MOTORING / Timely discovery of the Nissan link: Aimed at executives, the affordable Maxima plugs a gap between city car and supercar. John Fordham reports

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IN THE past couple of years, Nissan has probably occupied too many column inches for its liking on matters that don't have much to do with cars. In an extraordinary public brawl, by the standards of Japanese business etiquette at least, Nissan HQ fell out with its UK franchise operators, conducted a publicity war with them, and this year opened a multi-agent network called Nissan Motor (GB) Ltd. Sales have already outstripped those of its predecessor.

Now Nissan is back on track in Britain, it is redoubling its efforts to market one of the most comprehensive of all car ranges, from the practical little Micra to the storming twin-turbo 300ZX roadster. But until this year, there has been a gap at the boardroom executive end.

In an effort to deal with the plusher end of business-class motoring - but without the daft prices - Nissan first introduced the elegant but bland Maxima in 1989, but didn't stick with it. It seemed to be aimed at the market occupied by the BMW 525i, Vauxhall Senator and Mercedes 200-series, but lacked the character to survive at that altitude. Sales weren't startling, and when the new UK franchise began to operate, Nissan shunted the Maxima quietly off the forecourts and concentrated on sales they were more certain about.

But three years is a long time in the motor business, and a very long time in a recession - so frugality has made this perfectly worthy vehicle's low price ( pounds 16,995 for the base model) far more attractive. The Maxima's appeal has been enhanced in terms of both safety features and specification levels. And instead of aiming at the pedigree end of business use, Nissan has lowered its sights to the likes of the Peugeot 605 and Ford Scorpio, while still reminding cannier punters that a BMW 525 doesn't rout the Maxima - especially when the chequebook comes out.

All three Maxima models - the V6, V6S and V6SE - have the same engine and transmission. The engine is the big 3.0-litre V6, the powerful heart of the 300ZX and a unit of hushed clout that provides pulling power at low speed, almost silent tickover in traffic, and confidence when overtaking. The automatic gearbox facilitates smooth changes, sharp kickdown acceleration and quiet motorway cruising because its overdrive system enables the engine to turn over much slower than average at the legal speed limit.

All the 1992 cars have also been beefed up in safety terms. There are side impact beams in all four doors, reinforced central pillars, and a driver's airbag on the top-of-the-range SE model - which you can own for pounds 20,500, instead of the pounds 25,000-plus you'd be spending with many rivals of comparable specification. All three models have power steering, four- speed auto gearbox, alloy wheels, central locking, electric windows, sunroof and door mirrors and a catalytic exhaust. The mid-range Maxima S, at pounds 18,900, adds cruise control, full air-conditioning, anti-lock brakes and electrically adjustable seats, and the SE includes leather upholstery and a CD player as well as the airbag. This all adds up to a lot of car for the cash, though I could quite happily trade in the slippery leatherwork for boringly welcoming fabric without regret.

But how does the Maxima drive? It's certainly refined, at least in sober use - so discreet, in fact, that no fewer than three oblivious pedestrians in the course of a week stepped off pavements and inadvertently tested its very impressive brakes. Engine noise levels do rise when the revs top 4,500, which you generally only detect on brisk use of the kickdown - a device that does require decisive depression of the accelerator to work, unlike the nudge which is all you seem to need in a Mercedes. But the computerised gearbox offers you three alternative running programmes, and you can marginally tweak the performance in each gear by flicking the switch.

Visibility is good, the interior very roomy and luggage space in the boot cavernous. Headroom is good, and switch ergonomics are fine. But, oddly, the daunting battery of window-operating buttons on the driver's door- trim isn't illuminated at night. Though design inside and out is bland, there is one small but curious eccentricity in Nissan's choice of archaic Roman numerology for the instruments. With true Japanese restraint, the car plays a tinkling clockwork music-box tune if you threaten to abandon it with the lights on.

Ride comfort is the Maxima's weakness, its bumpiness at the rear an odd quirk in a car otherwise so efficiently angled at a luxury market. Unlike many Japanese cars, the power steering (standard on all models) doesn't give the impression that the steering column is inserted into a bucket of blancmange. But although it makes the driver more aware of the behaviour of the roadwheels, it still doesn't touch BMW vitality. Handling is fine, but again not in the top league for tautness and balance. Body roll or running offline won't bother you, however, except at extremes of use a Nissan Maxima driver isn't likely to contemplate. Enthusiastic motoring this is not, but nor is it frugal - fuel consumption is surprisingly high, especially in town.-

(Photograph omitted)