This may just be nostalgia. It may be the cars that I grew up in, learned to drive in, and wrecked in high school. But I didn’t love them then, so why do I feel so attached to them now? Forewarning: this is the opposite of an obscure drive.
It’s because they’re still so good. I recently had the opportunity to briefly own and sell a 60,000-mile 2002 Nissan Maxima that brought the nostalgia home in a big way. This will probably end up a review of that extremely brief experience. But what made it so great?
(Full disclosure: I’ve already sold the car by the time I’m getting around to writing a review. I have no monetary stake in whether or not you care about this or read it. But I do have an emotional stake, so please read it.)
The Japanese big three (Honda, Toyota, Nissan) had a hey-day in the 1980s and 1990s that some people attribute to a boom in the national economy. R&D dollars were flowing. Engineers were getting paid. Cars were selling. And the combination of those three things enabled some really excellent car-building. My favorite example of this will forever be the Lexus LS400 (or anything blessed by the 1UZ), but almost everything of the era, and shortly thereafter, was beautifully over-built. In fact, Jalopnik just did a story about this the other day, documenting the Mazda Millennia.
Even a ubiquitous, non-specialized car like the Maxima, for a very short production run (produced from 2000-2003, selling a hair over 400,000 units), feels incredibly strong over 15 years later.
Okay, but how’d you wind up with that car?
I owe that one to my enterprising father. He’s friends with an estate lawyer who was put in charge of liquidating an estate that included a lovely example of a Nissan Maxima, for which CarMax offered $1,000. My dad then said, “great, I’ll give you $1,100.” He asked me afterwards if he’d committed himself to a good deal; I enthusiastically agreed.
My father was now the proud owner of a well-dented Maxima, and I was the proud owner of a sneaking suspicion. That suspicion being that I would jump at the opportunity to acquire such a beautiful car without question for $1,200. That was not so; this pedestrian Maxima was nice, but not have your wedding called off over a stupid purchase nice.
So it wasn’t my time to become a Maxima owner, but I immediately agreed to help him list and sell the car. Before we get into that, let’s see if I can keep a review of this car under 600 words, as a personal choice.
A Quick Review of a 2002 Nissan Maxima
The first thing you notice about this particular car is how absolutely scratched and dented up it was. Knowing that its most recent owner is now deceased, I don’t want to shit too much on his driving ability and/or eyesight, but at least one must have been really sub-par.
Most were scuffs, perhaps from an unsuspecting mobile bank teller lane or an unwitting P. Terry’s speaker, or maybe his garage door fascia. But there were some gnarly dents in both the front and rear bumpers (and a crack in the rear tail-light) that I pray didn’t come at the expense of other people’s cars. Oof.
All that was forgiven when I opened driver’s door (not as satisfying of an action as it probably was in 2002), and was greeted by a truly excellent interior. Black with very early-2000’s lacquered-wood accents, and only one blemish that I could find on the entire thing. He was much more careful with his ass and hands (at least in the car, I didn’t know him personally) than he was with his bumpers.
To further pique my excitement, upon inserting the key, the seat automatically rolls forward on its tracks to bring shoe and pedal together. This is one of my favorite features ever put in a car. The fact that all new, electrically operated cars don’t do this is insane to me.
It made me feel like a king but that’s not the primary benefit (I assume); it goes an incredibly long way for ingress and egress. Even though it’s lower as far as large sedans are concerned, I never felt remotely inconvenienced getting in and out. More importantly: my father, who is 41 years my senior also never complained. And he’s not quite at the age where he complains about everything, but egress into low cars is a topic that comes up too frequently. This is a dope feature that Nissan gets instant points for putting in a full-sized sedan. Okay. Seated in car, key turned. Car on.
It Could Take That Fancy, New Car of Yours
As the Maxima settled down to a very relaxed idle, my dad felt the need to impart some words of wisdom. “Don’t be fooled, son,” he chided. ‘This is a quick car.” While I can appreciate the sentiment, my father has driven various Toyota Camrys for 15 consecutive years. He claims to have driven a 535 in the late 1980s, but I’ve never seen photographic evidence. All this is to say that he may not be an impartial judge of velocity.
I set off, and was promptly displeased. He was right. I chirped the tires instantly. First gear was oddly short and aggressive for such a docile, upscale car. Second gear had lots of pull, too. In the days before the VQ engine made it to America, Nissan was still making some quick cars. I must have missed the memo. So, sorry Dad, the car was weirdly quick.
The rest of the driving notes were expectedly dull; the steering was floaty and indirect. Lock to lock took a long time. It had tons, and tons, and tons of body roll. But it was eerily quiet in the cabin, the sound system worked well (I even found an Avril Lavigne CD in the glove box – score), and it took South Austin potholes like a pro. Everything about the car was impressive.
I walked away from the car deeply impressed, heavily nostalgic, and feeling mixed emotions about the car that I recently purchased. The Japanese manufacturers captured lightning in a bottle at the end of the 20th century. This was by no means a perfect example, or even one that was necessarily well cared for, but I would confidently start to daily drive it tomorrow. So now I’m faced with a moral impasse. Should I only be owning cars like this? This car was $1,100. One thousand, one hundred dollars. Exactly double the average American car payment ($551).
Am I an idiot for not buying this car from my dad, driving it until I was bored, and flipping it to buy something equally unique, interesting, and well engineered? I’m seriously second-guessing myself. That’s how remarkable and full of quality this car felt.
So, what’s a takeaway here? It felt impactful to experience one of these cars first-hand for the first time in a few years. If you haven’t, I think everyone should feel the quality that exudes from a Japanese car from the 90s or early ‘aughts. It’s a powerful reminder that you don’t have to purchase something brand new experience meticulous quality.
And it’s not just me
I neglected to mention that my own father was so taken by the car that he had asked my advice on whether or not he should sell it. He was considering keeping the car, and instead, selling his Camry that was over 10 years the junior of the Maxima. He’s generally a risk-averse guy, so we opted that he should keep what he knows, trusts, and likes. But it was a tough decision.
I put it on Craigslist, and in two days, I had sold the Maxima for over three times what my father paid for it, but it felt like too little. And like there was significant opportunity cost involved. It’s weird to have developed such an affinity for such a pedestrian car. I guess that’s what happens when something is built with genuine care.