Road trip: Toronto to Virginia in a 2012 Nissan Maxima

Not a whole lot about our family road trip was planned in advance.

That’s not to say my wife and I didn’t know where we were headed: we were, after all, visiting our friends in Madison Heights, Virginia. Accordingly, we had vague plans to stop in Pittsburgh and Washington D.C. along the way.

But we weren’t big on specifics. We intended to be spontaneous, booking hotels online whenever there was free wireless (no thanks, data roaming!) and cruising our way to the right exits and interchanges via the trusty guidance of GPS. No need to plan our route, we thought. We have technology!

It helps, mind you, if you bring that technology with you.

On Monday morning, my wife and I buckled our 11-month-old daughter, Sarah, into the family car and headed out to pick up our test vehicle: a white 2012 Nissan Maxima, barely broken in and still sporting that new car smell.

It was loaded: leather seats, rear camera (with side mirrors that adjust down to help you see the lines while backing into a spot), power everything, cruise control and moonroof. To start it, as long as the “keys” were in the car, you’d just step on the brake and press the “start” button. Front seats were heated, mirrors were heated. Even the steering wheel was heated.

The Maxima proved to be a capable family hauler. For our daughter, the back seat provided ample space to fit her rear-facing car seat without having to compromise passenger legroom in the front. It’s roomy with a supremely comfortable interior. Trunk space is 14.2 cubic feet – generous enough to fit our suitcases, stroller and playpen, as well as numerous purchases made along the way.

And there, right atop the dash, was a large display screen. Surely, I thought, this car must have a navigation system. No need to ask if it actually did.

I was wrong: just about the only thing the car didn’t have was GPS. It was a realization my wife and I made an hour into our trip. She was fiddling with the controls trying to find it, but couldn’t. No worries, we said. We’ll just pick up some maps, plug some directions into her iPhone and be on our way!

Our positive attitude got us all the way to Pittsburgh, where we promptly got lost en route to the hotel.

GPS confusion aside, the Maxima’s fit and finish get high marks. Instrument panels are a solid black-and-chrome combination and the layout is intuitive: everything is essentially where it should be. Leather seats are comfortable. For an entry-level luxury vehicle, it fits the bill without trying too hard.

There are, however, some odd choices with the placement of some controls. The steering wheel-mounted buttons, for instance, sit atop the horn. This meant that I accidentally honked a few fellow Interstate drivers when trying to adjust the cruise control.

For those who haven’t been there, Pittsburgh is a tough city to navigate. Its downtown is shaped by three converging rivers and crisscrossed by a dozen bridges, mostly leading to expressways that branch out to all corners of the city. Miss an exit and pretty soon you’re in some unknown suburb in the Allegheny Mountains.

It would take us some time to figure out Pittsburgh, but eventually we did. And, as it turns out, its walkability, natural beauty and renowned galleries and museums make it a great city to visit. It’s also a far more pleasant place to drive than our next stop, Washington, DC, where Type-A personalities terrorize the roadways and rush-hour gridlock stretches half-way across the state of Virginia.

If you’re ever in the D.C. area, three words of advice: take public transit.

On Thursday afternoon, after a day’s worth of sightseeing and Smithsonian-hopping around the National Mall, we set out for Madison Heights – which, due to Washington traffic and pit stops, took about twice as long to get to than the 3 1/2 hours Google Maps had promised.

Our trip took us onto a succession of scenic two-lane roads as we approached our destination in rural Virginia – through the mountains with a few bouts of mysterious fog and a 2-minute torrential hail storm along the way. We finally arrived at our friends’ place, where we spent a relaxing two days – chatting, sleeping, shopping, strolling and watching movies – before heading home in a marathon drive back to Toronto.

Seven days and 2,500 kilometres later, how did the Maxima fare on our trip? In truth, exceptionally well.

By far the best thing about the Maxima is how it drives. With an impressive 290 horsepower and 261 lb-ft of torque from a 3.5L V6 engine, coupled with a continuously-variable transmission, highway driving was a breeze. Brisk acceleration allowed for effortless highway merging and passing, while the four-wheel disc brakes were responsive in sudden stops and slowdowns.

The Maxima’s suspension is tight enough to keep the driver in tune with the road without sacrificing too much ride comfort. And our Sarah approved; she slept soundly through most of the ride.

Precise steering and smooth handling made for easy driving as we wound our way along the mountain highways of northwestern Virginia. A rather wide turning radius, however, stretched some would-be U-turns into 3-pointers and made parking tricky at times.

Fuel economy is decent in the Maxima, but not extraordinary. The display put our fuel consumption at 9.7-9.8L per 100km, a reading that barely budged for the entire trip. It’s a decent number considering the car’s weight and power output. With a large fuel tank, however, we were able to go long stretches – sometimes more than 600 km – without having to worry about the next fill-up.

While the Maxima is only available in the 3.5 SV model with CVT, there are a few packages that can be added to the $37,880 base version. A $2,350 sport package and $2,800 premium package will get you a host of high-tech and stylish extras. The navigation package is $2,200 and includes GPS, but is only available as an add-on to another package. Promotions notwithstanding, a fully-loaded Maxima costs somewhere in the mid-40s after tax and freight.

Type of vehicle Front-wheel-drive
Full-size, entry-level luxury sedan
Engine 3.5L DOHC 24-valve V6
Power 290 hp @ 6,400 rpm;
261 lb-ft of torque @ 4,400 rpm
Transmission Xtronic Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) with manual mode
Brakes Front and rear vented discs with ABS and Electronic Brake force Distribution (EBD)
Tires P245/45R18; P245/40R19 (w/ sport package)
Price: base/as tested
$37,880/$40,680 (w/Premium Package)
Destination charge $1,720
Transport Canada fuel economy L/100 km
10.9 city, 7.7 hwy.

Standard features Multi-functional trip computer, Bluetooth, climate control, auto-dimming rearview mirror, push button ignition, remote windows down/trunk release, power locks, power windows, tilt/telescopic steering column, cruise control, speed-sensitive windshield wipers, two 12V DC power outlets, iPod centre console storage net, power-adjustable seats, heated front seats, heated steering wheel, 60/40 fold-down rear seatbacks, leather seats, 9-speaker Bose audio system with AM/FM/CD and MP3/WMA CD playback and USB connection for audio devices

Safety features Front, side-impact, curtain (front and rear) airbags, vehicle dynamic control, traction control, immobilizer and security systems

Options Premium package ($2,800), Sport package ($2,350), Navigation package ($2,200; only available with Premium or Sport packages), 3-coat paint ($300), metallic/pearl paint ($135)

A mid-morning stop in Pittsburgh, across the river from downtown.
Photograph by: David Kates, Postmedia News