Photos courtesy of Nissan
It’s hard to get worked up over a midsized sedan. Yes, I believe they make up the defining segment in the American automotive market, and from time to time I find one of them to be particularly satisfying to drive, but on the whole, they are just plain vanilla.
When I scheduled the Altima, I wasn’t too enthused. Efficient, four-cylinder engine? Tech trim? SL package? Marketing speak for “slow,” “finicky” and “floaty. “ Or so I thought, anyway.
It has been a while since I’ve reviewed a Nissan (for the pedantic among you, yes, I’ve reviewed a few Infiniti-branded vehicles in the interim), but in this case “a while” is still less than a full model cycle, and it’s impressive how much things have changed given how little time has really gone by. The 2011 Maxima I reviewed was a reasonably good car backed by an excellent powertrain.
But I never could quite put my finger on the big Nissan’s hook. It was nice, and it was quick enough, and the transmission worked surprisingly well with the meaty, 3.5L VQ V6 stuffed under the hood, but nothing about it said “buy this car.”
On paper, the Altima is competitive, but not a segment buster. When this generation debuted, it boasted the best four-cylinder fuel economy in the class, but that honor now belongs to the Mazda6 and its trick i-ELOOP setup, albeit by a narrow margin. At 182hp, the engine is no slouch, but gone are the days when it led the class in output. And the CVT? Well, it’s a CVT.
Look inside the Altima however, and it’s a different story. The interior in our tester is leaps and bounds ahead of anything we’ve seen from this nameplate. The materials are excellent and the layout superb. The seats are comfortable and reasonably supportive. All the now-ubiquitous bells and whistles are accounted for with no glaring omissions. Our tester even included a feature that has only recently started creeping onto sub-luxury build sheets: a heated steering wheel.
I firmly believe that the Altima deserves more praise than it receives when it comes to driving dynamics, and the new car only drives that point home further. The steering is light but communicative enough for the Altima’s mission, and as before the chassis is willing and responsive. The only fly in the ointment here is the transmission. My advice? Drive the Altima if it otherwise suits your needs, and decide for yourself whether you can tolerate the CVT. You may love it. You may hate it. But at least you’ll know.
If you’re like me, you may decide that the rest of the car is good enough that you don’t miss stepped gears all that much. It was a surprise, but a pleasant and welcome one. When I drove the Maxima, I believed the CVT’s future lay in being mated to big, luxury-oriented engines. Nissan’s commitment to the technology has paid dividends in refinement and efficiency no matter the power plant, and that really shows through here.
The Altima is not the enthusiast’s choice in this segment. If that’s what you’re looking for, check out the Accord or Mazda 6. As a competitor to the Camry, Sonata and Optima, however, the Nissan makes a very strong case for itself. After a week with this tester, I’d comfortably call it the frontrunner in that group of four. It’s more engaging than any of them without having too sharp of an edge, and you don’t have to compromise on comfort or tech to achieve that balance. That’s a win-win, in my book.
As it turns out, the Altima’s hook isn’t any one salient feature. Rather, this is the rare car that does jack-of-all-trades so well that it should be comfortable with that label. Stand-out features tend to be paired with proportional drawbacks in this group, but here you have neither. It’s the sort of car you can recommend to a friend or neighbor without feeling like you’re evangelizing.
It’s just a good car.
Thanks to Nissan for loaning us the Altima for this review.