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So Perfect
Why the third-generation Nissan Maxima is the most beautiful sedan ever built

by Bruce Sharp


1991 Nissan Maxima Many years ago, I became friends with two sisters. Both were trim and petite, but one sister always looked absolutely striking. Perfectly groomed and elegantly dressed, she commanded attention the moment she walked into a room. She was, I thought, very, very beautiful.

Her sister, too, was pretty, but few people noticed her; all eyes fell on the beautiful one.

At least, that's how it was at first. One night, at a small party, I was looking at the beautiful woman, next to her pretty sister. Beautiful, pretty, beautiful, pretty. The longer I looked, however, the more I noticed the pretty sister.

She didn't have the perfect, stylish clothes. She didn't have the perfect hair, didn't have the lipstick, the mascara, the lashes darkened just so, the way her beautiful sister did. And yet...

The more I looked, the more I realized: her face was perfect. Her hair was ever-so-slightly unkempt, but still... it was pretty. In fact, it was very pretty. In fact, it was perfect. Her clothes weren't flashy, but her figure? Perfect. Suddenly, a realization hit me: She was gorgeous. She was flawless. This was the beautiful sister.

Perfection is a quiet thing. It doesn't shout out, "Hey, look, I'm perfect!" It's subtle. It takes a while for mere mortals to recognize perfection.

So, for the benefit of those of you who still haven't recognized this fact: The 1989 - 1994 Nissan Maxima is the most visually perfect sedan that has ever graced the road.

Every designed object speaks a language. To understand a design, you have to know its language. To know the difference between plain speech and eloquent speech, one needs to know the language well.

I have never fancied myself a designer, but I do know a bit about design. The majority of what I know, I learned from a man named Jeff Miller. Years ago, in a previous life, I built custom furniture, and I worked for Miller at J. Miller Handcrafted Furniture. Most of the pieces we built were original designs, and at first many of the designs didn't particularly appeal to me. The longer I worked there, however, the more I began to appreciate the designs. I was, in effect, learning a new language. Good pieces had a certain grace, a certain flow, that came from an underlying logic. Elements came together because, taken as a whole, it made sense that they would fit the way they did. At first, one of Miller's shaker nightstands looked like... well, like any other Shaker nightstand. Later, however, I learned to see slight differences in proportion and shape. My eyes gradually became attuned to subtle distinctions between similar designs: One table had slightly thinner legs, a smaller drawer pull, a longer bevel on the underside of the top. The sum total of all these differences mattered.

Mies van der Rohe is said to have declared that "God is in the details." The details, however, aren't interchangeable. The columns of the Parthenon are beautiful, but you can't slap them on the front of Fallingwater. Strictly speaking, it's not the details that elevate a design; it's the sum of the details. It's the manner in which disparate elements flow together to make a coherent statement. The Parthenon and Fallingwater don't speak the same language.

Regardless of whether we are talking about buildings, furniture, cars, or any other designed object, the same principle applies. All the elements of a particular design need to adhere to the same language, if we're to understand it.

Cars of the same vintage are generally designed to speak the same language. Most auto enthusiasts can look at a car and identify its decade. The average sedan from the 1940s looks different than the average sedan of the Fifties, which looks different than a sedan of the Sixties, and so on. With that in mind, permit me to make a broad statement: The 1980s gave us the ugliest sedans in history. American sedans were particularly horrible. (Remember the Cadillac Cimarron?)

Until 1989, the Nissan Maxima exemplified the trends that had been prevalent throughout the decade: It was boxy and uninspired, as if it had been built without having been designed first. Imagine telling a carpenter, "Build me a house on this lot. No need to draw up plans. I don't want anything fancy." You'd probably wind up with a perfectly adequate house, with four walls and a few windows and a roof. But no one would drive past your house and say, "Damn, that's a pretty building." In the popular Eighties cult movie "Repo Men," there's a scene in which Emilio Estevez walks into his kitchen, pulls out a generic can labeled "FOOD," and begins eating. That was the Maxima. It might as well have been painted white, with a single black stripe and stenciled letters that said "CAR."

But in 1989, all that changed. Someone at Nissan had been paying attention, looking at all those uninspired sedans, year after year, and thinking about what the designers had done wrong: This was too square. That was too round. This was too wide, too short, but that was too tall, that had too much chrome, this didn't have enough glass. And then they sketched out the 1989 Nissan Maxima.

To Maxima aficionados, it was the "Third Gen" -- the third generation. The first generation Maxima, produced from 1981 through 1984, had been based on the Datsun 810. The second generation, built from 1985-1988, was slightly more refined than its predecessor, but still had a boxy, uninspired appearance.

With the third generation, the designers seemed to say: Here. This is the car you were trying to make for the last 8 years.

The Third Gen was the one where they got it right. She wasn't flashy. There was nothing groundbreaking about the design. But she was that other sister. The one you didn't pay much attention to at first... but once you did, once you noticed, you couldn't take her eyes off of her. She was gorgeous. She was flawless.

With most cars, you can see the compromises, and you can often understand why they were made. Look at a 2000 Chevy Impala. It's a good-looking car, but it's not quite right. The trunk is a little too high. Why? Because the trunk is also short, and so the designers tried to make up for the lost space by making the trunk deeper. Look at Pontiac Grand Prix of the same era. Again, it's a nice-looking car, but it's not quite perfect; the front end is slightly too low in comparison to the rear, as if the designers were trying to invoke the old muscle car stance of a Sixties hotrod. The final result? The Grand Prix looks like a pretty girl who put on just a little too much makeup, trying to get noticed.

But the Maxima? Walk around it. Look at it from the front, from the back, from the left, the right, the front-quarter, the back-quarter... There is no angle from which it doesn't look perfectly in balance, with every line and every curve flowing exactly as it should. Every detail and every proportion is spot-on. The Maxima looks light and graceful, but solid. Pay attention to the details; notice the lean, simple elegance of the door hardware and the mirrors. Notice the way the rocker panels are a darker color than the rest of the body, making the body seem the slightest bit higher up from the road than what it really is. That subtle detail makes the car look light and lean.

It's said that wise men don't argue matters of taste. They argue only matters of truth. ("Oh, yeah, Socrates? Well, the truth is, you have no taste!") Still, it's worthwhile to ask yourself why a particular design does or does not appeal to you. What do you want your car to be? What do you want your sedan to say? What do you want to think and feel when you look at the machine in your garage?

Some people want a massive sedan that radiates power and gravitas: A big, big car that says: I've arrived.

To me, what that car really says is: Look at how huge my car is! It's the size of a fucking ocean liner! I am the captain of the Titanic! I am heavy, ponderous, and stodgy! My idea of excitement is the stock market!

Other people want a car that conveys speed and raw horsepower: A muscular, wide-tired machine that says: I'm wild and fast. Which is just another way of saying: Pay attention to me! Look at how hot I am! Look at the enormous bulge in my pants! (Or my enormous silicone breasts, as the case may be.)

Good designs don't need to shout, and they don't need to brag. Beauty doesn't need makeup. There's no need for gimmicks.

Yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But if you want to know what's truly beautiful, you need to be paying attention. Look closely. Think about what you're seeing. Does it make sense? Does it look right? Are you being taken in by makeup? By gimmicks? Or is it true beauty?

Eventually, you'll realize that the makeup is only makeup, and you'll grow tired of gimmicks. True beauty never grows old.

There are a thousand reasons why I love my wife. One of them is this: five years ago, when we needed to replace our rapidly dying '89 Legend, she knew my dream car. She knew that I had always wanted a third gen Maxima. One morning, she found one on Craigslist: a cream-colored 1991 GXE.

What kind of woman lets you buy your dream car, instead of something practical? It made no sense to buy something so old, but she knew it was what her crazy husband wanted.

A few days later, I told my friend Carol that I'd finally gotten my dream car. "If I'm willing to wait until it's obsolete, I can get whatever I want!" I said. "Yeah, me too," said Carol, "I can have any 80-year-old man I want."

OK, it doesn't hurt to be reminded from time to time that some of my beliefs are crazy. I don't usually bother to explain why I love that car so much. It's not really important, anyway. The important thing is this: Every time I park that car, as I'm walking away, I turn around to look at it again.

Every. Damn. Time.