End Game: When spending $30K on a performance sedan, what drives you-front or back? By Arthur St. Antoine Photography by Evan Klein No doubt some of you are already heading for the drop box marked "hate mail." Front drive versus rear drive? V-6 versus V-8? Why don't you just compare apples and orangutans? As we see it, if you've got around $30,000 to spend on a sport sedan, you want to know your options-and you've got important choices to make. At that price, Nissan's brand-new Maxima proffers a high-output V-6, an advanced continuously variable transmission, oodles of electronic conveniences, and what's claimed to be one of the best-performing front-drive chassis in the world. And for roughly the same money, Pontiac's new G8 GT delivers the thunder of a big-bore V-8, a six-speed automatic, and a fat-tired rear-drive platform. Both are roomy, eye-catching four-doors. Both promise driving thrills far above the common sedan paradigm. One is a wonder of 21st-century can-do; the other radiates the iconic aura of the 20th century's glory days. How do their behind-the-wheel experiences differ? And which one makes the more compelling case for your cash? As noted in the preceding pages, Nissan has set the bar for its flagship four-door way up somewhere in the ionosphere. Chassis target for this new front-drive sedan: the rear-drive Porsche GT3, one of the world's best-handling purebred sports cars. Also as noted, though, the Maxima model most likely to approach that lofty target-the 3.5 SV with Sport Package and optional 19-in. summer tires-was unavailable to us. Instead, Nissan provided a 3.5 SV Premium fitted with 18-in. all-season rubber. On the other hand, our test car was representative of what'll likely make up the bulk of the Maxima's 70,000 or so annual sales. Summer-shod Sport editions will be rarer sightings. Nissan product strategy director Mark Perry says that, early in the car's development process, the Maxima team took a step back to reassess the project's aims-even going so far as to consider seriously a move to rear drive. In the end, though, engineers settled on the front-drive "D" platform, shared with the Altima, citing advantages in weight and cabin roominess and, says Perry, "handling so good we didn't need rear drive." In contrast, Pontiac's new Australian-built G8 has deep rear-drive roots; it's based on the Zeta-platform Holden Commodore. While a V-6-powered version is available, the G8 GT-sporting a 6.0L V-8-starts at just $29,995, right on top of the new Maxima. Add heated, power leather seats (as on our Maxima 3.5 SV) plus the Sport package (just $600 for 19-in. alloys, summer Bridgestones, metallic pedals, and a leather-wrapped wheel), and you're still only up to $31,845. Strong value? The G8 GT is more potent (361 hp) than the $59,275 BMW 550i. Taking Shapes Side by side, the G8 and the Maxima represent vastly different visual interpretations of the word "sporty." The Maxima is slender, flowing, sculptural-a Henry Moore modern on wheels. The G8 is far longer, wider by an inch and a half, and about as soft and rounded as a cheese grater. The ladies on our staff unanimously hate it ("Eeewwww! It's so...eighties!" cried one). We guys, on the other hand, kinda, well, you know...like it. The G8 is bold and aggressive without undue adornment. Besides, those big gnarly wheels are really cool. Edge: Maxima. Gymnast physique trumps bodybuilder's. Insides Story Both cars make fine daily drivers, delivering room, comfort, and conveniences aplenty-from dual-zone climate control to premium audio with iPod inputs. The G8 has a conspicuous edge in rear-seat head- and legroom; a six-footer can sit behind another six-footer with knee space to spare. Pontiac offers a huge pass-through in the rear seat (you could almost stuff a canoe in there); Nissan buyers can opt for a 60/40 split-folding rear seat or a bench with a smaller pass-through (the rear buckets of previous Maximas are gone). The G8 is nicely trimmed in leather, "technical" materials, and brushed-metal accents; it's almost spare in its straightforwardness. Strangely, the otherwise excellent driver's seat has power fore-aft control but recline is operated by a rotating knob that's hard to reach and use-manual fore-aft and a power backrest would make more sense. The Maxima's cockpit, though more intimate, is a cut above. It's dressy without being flashy and radiates quality. Sophistication rules, from the designer shapes to the supple feel of the leather to the crisp numerals on the display screens (the G8's center stack is marred by low-res, bright-red amp and oil-pressure readouts that appear to have been lifted from a 1970s Atari computer). The Nissan's huge dual-panel sunroof (only the front glass opens) draws lots of passengers "wows" when you hit the button and the shades retract, if you insist on being a showoff. Edge: Maxima. Sport-sedan cockpits don't come much nicer. Cut to the Quick The Maxima's DOHC, 24-valve V-6 makes a stirring 290 hp at 6400 rpm. The G8 GT's pushrod V-8 churns out 361 horses at 5300. Even allowing for the G8's greater bulk (it weighs nearly 400 lb more than the Nissan), its 71-hp advantage means straightline sprints are no contest. While the Maxima is quick-0 to 60 mph in 6.1 sec-the G8 is a full half-second quicker, gunning to 60 mph in just 5.6 sec. (The Pontiac's numbers are well off the 5.3-sec runs we recorded with another test car-same track, same driver-in our April issue; stay tuned to motortrend.com for updates as we investigate this anomaly.) Launched fender to fender on the dragstrip, the Maxima quickly disappears in the G8's rearview mirror. What's more, the G8 is more viscerally thrilling, its V-8 booming with brawn and its six-speed auto cranking off quick, smooth upshifts. The Maxima's CVT seems downright quirky in comparison. In the other direction, braking, the G8 is stopped from 60 mph while the Maxima rolls on for another 19 ft. Edge: G8. Not even close. In This Corner... Nissan has done impressive things with its D platform: The Maxima puts its considerable power down well, grips powerfully (0.85 g), and provides solid, mostly torque-free steering feel. But any handling accolade you apply to the Maxima must contain a caveat at its suffix: "for a front-drive car." If the priority really was to build a "four-door sports car," Nissan should have opted for rear drive. Again, the G8 shines. With its front tires unburdened by power delivery, the Pontiac steers more fluidly; feedback is undiluted. Stability control switched off, the G8 happily wagged its tailed around our figure-eight course, the rear end breaking loose with a gentle nudge of the throttle and the chassis sliding past the cones all crossed up but completely controllable. The fun factor simply isn't comparable, however impressively the Maxima hangs on. And despite its weight disadvantage, the G8 felt (and is) better balanced, easily wringing out 0.87 g of grip. Edge: G8. Sir Isaac Newton called this one a long time ago. FIRST PLACE: PONTIAC G8 GT Fast, smooth, roomy, athletic. With standard cylinder deactivation, it even returns respectable fuel economy (15/24 city/highway mpg). You can't beat the rear-drive layout-or the window sticker. At around $30 grand, one of the great driver's-car values on the road today. SECOND PLACE: NISSAN MAXIMA 3.5 SV A foregone conclusion? Perhaps, though we're still eager to sample the "full-up" summer-tired car. Sophisticated demeanor and artful styling make a compelling case for purchase. Maxima is sure to remain a "cult" favorite.