American muscle in a foreign skin

We hit the highway for this review with extreme prejudice.

No, that's not spy lingo for the elimination of a foe. Just an admission that I climbed into the 2006 Nissan Maxima 3.5 SE knowing that it is powered by what I consider to be the best V-6 engine on the planet.

It's superbly smooth and plenty powerful at 265 horsepower, and ready toannounce its presence through quad-tipped dual exhausts.

Somehow, the Maxima, the flagship of Nissan's fleet, has rumbled beneath the radar of most consumers. When we think American muscle in a foreign skin, we often envision BMW, Mercedes-Benz, or Audi.

And yes, Nissan's upscale Infiniti brands that bear the 35 and 45 badges have been given their muscle-car recognition.

Yet the 3.5 SE purrs with a perfect combination of sports car and family sedan that -- even loaded with extras you might not need or want -- still comes in at below $35,000.

Nissan has never been afraid to test the edges on design, and it has done so here in a couple of ways. How about a long, fore-to-aft shaft of sunroof that is standard? The test car had an optional power transverse sunroof, but I would have preferred the longer one, since it provides sunlight for front and rear passengers.

And how about a dashboard that ''floats" forward, seemingly disconnected from the windshield and anchored by a faux-brushed-metal control pod at its center. (See ''annoyances" for what I did not like about what I am now praising.)

Nissan has learned to use round design in an effective way, contrary to the Taurus-trend that hampered Ford Motor Co. (even though lots of folks bought those plug-ugly cars). It may be the short front and rear overhangs that give the Maxima an aggressive stance, even as its lines flow so softly.

Inside, there are broad front bucket seats that, even without the preferred heavy bolstering along the legs and up the torso, somehow hold you in their grip during tight cornering. With the test car's leather package, gray suede flowed from behind the dash to the door panels to create an enveloping effect.

The SE, as tested, comes with tight suspension tuning, so it ran flat through tough corners (and I would imagine the softer-tuned SL would not). With this engine and its kick, I'm not sure I'd want anything besides tight tuning, but there are those for whom power is a straight-ahead highway kind of deal. Sunday cruisers, I think they are called. But there is no reason to settle for the Maxima as a mere cruiser, though it is a fine example of that kind of vehicle.

For those looking for a powerful, soft, easy ride up and down on a road like Interstate 93, the SL is probably just fine. And with basic interior appointments, comfortable seating, and subtle, quiet power, this is a car that will roll with any Camry, Accord, or even lower-end Lexus and Acura models on the open road.

But also picture this: A Maxima with the tight suspension, burbling exhaust pipes, optional rear bucket seats complete with console between them. (OK, there is torque steer you'll need to get used to.)

You can feel the tightness in corners, the sure and firm braking, and the overall feel of driving a sports car. Nissan has pulled it off, although perhaps too subtly.

Were it not for the 18-inch chrome wheels that ate up the wheel wells, I doubt anyone would have noticed when I pulled into a parking space.

But this car is about far more than the bling of glistening wheels. Consider that its base price of $27,750 not only includes side-curtain air bags, but ABS and traction control.

And if I wasn't interested in such luxuries as XM satellite radio and a ''sensory package" that featured leather and heated seats, and pushed the test model's price into the $34,000 range, I could have driven away in a swell ride for around $30,000.

Royal Ford can be reached at