Nissan still makes the Maxima sport sedan -- it's just called Altima now.

Well, not exactly.

The Maxima is still in Nissan's lineup, of course -- but it has evolved from aggressive sport sedan to near-luxury cruiser. It no longer offers a manual transmission, for one thing (all '07 Maximas come standard with a CVT). And it carries a base price of $28,050 for another.

These facts render the Maxima less appealing to enthusiast drivers -- as well as less accessible.

The Altima, on the other hand, still offers a close ratio six-speed manual transmission (a CVT is optional), along with the same punchy 3.5 liter DOHC V-6 that's been the Maxima's calling card and chief attraction for several years now.

In fact, the '07 Altima's version of the 3.5 liter V-6 is actually stronger than the current Maxima's version -- 270 horsepower vs. 255. That's a first. And along with the availability of a six-speed manual gearbox, clear evidence of the Altima's new role as Nissan's top-gun sport sedan.

Best of all, you'll save about four grand, too.

The base price of the '07 Altima SE with the six-speed transmission is $24,000 on the nose -- a figure that's a lot more manageable for younger, twenty-something enthusiast buyers than the Maxima's pushing $30k entry price point.

Four-cylinder versions are even less -- $17,950 for the base model.

Granted, you won't get the raw power of the V-6 for your 18k. But you can get a manual transmission -- which makes up for a lot. The actual difference, 0-60, between a CVT-equipped V-6 Maxima and a six-speed Altima with the 175-hp, 2.5 liter four is not all that much -- about 7 seconds flat for the Maxima and just under 8 seconds for the manual-equipped Altima 2.5. Both cars are quick. But which is more fun to drive? For the typical enthusiast type, the answer would be -- the one with the manual transmission! Even if it's not as powerful.

And if it's considerably less expensive (the Altima 2.5's MSRP is close to $11k less than the base MSRP of the Maxima) then hey, that makes up for a lot.

Besides, there's always the V-6/six-speed version. It's still cheaper than the Maxima V-6 -- and for the first time, it's more powerful and quicker, too.

And keep in mind: You're getting more or less the same interior space; in fact, the current Altima actually has a good bit more rear-seat legroom (39.5 inches vs. 36.5 for the Maxima) and slightly more front-seat headroom (40.6 inches vs. 40.1 inches) than the current Maxima. The Maxima does have about an inch-and-a-half advantage in front-seat legroom (43.9 inches vs. 42.4 for the Altima) but it's a dead heat when it comes to trunk space (15.3 cubic feet for the Altima and 15.5 cubic feet for the Maxima). Unless you have exceptionally long legs, you probably won't have any trouble in the Altima, front seat legroom-wise. (I'm 6 ft. 3 and had no issue driving either car.)

But the difference in rear seat legroom is definitely noticeable if you're taller -- and here the Altima's the clear winner.

None of the above is meant to slam the Maxima -- it's just that the target audience (and the relative strong points of both the Maxima and the Altima) are different now than they were in previous years -- so it's important to update the mental hard drive.
And these differences can actually work to the benefit of enthusiast drivers looking for the sort of package the Maxima used to offer but which is now being sold under a different label, so to speak.

In addition to the bump in output of the 3.5 liter V-6 engine, other changes for 2007 include a new low-back pressure dual exhaust system (with both engines), shorter throws and tighter spacing between gears for six-speed-equipped models and the replacement of last year's optional automatic transmission with an Xtronic continuously variable transmission (CVT) similar to the one that's now the standard (and only) transmission used in the Maxima. This transmission features "adaptive" programming that tailors operating characteristics to specific driving conditions -- including normal, economy and sporty. Nissan says the CVT also significantly improves efficiency by lowering frictional losses by 20-30 percent, thus providing a significant potential fuel economy benefit over a conventional automatic transmission.

Also, the '07 Altima's chassis has been tweaked in several key respects -- with a slight (about one inch) reduction in wheelbase (it's now 109.3 inches vs. 110.2 last year) which Nissan says was done to improve handling and maneuverability. The overall length has been cut down, too. The '07 is 2.5 inches shorter end to end than the '06 -- so parking should be easier.

To maintain interior space, the Altima's cowl structure has been moved forward -- while the rear glass area has been pushed back. But the '07 hasn't lost any cabin (or trunk) room compared to the '06 version -- and is still very close to the now significantly longer/larger (and heavier) Maxima.

In addition to the changes made to wheelbase and length, the '07 Altima's front suspension has also been re-designed and now uses mostly aluminum pieces to reduce unsprung mass. The engine (whether V-6 or four-cylinder) now sits about 30 mm lower in its cradle and rides in a six-point "pendulum" mounting system designed to isolate and reduce noise, vibration and harshness (NVH). The rear suspension, meanwhile, has been modified over the previous design -- with the shocks now positioned in line with the centers of the rear wheels. Nissan says the change provides better damping with a smoother ride.

As effective a canyon-carver as the previous Altima was, the new one's noticeably better -- which may be due to the very obvious (when you goose it) boost in output of the 3.5 liter V-6 engine. 270 horsepower gives you the luxury of steering with both the wheel and your right foot. Dropping into second and powering out of a 35 mph corner at 55 in the Altima is the kind of experience enthusiast drivers live for -- and which this car seems to enjoy doing.

Clear-style tail light housings and a revised instrument cluster with an electro-luminescent Fine Vision gauge display add to the '07's sportier-than-ever demeanor.

Keyless ignition/entry, a rearview camera and monitor, GPS navigation ( Nissan's "over the horizon" system is among the best there is) and audio systems with either XM or Sirius radio round out the creature features. All trims get both side-impact and curtain air bags.

Later in '07, Nissan will offer a first-ever hybrid version of the Altima -- along with a first-ever coupe. If you needed any further evidence of the changing of the guard at Nissan -- the fact that a coupe version is in the works ought to be sufficient.

But with 270 hp and a six-speed gearbox, there's more than enough to satisfy, whether two doors or four.

And no matter the name on the fender.

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