SOMETIMES YOU FALL in love with the silliest things. Like the gauge display in the 1991 Nissan Maxima SE sedan: black numbers on a white, porcelain-like face. The gauge design wowed me. There was something Tiffany about it, something old and rich. It made sense -- and made no sense at all.
The panel was a work of delicious ambiguity, much like the car itself. Nissan, for example, calls the Maxima SE a "four-door sports sedan," much to the chagrin of purists who insist that sports cars have two doors only. Yet, there are some things decidedly sporty about the Maxima SE -- the old race-car-type gauge panel being one of those, the car's overall road performance being another.
There is much that is decidedly ordinary about the Maxima SE, too. Its body is a work of passionate blandness, another automotive ode to generic roundness. Placed in a sea of same-styled Hondas, Mazdas, Nissans, Toyotas, Fords, Geos and Plymouths, it would disappear into an aerodynamic fog.
Form has become function in today's auto industry; and too often, it seems, the function is to bore. Still, I'm drawn to the Maxima SE's splendid gauge panel. It delights and excites me, makes me want to be inside the car, watching its various indicator needles move up and down as the car moves down the road.
The panel turns what could have been a forgettable vanilla dish into something else, the Maxima SV -- "Sweet Vanilla."
Background: The design objective of the Nissan Maxima line is to be something to everyone -- that is, everyone who has at least $18,700 to spend. That affluent demographic group wants a Japanese car that scoots like a BMW and feels like a Buick, Nissan's publicists contend.
The Maxima is generally successful in that complicated endeavor. The line of front-wheel-drive, five-passenger cars includes the luxury Maxima GXE sedan (four-speed automatic only), and the manual and automatic versions of the sporty SE.
Complaints: The clutch in the five-speed manual Maxima SE is a wimpy thing, a feather-light contraption that requires gentle treatment. It could use some beefing up.
"Automatic" seat belts, no air bag -- nuts in a car of this caliber and cost. Get with it, Nissan.
Praise: An overall excellent car. Made right. Well-balanced on the road. Roomy for passengers and luggage. Radical within the bounds of conservative design. I could live with it, easily.
Head-turning quotient: No one frowned. No one applauded. Did anyone notice?
Ride, acceleration and handling: Lots of good work here, even with the too-light clutch. The Maxima SE has an independent four-wheel-suspension system, which means that it is almost always balanced and smooth, even on rough roads. The car's 160-horsepower, three-liter V-6 engine won't please the hot-rodders among us. But it's more than enough to get the job done for people of normal driving habits.
Braking was excellent. The test car was equipped with an optional anti-lock brake system.
Sound system: Four-speaker, AM/FM stereo electronic radio and cassette by Nissan/Bose. Superior. In fact, I've yet to hear a Bose-equipped audio system that isn't superior.
Mileage: About 23 to the gallon (18.5-gallon tank, estimated 415-mile range on usable volumes of 87-octane and 89-octane unleaded), combined city-highway, running with one to five occupants and occasional bags of groceries.
Price: Base price on the tested manual Maxima SE is $20,495. Estimated dealer-invoice price is $17,000. Price as tested is $22,765, including $1,000 for optional leather seats, $995 for anti-lock brakes, and a $275 destination charge.
Purse-strings note: The Maxima is a popular car, but the market is soft. You can bargain on this one too, folks. Compare with Honda Accord, Ford Taurus/Mercury Sable, Buick Le Sabre, Toyota Camry LE.
Warren Brown covers the automotive industry for The Washington Post.