Misses it by that much! I’m talking about Nissan’s 2004 Maxima -“ the fourth in a series of affordable luxury sedans that began promisingly with the suave 1990 model but then slid into sloppy mediocrity once the subsequent 95 and 99 editions debuted.

The it by the way is total domination of the sub-$50,000 luxury sedan sector, populated by models as disparate as the Honda Accord V6, Volvo S60, Holden Berlina and Vectra CDXi, Ford Fairmont, Renault Laguna, VW Passat and Mitsubishi Verada.

Still, if you’re hankering for any of the above, you’d be loco not to look into the new Nissan Maxima, pronto.

The thing is, Nissan needs to beg, borrow or steal a Ford steering and handling engineer, because it is in the area of driver involvement that the front-wheel drive Maxima still misses the mark by a wide, scrabbly turn. For keener drivers the steering is just too light, too devoid of road feel, to really connect with. And in the wet there’s just too much power going through the front wheels for smooth, seamless progress. Nevertheless, the slightly roly-poly handling is fine (the upshot of its compliant and comfy suspension), with the car pointing swiftly and obediently to where it’s required to go.

And everything else about the 2004 Maxima has moved in the right direction too.

A strikingly styled four-door sedan, the latest Maxima is as distinguished as its predecessor seemed extinguished. There’s a bold athleticism to its design that reveals a close relationship between it and Nissan’s sexy 350Z coup?Details like the broad rounded shoulders, deep windows and cheery chrome-grilled face imbue it with an enticing character.

It’s the same story inside, which looks like it was drafted by Ikea’s furniture designers. A confident use of (convincingly) wood-like appliqu?lashings of leather and metallic-like trimmings add a classy veneer to a uniquely executed dash. It looks much more expensive than it is.

But the best bit about the quiet and cocooning Maxima is its comfort and space, both at the front (thanks to nicely contoured buckets) and in the impressively cosseting and ventilated rear. And you know what? It’s quality, space and ambience that is the real definition of luxury, not gizmos and gadgets.

Yet even the poverty ST-L model for a tenner under $40,000 boasts dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes, traction control, climate control, power windows, keyless entry and a CD player. Leather, sunroof, lots of airbags and a rear DVD screen are some of the treats to be found in the top-line Ti-L for just $9K more.

The boot’s big too, with a hefty 476-litre capacity big enough for even Hymie the secret agent android to hide inside.

Woolly steering aside, only the instrumentation disappoints, not because it isn’t clear or concise, but because they’re just your normal run-of-the-mill dials. Oh, and a split-fold rear seat is optional, not standard.

The ability to dependably transport you effortlessly across this vast land is also a luxury, and the Maxima scores a maximum score here, thanks to a detuned version of the 350Z’s awesome 3.5-litre V6. What a heady ball of energy it is! With 170kW of power and a gutsy 333Nm of torque on tap, it catapults the lightweight Nissan horizon-wards with Philly Cheese ease. You just feather the pedal and the Nissan pounces forward. The flipside, though, is that doing this constantly is very hard to resist, destroying its otherwise fairly respectable fuel economy.

The strong and silent Maxima is perhaps the most improved new car of 2004 so far. Confident and charming, it certainly looks the goods, drives delightfully in a straight line and makes you feel special sitting inside. Friends who’d normally not even notice which new car I’m testing felt compelled to comment on how pampered their posterior was in this latest Maxima. So, dodgy steering aside, everything about the 2004 Nissan Maxima makes it one of this year’s smartest new car bargains.

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