Once SUVs gained traction in the United States, it was clear that nothing would stop them. With a high seating position, available all-wheel drive, generous cargo space, and a perceived notion of generally being safer than cars because of their size, it was only a matter of time before they caught on like wildfire. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. It’s simple physics.
Everyone hypothesized that compact and midsize sedans would be the ones to fall, but they weren’t. Instead, large sedans are the vehicles that are being driven out. The more luxurious options from Germany, Britain, and Italy (like the Maserati Quattroporte) are fine, everyone will always enjoy the idea of an executive vehicle for chauffeur duty. It’s the “normal” large sedans that have to worry.
For quite some time, American automakers took the lead in sporty, large sedans. Recently, that’s changed. Ford decided making cars wasn’t worth the trouble anymore and Chevrolet pulled the plug on the excellent SS. Dodge will still sell you a hellacious Charger SRT Hellcat, but that really only appeals to a certain type of consumer. In the end, there aren’t too many sporty, affordable large sedans out there anymore.
It may be strange to see Nissan and Toyota as the frontrunners in this segment, but that’s where we are in 2020. Nissan bills the current Maxima as a “four-door sports car,” which is sure to cause owners of true two-door sports cars to roll their eyes. Then, there’s the Toyota Avalon TRD, a “sporty” version of a sedan that no one has ever muttered a word of sportiness about. Hellcat challengers these two are not, but for the everyday driver on a budget who yearns for something to get the blood pumping, these are the best you’ve got to choose from.
We thought taking these two sedans west, out of the city, away from traffic, and beyond 25 mph speed limits was the best way to test their sporty credentials.
Getting to Monocacy National Battlefield takes just under an hour if you stick to I-70 W. But these are sporty sedans, meant to be enjoyed on roads that aren’t just arrow straight. Luckily, I-70 W has good, windy roads on either side of it and Google Maps reveals that even twistier pieces of tarmac are located close to the battlefield.
You couldn’t have asked for better weather with the Maxima SR, the first of the sedans that was dropped off at our doorstep. Pleasantly warm, blue skies, little traffic, and a tank full of premium fuel just begging to be drained had us itching to set off. And so we did.
Even before Baltimore’s skyscrapers are out of view, it’s easy to see why Nissan calls the Maxima a four-door sports car. You sit incredibly low in the sedan and the thick, flat-bottomed steering wheel has Alcantara on it at 9 and 3 o’clock – a nice touch. Then, there are the enormous paddles behind the steering wheel that are perfectly positioned at just a quick flick of the wrist away. The handsome seats are incredibly comfortable, too, offering the right amount of cushion and support.
As the miles pass and the Blue Ridge Mountains begin to dominate the view beyond the windshield, the Maxima continues to showcase just how athletic it is. The ride is stiff, translating bumps and imperfections on the highway that my eyes can’t see. The 3.5-liter V6 that produces a healthy 300 horsepower also makes a pleasantly guttural sound. While slow to provide a simulated shift on the highway, the continuously variable transmission (CVT) isn’t that much of a curmudgeon on the beginning leg of the journey. What is annoying straight out of the gate, though, is the ancient infotainment system that, for some strange reason, decides to stop recognizing my iPhone for Apple CarPlay.
A touchy throttle pedal and firm ride have us ending the planned stretch on the highway and hunting for roads that aren’t as straight ahead of schedule. Somehow, someway, no thanks to Apple CarPlay, the sprawling farms, open fields, and abandoned barns lead to a well-paved road with little traffic and long, sweeping turns. It’s the ideal road to test the Maxima’s credentials.
The rough ride that we were beginning to hate on the highway results in a sedan that’s composed around corners with little roll. For such a large sedan, the speed that you can carry into corners with confidence is surprising. There’s not much feedback coming through the wheel, but it’s well weighted and the thickness of the rim, Alcantara touchpoints, and large paddles all make the Maxima really feel, well, sporty. Even the brakes are strong and responsive.
Despite the Maxima’s ability to do things energetically, there’s one major drawback to the vehicle: the CVT. While the CVT doesn’t have any actual gears, it has simulated ones that are meant to mimic a regular automatic transmission. Unfortunately, the CVT has a copious amount of rev hang, an unorthodox tendency to keep the engine way up in the rev range, and slow simulated shifts, even with Sport mode engaged. It’s the obvious defect in what is a highly capable machine.
Further down the road, the trees become denser and the tarmac narrows, leading to tighter roads with no marked lanes and no runoff area. Out here, the Maxima still sparkles in the same rays of a sports car. But its foundation as a large sedan makes it better at the long, sweeping stuff.
With a large chunk of fuel burned off and the stench of hot brakes wafting into the cabin, we’re happy to see signs for Monocacy National Battlefield. The vast, eerily unoccupied piece of land was the location of a battle in the American Civil War on July 9, 1864. While it’s not one of the more well-known battles, it was still an important one, earning the title of “The Battle That Saved Washington.” This time around, no battles will be fought at Monocacy. Instead, it’s used as a captivating backdrop.
A week later, we swap the Maxima’s keys for the Avalon TRD’s. While the Maxima is a stylish large sedan that flies under the radar, there’s no hiding the Avalon TRD. Toyota has clearly taken the loud and aggressive approach.
Heading back to Monocacy National Battlefield in the Avalon TRD reveals that it’s a different breed of large sports sedan. Where the Maxima gives you just enough to survive boring roads until you get to the windy stuff, the Avalon TRD isn’t nearly as harsh. More refined, quieter, more comfortable, the Avalon TRD feels like a large sedan that’s been slightly coached into having the mindset of a sports car.
It doesn’t take long to appreciate the Avalon TRD’s calm, composed demeanor on the highway. Those exhaust outlets may seem a little JDM, but they don’t result in a large amount of noise and while the engine’s got pep, it’s refined. The Avalon TRD makes 301 horsepower feel smooth and more than quick enough. Lower springs and bespoke suspension tuning don’t result in a jarring ride, either. The softer ride quality, broad seats, high seating position, and pedestrian shift paddles, make it clear to see that Avalon TRD continues to put cruising comfortably high up on its priority list.
As the Blue Ridge Mountains come into view, the clouds open up with a strong drizzle. Still, this 40-minute ride on I-70 has been more peaceful than the first time around. The thing about the Avalon TRD is that it actually comes with modern technology and useable backseats for three people. The JBL audio system is good, too, filling the cabin with rich sound. In fact, beyond the red stitching, red seat belts, and TRD logos, you would be hard-pressed to see that this is the sportiest Avalon on sale.
Once again, the long, sweeping turns call. With the Avalon TRD, it’s clear to see that it’s not as comfortable going as quickly as the Maxima. Around the same turns, the Avalon TRD surprises with unexpected body roll. The stiffer suspension set up compared to other Avalon trims doesn’t result in a drastic improvement in cornering ability. Toyota even fitted the Avalon TRD with Active Cornering Assist, a brake-based torque-vectoring system that’s supposed to help turn in. We can’t feel it working, as the Avalon TRD struggles to conceal its proportions.
Surprisingly, the curvy road reveals an issue with the Avalon TRD’s gearbox. With the Toyota, its gear ratios are so absurdly set that you’ll never have to switch gears in manual mode. All of the roads we tackled were done in second gear, barely encroaching upon third. And it’s just not on a windy road, but on the highway, too, where you’ll be able to hit speeds above the posted speed limit in third gear. That makes the other five gears useless. It’s not a gaffe as big as a CVT, but a fatal error nonetheless.
The brakes, which have been updated with larger components compared to the regular Avalon, feel strong and the metal pedals that help you control them are gorgeous. The stout braking performance is welcomed, as the 3.5-liter V6 engine offers brisk acceleration, even with the gorilla of the lackluster eight-speed auto on its back.
As the roads get tighter, the Avalon TRD feels downright gigantic. Out of fear from dropping a wheel into one of the deep ruts on the side of the road, we go much, much slower this time around. The Avalon TRD seems to like the slower pace, even with Sport mode engaged.
The clouds have parted slightly by the time I roll into the battlefield’s green vista. This Avalon TRD truly looks like the part of an aggressive, sporty large sedan, but it seems to do it only in styling. It’s a thought that’s confirmed on the ride back to Baltimore, which is done mostly on the highway. Smooth, quiet, comfortable, the exhaust barely making its way into the cabin, and jazz playing softly. This is where the Avalon TRD is happiest. It may be the sportiest Avalon in the lineup, but the TRD trim is clearly another Avalon. This one just happens to be wearing fitted Under Armour clothes.
Large sedans like the Maxima and Avalon aren’t here to get thousands of consumers to make the switch from SUVs to sedans. They’re mostly here to remind everyone of just how nice sedans, even large ones, can be to drive. If anything, they’re here to slow the complete and absolute overtake of SUVs.
Out of the two, it’s the Maxima that we would choose to lead a charge against SUVs on a battlefield. It feels like Nissan had the intent of creating a four-door sports car straight from the designer’s desk with the Maxima. More than anything, the way this sedan urges you to keep driving is the true trait of a sports car.
Compromises have to be made with the Maxima, and making compromises is a hallmark trait of a sports car. Luckily, from the driver’s seat of Nissan’s sedan, these ones don’t take away from a vehicle that’s just more fun to drive when the corners arrive.
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