The impact of global changes on food security is of serious concern. Breeding novel crop cultivars adaptable to climate change is one potential solution, but this approach requires an understanding of complex adaptive traits for climate-change conditions. In this study, plant growth, nitrogen (N) uptake, and yield in relation to climatic resource use efficiency of nine representative maize cultivars released between 1973 and 2000 in China were investigated in a 2-year field experiment under three N applications. The Hybrid-Maize model was used to simulate maize yield potential in the period from 1973 to 2011. During the past four decades, the total thermal time (growing degree days) increased whereas the total precipitation and sunshine hours decreased. This climate change led to a reduction of maize potential yield by an average of 12.9% across different hybrids. However, the potential yield of individual hybrids increased by 118.5 kg ha−1 yr−1 with increasing year of release. From 1973 to 2000, the use efficiency of sunshine hours, thermal time, and precipitation resources increased by 37%, 40%, and 41%, respectively. The late developed hybrids showed less reduction in yield potential in current climate conditions than old cultivars, indicating some adaptation to new conditions. Since the mid-1990s, however, the yield impact of climate change exhibited little change, and even a slight worsening for new cultivars. Modern breeding increased ear fertility and grain-filling rate, and delayed leaf senescence without modification in net photosynthetic rate. The trade-off associated with delayed leaf senescence was decreased grain N concentration rather than increased plant N uptake, therefore N agronomic efficiency increased simultaneously. It is concluded that modern maize hybrids tolerate the climatic changes mainly by constitutively optimizing plant productivity. Maize breeding programs in the future should pay more attention to cope with the limiting climate factors specifically.