'85 Maxima - all new engineering, decor

What you see is what you get? Not if you're talking about the new Nissan Maxima, the newest version of its full-size sedan from Japan's No. 2 carmaker. The brand-new Nissan Maxima, for instance, looks a lot like the car it replaces, but the similarity ends there. The '85-model Maxima is smaller on the outside, larger on the inside, moves from rear drive to front drive, and replaces last year's engine with the more-powerful V-6 from Nissan's 300-ZX model.

The engineering and decor are all new, and this is what counts. The result is a car that can boast of first-rate control and a steering system that's precise to a turn.

The V-6 engine loses a few horsepower in its move from the ZX to the Maxima. It's smooth on the highway, packs a hefty punch for passing, and easily outperforms the strikingly new and very competitive Mitsubishi Galant. The Galant, of course, has to make do with only a ''4'' because a new ''6'' is still at least two years away.

The top of the Nissan car line doesn't float on a cloud, but it transmits a good measure of ''road feel'' to the driver.

Four-wheel disc brakes are used all around, including ventilated rotors up front. Wheelbase, at 100.4 inches, is a little less than last year's rear-drive model.

Standard equipment includes air conditioning as well as power windows, steering, brakes, and door locks. The car has an antitheft system as well, plus cruise control. The test car had a keyless entry system with pushbuttons strung below the handle of the driver's door.

All in all, the car is a pleasure to sit in and drive. At $13,499, the cost is in line with a competing car in the same league. The sunroof adds another $ 500, and with it you lose headroom. The steering wheel obscures part of the speedometer, which, redundantly, includes two trip odometers. Adjusting the button-dotted radio could be a distraction on the road.

Chuck King, head of Nissan's US sales, agrees that ''Nissan went conservative in the styling of the new Maxima, even though all the sheet metal is new. Its critics say we didn't go far enough, while others say they prefer the classic style of the car.''

Meanwhile, Nissan expects to sell 530,000 cars in the US this year, plus 200, 000 lightweight trucks from its Smyrna, Tenn., assembly plant. Next April it plans to start producing the subcompact 2-door Sentra. Then when the 4-door derivative of the Sentra comes along in about two years, it, too, will be built in Tennessee.

''Even with the voluntary import restraints,'' says Mr. King, ''the market for Japanese cars is huge.'' Almost half of all Nissan exports go to the US.

Nissan dealers would like to get a compact bus and van; a sports-utility vehicle, like the Ford Bronco and Chevrolet Blazer; and, as Mr. King describes it, ''a nice little sports car that fits between the 300-ZX andthe 200-SX in the profitpotential.

''We've looked at the Nissan commuter car (now being sold in Canada), but the market now seems to be moving upscale.''

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