On The Road Review: Nissan Altima

The midsize sedan class is currently the industry’s most competitive segment as well as the grouping that generates the largest sales numbers. Including a bevy of strong competitors — Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Mazda 6, Volkswagen Passat, Subaru Legacy, Dodge Avenger and Suzuki Kazashi — it is impressive that Nissan’s Altima has stealthily climbed the sales charts to capture the second most popular position. Perseverance, as well as a quality car, cemented this success.

These are tumultuous times in the car business and the Asian automakers have been living the kinds of nightmares that have afflicted domestic automakers for decades: quality gaffes, production issues, parts shortages, dollar-to-yen variances, etc. Add some changing perceptions in the buying public and you now have the Fusion and Malibu as solid contenders in a segment long dominated by the Camry and Accord.

Flying under the radar screen, Nissan’s Altima has been persistently offering a solid package that combines, a) the handling acumen and superior ride quality DNA that is often affiliated with Nissan’s Infiniti luxury arm, b) a significantly upgraded interior with superior technology and Euro-like materials and refinement and c) fuel efficiency and performance that is top-of-the-class competitive.

Much of the Altima’s character was redefined for its last major makeover, an exercise performed in 2007 when the Altima became a true midsize sedan. For the 2010 model year, Nissan upped the ante with a host of interior mods, some fine-tuning of the car’s exterior fascias, plus additional engineering on the sedan’s CVT automatic transmission — changes that improved responsiveness and efficiency.

Nissan is a major employer of the continuously variable automatic transmission technology, using it on all Altima sedans — both four-cylinder versions and V-6s — plus a host of other Nissan products including Versa, Rogue and Juke. In this version the CVT renders spot-on throttle response and doesn’t produce the kind of engine over-revving that was evident in earlier CVT models. The Altima remains satisfyingly quick when necessary while producing a fuel economy reading that easily eclipsed the car’s EPA highway number — an impressive 35.8-mpg.

That kind of efficiency places the Altima solidly in the hunt among our three recently tested fuel-sippers. The Ford Fiesta and Hyundai Elantra — two cars that are smaller than our midsize sedan — achieved similar efficiency without the Altima’s larger interior space.

Central to this stellar performance is the Nissan’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. There is nothing exceptional about its overall design, yet this motor makes 175 horsepower plus 180 pound/feet of torque. That last number is more important than the specific horsepower number because it shows that the engine doesn’t need to be spinning near its redline in order to produce the kind of power, and acceleration, that produces the car’s strong midrange punch. If an engine doesn’t need to work hard to make the power you need for around-town driving or keeping the pace with road traffic, it will generally be more efficient. In this Nissan, the 2.5-liter engine’s torque appears to be spread across a wide portion of the operating range as both passing power as well as a relaxed cruising pace is smoothly administered by your right foot. Working with the modified CVT, the Altima’s powertrain proves that responsive power and fuel efficiency are compatible.

The Altima creates more fans with an adroit chassis that is supple, responsive and never drawing attention to itself. Here, that Infiniti DNA is most evident. You don’t end each drive thinking, wow, this is quite the sports sedan, but after a week together my logbook had no negative comments, no complaints about the Nissan’s steering feel, brakes or the car’s ride dynamics. This isn’t faint praise, just recognition for a composed package that does what a midsize sedan should do under all circumstances.

If you were to pry under the chassis of Ford’s Fusion and Chevy’s Malibu we’d probably discover the same level of improved competence — helping to explain the recent success of each of these three sedans against the supposedly invincible Camry/Accord juggernaut.

None of this engineering would mean much if the Altima’s interior was a disappointment. It is not. The Altima earns big points for simplicity and practicality. The HVAC knobs are easy to use, the audio system doesn’t operate with layers of input before basic functions occur, plus the ergonomics of the cabin are top-notch. Visibility out of the Altima’s windows is also better than average, giving the driver a great surround-view without a plethora of cameras. Imagine that.

The Altima’s optional Bose audio system, part of a technology package upgrade that includes rear view camera and navigation, also hit it out of the park. Nissan generally offers better audio systems than its Asian rivals, and this system was a big reminder of how different this entertainment package works than, say, a Camry’s.

The Bose speakers produce sound you can feel, plus there is enough punch to overcome the inherent road noise that is now more prevalent in cars that lack enough sound insulation, or, have harder compound tires that produce more road noise than what we are used too. Add speed sensitive volume, Bluetooth, XM satellite, plus several auxiliary inputs and hard-drive music storage and the Nissan package has a decided performance edge over the static numbers that others cite as part of their repertoire.

Stable road manners, excellent fuel economy, roomy and refined interior, understated yet attractive exterior, this Altima represents the vast advances that automakers have engineered into our current midsize sedans. Not one model stands head and shoulders above the competition. Each car excels in some areas, not as well in others.

The Altima appoints itself credibly in all areas and proves that it belongs as a top-seller in a hot category.

Just the Facts: Nissan Altima

Altima is a front-drive, five-passenger midsize sedan. Nissan also sells a slightly smaller two-door Altima coupe with the same powertrains as the sedan, except manual transmissions are optional in the coupe, not in the sedan.

Base models start at $20,270, best selling ‘S’ trim begins at $22,430, while top SR lists for $25,110 before accessories. Nissan also sells a Hybrid Altima in limited markets for $26,800.

Base power is a 175-hp 2.5-liter four with EPA ratings of 23-32-mpg. Optional 3.5-liter V-6 makes 270 hp and earns EPA estimates of 20/27 mpg. Tested Altima S returned 35.8 mpg for our time together.

Altima measures 190.7 inches long on a 109.3-inch wheelbase. Base weight is 3,180 pounds. Altima’s 20-gallon fuel tank is largest in the class. Seventeen-inch wheels are standard.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.