pillar and fender wrap around the upper body to meet a soft-looking trunk lid.

In a nod to practicality, the new Maxima’s trunk lid was larger, creating a more suitable opening for luggage. In the PU11 Maxima, the lift in the trunk was very high, because the entire rear clip was fixed in place. The new heckblende with its MAXIMA lettering in red (or smoked on SE) was framed in chrome, which combined with the simple taillights in a very early 90s way.

The turn signals and reverse lights were both contained in a thin strip below the brake light and, with their chrome treatment, looked cohesive. The same couldn’t be said for the PU11’s austere rear. And like its new front end, the Maxima’s bumper was now softer than before and devoid of any chrome decoration.

Inside, the ’89 Maxima was a big step up from the ’88. The PU11 used a lot of hard plastics, seemingly committee-assigned buttons on the dashboard, and materials of varying shades. On the other hand, the J30 Maxima looked much more modern, with a better integrated center console of controls (clock, air conditioning, radio) and a monochromatic color scheme.

The dash now had a form other than square and organically curved on the gauges and center console. There, it formed into a hard ridge and headed down toward the shifter to give the cabin a driver-focused look. It should be noted that early examples had the very ugly steering wheel pictured above. It got better with the addition of the latest four-spoke airbag wheel.

The Maxima’s more modern appearance also heralded the addition of advanced technology. The road-sweeping Super Sonic suspension returned as an option, and there were more comfort and convenience features not available on the competition. A numeric keypad door locking system was newly available, which allowed keyless entry via pads on either front door.

This entry technology was limited to the more luxurious GXE version. It also allowed all windows and the sunroof to be opened by pressing a button on the keypad when the key was not in the ignition. After the short life of the number pad, this function was accomplished via a right-turned key in the door lock or via remote control. The all windows open feature remains on Nissan and Infiniti products today.

Perhaps the Maxima’s most exclusive feature was the optional head-up display, one of the first such offerings. Part of the luxury package with the number pads, the screen projected a digital readout of the car’s speed. This feature was only offered on GXE, and only from 1989 to 1992.

Nissan kept the Maxima’s trim structure simple in its third generation, and all examples were well equipped. The base 1990 GXE was asking for $17,959 (adj. $41,749), while the SE was a little more expensive at $19,009 (adj. $44,190). As the Maxima proved its popularity, the price soared above its third-generation tenure. Buyers paid about five percent more for a Maxima in 1993 than in 1990.

And the Maxima was really popular. Sales of the later PU11s in 1988 totaled 74,451 but jumped to 109,429 when the J30 Maxima was introduced in 1989. Sales remained strong in 1990 (100,067) and 1991 (99,026). As the model showed, age sales fell to 84,593 in 1992, before recovering to 87,602 in 1993.

However, something amazing happened when the Maxima was last released in its third generation form. In 1994, sales almost double, and the nameplate had its best year of sales: Nissan moved 163,138 units. A permanent highlight, the Maxima would never approach such commercial success again.

Perhaps it was a coincidence of timing, a series of one-off events: the Maxima was very good, its competitor Cressida was already dead, the Lexus ES 300 was new and too expensive, and the (soft) Avalon was not not yet available. But change was in the wind with competition from other brands and a financial crisis in Japan. We will come to that next time.

[Images: Nissan]

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