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Shhhh. Don’t tell anyone, but … for all of $30,000, you can get near-Lexus quality, near-BMW 5 Series handling, and the luxury of extraordinary reliability. Gotta be kidding, right? Check out the Nissan Maxima. Nissan’s flagship comes in several flavors, but I drove the SE “20th Anniversary Edition,” with performance-enhanced suspension, 17-inch alloy wheels, drilled aluminum pedals, and a five-speed manual transmission. The Maxima’s white-bread exterior styling is perhaps an acquired taste, though frankly it looks no worse than half of what’s out there these days. Inside, though, there’s plenty of leg, hip, head, and shoulder room, and the front seats are absolutely terrific — in the same class as those of the Lexus GS 400 and the Saab 9-5. After the exacting, but limited-ratio six-speed manual drive of the BMW M5 [ Motion, December 2000], the Maxima SE’s five-speed comes as a welcome relief. The M5′s racing six-speed may be a blessing on the open road, but if you’re just tooling around town, it becomes a real pain. The SE’s five-speed is less refined but easier to use. In boulevard cruising and in rush hour stop-and-go, the Maxima’s manual is almost as effortless as an automatic. Acceleration from Nissan’s 227-horsepower, 3.0-liter V6 is spirited and smooth. And while the SE’s special muffler and dual tailpipes are tuned to offer an appropriate degree of “rumble,” the engine itself is as quiet as a Mercedes’. I don’t think I’ve ever driven a silkier V6. The SE is every bit as quick as the 6-cylinder BMW 528i, with comparable lateral acceleration and outstanding brakes. Where the Maxima betters the BMW midsize, however, is in handling on wet pavement. As with the Saab 9-5, the Maxima SE’s road manners are remarkably consistent under all weather conditions — coming close to meeting the BMW standard on smooth, dry surfaces, and surpassing that standard in heavy rain and when negotiating the increasingly bumpy terrain of American thoroughfares. There’s not much to dislike about this car, but I do have a few minor complaints: The Maxima’s aqua-and-black dashboard gauges somehow manage to be both unattractive and difficult to read. Exterior visibility is merely good. And the SE has the turning ratio of a truck. Overshoot a vacant space in a crowded parking lot, and you’re in for a workout. These, though, are quibbles. The Maxima SE may come in a plain wrapper, but it’s fast, comfortable, fun to drive, and offers near-bulletproof reliability. M.S.R.P. — $27,149. Price as tested — $29,107 (includes premium audio system, heated front seats, front-side airbags) Mileage — 22 city/27 highway

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