Some more information on the 3rd generation Maxima
I currently own one of these and agree that they can be a great buy, if you know what you're getting into. The 3rd generation Maxima has several issues that a buyer/owner should be aware of.
There were two engines offered in the 3rd generation Maxima. The first, known as the VG30E, was featured in all GXE models and 1989-1991 SE models. The other engine, which came only in 1992-1994 SE models is known as the VE30DE.
To determine if the Maxima you're looking at is a GXE or SE, first look at the side mirrors. On a GXE the mirrors will be body-color, the SE had black mirrors only. GXE models also have a numeric keyless entry panel on the driver's side door. Other signs that you're looking at an SE include a small rear spoiler, though a GXE owner could add one on to their car. Only SE models came with manual transmission.
The VG30E engine, also found in many Nissan trucks as well as the pre-89 300ZX is the more common engine and is a SOHC design. It develops 160hp and about 180 lb ft of torque. The VG30E is known to be one of the most reliable engines and the engine in my 89 SE is at 226,000 miles and still ticking. You shouldn't have many engine problems with the VG30E, but make sure that timing belt maintinence is done properly. Nissan recommends that the belt be changed every 60,000 miles and because the VG30E is an interference engine, failure to properly maintain the timing belt can result in a destroyed engine. A timing belt change can run anywhere from $300-$1000 and usually also includes changing the water pump since it's easy to do at the same time.
Another issue with VG30E vehicles is with their automatic transmission. Many automatic VG30E Maximas don't get much past 100,000 miles without needing transmission work. If you're buying an automatic Maxima, be sure that the transmission does not slip or grind and also avoid automatic VG30E Maximas that appear to be driven hard. The manual transmission used on the VG30E has no major known problems and is the better buy if you can find one and drive stick. A transmission rebuild on an automatic Maxima can cost well over $1000.
The VE30DE engine is only found in 1992-1994 Maxima SEs. This engine is a DOHC design and develops 190hp and similar torque to the VG30E. This engine is not known to be as reliable as the VG30E but provides a noticeable performance difference. The major problem with the VE30DE is with the VTCs, a part used to change engine timing at higher RPMs to increase top-end power. The VTCs often clog with sludge from oil and break, resulting in an annoying ticking sound while driving. There are two solutions to the VTC problem, one is grounding the VTCs to disable them, but this can lead to pieces of the broken VTCs getting into the engine oil, not a good idea. The correct way to fix the VTCs is to have them replaced which will cost about $500. Both the manual and automatic transmissions used on the VE30DE are reliable and experience few problems.
Some problems common to all models of 3rd generation Maximas are with the power windows and audio system. The power windows in many 3rd gen Maximas will fail to operate and even fall down into the door. The culprit is a faulty window regulator, the part which keeps the window in place. Replacement window regulators can be found for about $80 each and it is a fairly simple DIY job, just take off the door panel and replace the part and your windows should be running like new.
The audio system problems are generally found in Maximas equipped with the Bose audio system. The system is very unusual in design and often fails. The best way to fix this is to replace the entire stereo system with an aftermarket one, the Maxima takes both DIN and double DIN sized head units and the Bose wiring can be used to connect aftermarket speakers. Bose equipped Maximas use 6x9 speakers in the rear and 4x6 speakers in the front while non-Bose cars use 6.5" speakers in the rear. If you simply want to use the Bose speakers with an aftermarket headunit, Peripheral Technologies makes an adapter which will allow you to connect the two for about $50. You can find the adapter and Circuit City, Best Buy or a specialty car audio shop.
These are the major problems and fixes for the 3rd generation Maxima, a good online resource for Maxima owners is maxima.org, which provides a wealth of information on the car, as well as performance and appearance modifications that can be done. Searching the forums is a great way to find solutions to your problems and people on the forum are generally happy to help out with any problems you might encounter as long as you do your homework first.
All in all the 3rd generation Maxima can be a good car if you find one that was maintained properly. Getting a nice, reliable, comfortable and pretty sporty (especially the manual transmission models) car with power options and sunroof for a few thousand dollars is a great deal. While it's not quite up there in reliability with Hondas or other imports, it is a good option for inexpensive and interesting transportation.