They played safe and won

R O A D T E S T Nissan's Maxima QX offers what its predecessor didn't, says Roger Bell
Nissan's old Maxima suffered from a very low profile. Well-heeled punters were either unaware of the model, or associated it with the unlamented Austin Maxi - hardly the right image for a swanky, six-cylinder saloon. The quiet, comfortable four-door flagship of the Nissan fleet was not so much inept as weak and anonymous. Nissan put little marketing muscle behind a model sold only as a 3.0-litre automatic in a market sector dominated by cheaper 2.0-litre manuals.

The Maxima's QX replacement, styled to look like a puffed-up Primera, is not much more adventurous aesthetically. You'd never tell from appearances that it had been tailored especially for the European market. But although Nissan may have lumbered the QX with the same image problem as its predecessor, the newcomer does offer what the Maxima didn't: a choice of 2.0 and 3.0 models of varying degrees of plushness, spanning a wide £16,500-£25,000 price range. What's more, all QXs have new, low-friction V6 engines - notable, says Nissan, for their lightness, compactness, economy and refinement. Smoothness and hush I can vouch for; no harsh, 2.0-litre four-cylinder rival gets close to matching the whispering purr of the QX's lovely V6 engine. Nifty performance is on the menu, too, especially in the 193 horsepower 3.0.

The QX (standing for quality excellence according to the blurb) enjoys one other major advantage over the sloppy Maxima: without being dynamically exciting it is much nicer to drive. Through innovative (and very simple) rear suspension, Nissan has strived to give a decent compromise between elasticity (for ride comfort) and firmness (for crisp handling). Crispness, to a degree, it achieves, but only on the smoothest roads does the QX ride with the supple serenity you associate with a luxury car. Elsewhere, there's too much agitation to applaud the suspension as an unqualified success.

The 2.0 QX is no tearaway but claimed performance and economy figures are very competitive. In neither model is transmission perfect: the gear lever of the five-speed manual needs guiding accurately if it's not to obstruct, and the three-mode four-speed automatic tends to snatch when changing down. Although the QX doesn't inspire spirited cornering - it is not that sort of car - it rewards the speedy driver with unexpected spirit and alacrity. Twisty roads covered in bumpy asphalt fail to betray any vices or shortcomings.

Inside, there's nothing to distinguish the smart, roomy five-seater QX from most other up-range Japanese cars. The ordered dash is well presented and finished but hardly adventurous or distinctive. There's none of the flair you'll find in a Ford Scorpio. Still, everything fits and works beautifully; quality is as tactile as it is visible.

Wary of alienating conservative buyers with gimmickry and controversy, Nissan has played a very safe hand - too safe, perhaps - in staking a claim for 2 per cent of Europe's executive sector, equivalent to about 10,000 QXs (all made in Japan). Its first-year UK target of just 1,500 is well above what the Maxima achieved at its best, but does not seem over ambitious for a car that's more accomplished than bland appearances suggest.