Nissan’s new flagship is a seat-of-the-pants performer wrapped in luxury sheetmetal.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, the report of the Nissan Maxima’s death has been greatly exaggerated. Maxima owners will be glad to hear that the sixth generation of Nissan’s flagship carries on the tradition that has made it one of the company’s best selling vehicles — roomy interior, comfortable ride and plenty of power. But for 2004, Maxima is being pushed upscale to better fit into Nissan’s overall sedan plan. The entry-level GXE has been dropped leaving just two trim levels, the luxury-equipped SL and the sports-equipped SE.
“We’re striving for a very logical grade and price walk between the 4-cyl. Altima, the 6- cyl. Altima and the Maxima,” says Jed Connelly, senior vice president, sales and marketing for Nissan North America.
Maxima offers all the amenities you’d expect from a car in the mid-size luxury segment. Inside, there are eight-way adjustable heated power seats, a one-touch driver memory system that will customize settings for the power-telescoping steering wheel, seat and exterior mirrors, and an optional DVD-based navigation system. The Z-influenced interior features a hoodless gauge cluster with special anti-reflective coatings to focus the light on the driver and keep it from reflecting off the windshield. Designers also created the illusion of a floating dash by running the tops of the door panels around under the windshield, hanging the dash about two inches below windshield level.
|Three-spoke wheel and Z-influenced gauge cluster add to Maxima’s sports car flair. |
For the electronic gizmo crowd, there is a 12-volt power point conveniently located in the passenger side foot-well (for those things that stick to the windshield, Nissan tells us) and another can be found in the bottom of the center console. A third power point is available with the four-passenger Elite package. The Elite package is one of a few unique options that Nissan hopes will set the car apart from the competition. While the standard five-passenger sedan comes with the usual 60-40 split rear bench seat, Nissan offers optional four-passenger seating designed for those who a looking for a true four-seat sports car. Heated rear buckets sit on either side of a large fixed center console with cup holders, storage compartment and that third 12-volt power point. To keep unwanted sunlight out, a power rear-window sun shade can be controlled from the back or the front. Nissan says it conservatively estimates that 10 percent of Maxima customers will opt for the Elite package.
|Unique Skyview window is...well...unique.|
Another unique feature is designed to let the sun shine in. Maxima comes standard with a Skyview roof, a glass panel that runs lengthwise over the front and rear seats. The glass installs from the top and sits flush with the roofline. Nissan says that Skyview doesn’t have the drawbacks of a traditional sunroof like decreased headroom and wind noise. A traditional sunroof is optional. Safety is always a consideration and Maxima comes through with standard active head restraints, side air bags and side curtain air bags for both front and rear occupants.
Maxima’s aluminum 3.5L 24-valve V-6 puts out 265 hp at 5,800 rpm and 255 lbsft. of torque at 4,400 rpm. That’s a 20 hp improvement over the Altima’s V-6 thanks to a new intake and free-flowing dual exhaust system that boasts a 45 liter muffler volume. The engine bolts to the chassis with electronically- controlled engine mounts. The fluidfilled mounts are tied into the engine control module and, depending on engine rpm, can adjust the density of the liquid and dampening under certain conditions.
|The Elite package offers comfortable seating for two adults and a generous center console. |
The 3.5 SL comes standard with a 4- speed automatic transmission. The 3.5 SE comes standard with a 5-speed automatic and offers an optional 6-speed manual. At first glance, the Japanese-designed Maxima bears a strong resemblance to the Altima, though they share no exterior body panels. Upon closer examination you notice Maxima’s taller roof line, distinctive grille, and front and rear fascias. The C-pillar design is borrowed from the Z, adding to the sporty-look. The standard car has a drag coefficient of .3 (an optional rear spoiler lowers that to .28). High and low beam Xenon headlamps are standard on the SL and optional on the SE. Both get fascia-mounted fog lamps and cornering lamps.
The cavernous trunk has side storage nets, designed to hold things like windshield washer fluid, as well as a rear net. And designers have attached the deck lid with non-obtrusive piston-style hinges. The 2004 Maxima is the fourth vehicle to come off of Nissan’s FF-L (front-wheel-drive, front-engine - long) platform, shared with the Altima, Murano and new Quest minivan. Maxima shares underpinnings and fourwheel fourwheel independent suspension with Altima, though Maxima is lengthened by about 1- inch (10 mm) at the center of the vehicle. The suspension is upgraded with new bushings, springs and shocks and the tuning is refined for better ride and handling. Maxima also gets an upgraded steering rack to refine steering feel. Nissan says that Maxima is the only front-drive sedan to offer a (Helico) limited slip differential.
Large 12.6 inch vented front discs and 11.5 inch solid rear discs mount behind 17- inch alloys on the SL and 18-inch alloys on the SE. Both models come with standard 4- channel ABS and Electronic Brake force Distribution (EBD).Reborn in the U.S.A.
For the first time in its 23-year history, Maxima will be built in North America at Nissan’s Smyrna, Tenn., assembly plant alongside the Altima, Frontier pickup and Xterra SUV. Nissan has no plans to sell a version of this North American only sedan in Japan or Europe.
“From a business standpoint, it made a lot of sense to build this vehicle in the U.S.” says Emil Hassan, senior vice president, manufacturing, quality and logistics.
While Maxima banked 100,000 sales in 2002, Nissan has set production for the new car at about 70,000 units annually.
“There was a time in its life cycle,” Connelly says, “because it was our strongest individual model, that we tried to squeeze a lot out of it.” Connelly says the now-defunct entry level GXE became a very significant part of total Maxima volume.
Michael Speck, director of supply chain management, says that for the last fiscal year (March 31, 2001 through March 31, 2002) Smyrna produced 411,000 vehicles. When Maxima is up and running at full production, Smyrna will be on track to produce 500,000 vehicles. “This,” says Dan Gaudette, senior vice president of U.S. manufacturing, “will make Smyrna the largest manufacturing plant in the entire Nissan system worldwide.”
The plant is divided into three sections, all under one roof. The body area, which Speck says is the most automated section of the plant, has four blanking lines, 12 stamping presses that produce approximately 240 different pieces, and 800 robots welding bodies together on four lines. There’s also a line where Tower Automotive-supplied frame members are assembled for Frontier and Xterra trucks, and fuel tanks for the trucks are manufactured. The Maxima body is built with fixed-tooling and will run down its own dedicated body line joining Altima on a common metal line where doors, hoods and deck lids are hung and follow- up welding is done.
The finished bodies will run down one of two paint lines, one for cars and one for trucks. After the paint is dry, Maxima heads for one of four different trim lines.
Gaudette says that the way the product lines are set up, vehicles are trimmed into four different locations, one for each vehicle at that point. “After the first trim line there are a lot of different lines that will do some intermingling,” he adds. “Truck and Xterra will share lines.”
Gaudette says that Maxima will have the capability of running down either final line, so it can run with Altima or with Xterra and Frontier. In fact, he points out, Maxima will have its seats installed on the same line as the trucks.
Nissan also makes its own facias, a few parts for the Altima and fender flares for the trucks. The plant also manufactures truck engines, dresses engines for Altima and Maxima and does some light rear axle sub assembly off line.Working the Supply Chain
Speck says that there are 400 suppliers to the plant, 40 percent are within four hours of the facility. Lear Corp. is working with Nissan for the first time supplying interior door panels and interior trim pieces.
Smyrna has 29 sequenced suppliers from as far away as Indiana and North Carolina. And Speck says that a significant number of parts are sequenced. “When I say we deliver in sequence,” he emphasizes, “that’s a little different than other people’s nomenclature. We’re actually sequencing quite a distance away.” Speck says that suppliers are given an order for a specific number of units prior to starting in the body shop. “They get information that far in advance,” Speck says. “We tell them that’s the order we plan to trim. Let’s say we give them 3,000 pieces of information from off-line point to trim, back to their operation. I have 1,000 of those units sitting in the plant in various stages, that gives them 2,000 that they’ve got to go out and procure prior to me metal starting.” Speck says that puts the ownership for good quality and good first run rate on Smyrna to make sure that the vehicles actually get built because the parts suppliers are fabricating and shipping their parts to that original schedule.
Speck says that each production day the amount of parts consumed will get rebroadcast to the supplier, so the chain is variable. “And we adjust it based on their distance and the particular commodity,” he adds. Local suppliers don’t need the same length of chain as the further out suppliers.” The signals that go out to them are traditional 866 broadcasts. But suppliers have capabilities of viewing into Nissan’s systems and they can see where we stand at any given point.
“Our parts suppliers that have taken on this effort have done it in the right spirit,” Speck says, “which is to reduce wasted inventory.” Speck says that at first suppliers either didn’t understand all of the nuances of the system or they were just reluctant to change the old way of doing business.
“If you go to them now, two years later, they will tell you that they would have spent xamount of dollars to expand their facilities.” Speck says, “But now they don’t need to because they’ve reduced their inventory so much they were able to save money.”
All 3.5L V-6 engines for North American products will come out of the 930,000 square-foot Decherd, Tenn., engine plant. Decherd will undergo an expansion to allow for the extra capacity to supply both Smyrna and the new Canton, Miss., assembly plant. Decherd will eventually supply engines for the next generation of the Frontier Pickup and Xterra which will come out sometime in 2005.
In June of last year it was announced that the Canton, Miss., Plant would undergo a $500 million expansion to add production capacity for the Nissan Altima in the spring of 2004.
Gaudette says that the decision to build Maxima at Smyrna came after the Altima decision, “so we only built capacity to support the Altima, this (the Maxima) is added capacity. So we had to make adjustments in volumes.”
The future certainly looks bright for Nissan North America. The Maxima (on sale in March ’03) will be followed by the new Quest minivan in July, the Z Roadster in early summer, a full-size SUV (September), full-size Titan pickup in December and a full-size Infinity SUV in early 2004. Keeping an Eye on Scion
|Nissan Chappo — long-lost Marx brother, or future Scion fighter? |
Nissan has confessed that they are keeping a keen eye on Toyota’s Scion division. “We recognize what’s going on down there with the Koreans and with Scion,” says Senior Marketing VP Jed Connelly. “So we are looking very diligently at what we need to have down there. And what platform it will be on and what role it will fulfill.”
One thing is certain, it will not be a cheap Sentra.
“Cheapening the Sentra is not what we’d be looking to do,” Connelly adds. “We are looking at something else down in that arena, not necessarily a Sentra.”
Connelly says that with the next Sentra there will be a more logical step to Altima and Maxima.
“If we do something down there our goal would be to have something in that segment that’s as exciting and attractive as the Altima is in its segment or the Z is in its segment.” Connelly says that it will be a unique model. “Maybe something that’s different than a sedan.”
On the way out of the plant, walking through an office decorated with pictures of Nissan vehicles, we caught a glimpse of the Nissan Chappo, a Scion-looking city-car concept that debuted at last year’s New York auto show. Nissan said that it was on display to “judge North American consumer reaction.”