It seems like ages ago, but in the not too distant past, Nissan had virtually no presence in the mainstream family sedan market. Stuck between the strong selling Sentra and high-end Maxima was the forgettable Nissan Stanza, a car that failed to resonate with buyers. Meanwhile, the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry had already established themselves as the cars to beat. Twenty years ago, Nissan had enough, and introduced the Altima, a legitimate player with a lot to prove. How the times have changed. 2013 marks the introduction of a new, fifth generation Altima, which is currently Nissan’s best-selling car, and one of the best selling cars in the USA.
Taking a look at the Altima’s sheetmetal, it’s clear Nissan went conservative with the redesign. Yes, it’s curvy, even elegant at some angles, and with ample chrome trim it is apparent a more upscale look was desired. The Altima is pleasant to look at, and offends no one. And that works for the huge audience the Altima appeals to. The tradeoff is a completely forgettable car. It’s sort of like listening to Micheal Buble. Yes, he has a fantastic voice, sings the American Standards as good as anyone, and I enjoy his music while I’m listening to it. But if I’m not exposed to his music, I’m not thinking about it. I’m not replaying his songs in my head, or dying to hear his song again. So it is with the Altima. Nice enough to look at, classy enough to show your neighbors, but leaves absolutely no lasting impression at all.
The Garage reviewed the fourth generation Altima in 2010, and we had no qualms about the interior. The new design inside is warmer, more inviting, and more thoughtful than the old car, which is good considering you’ll be spending the bulk of your time inside than out. It’s clear Nissan spent a lot of energy designing a thoughtful, easy to live with, and easy to use cabin. Even our feature laden test car’s controls were simple and intuitive. Comfortable and roomy, the Altima strikes all the right notes. While some critics have moaned about rear seat room, the reality is the Altima has all the room the average family could possibly need. In sum, the Altima’s interior is just right for a trip to the grocery store or a long distance drive.
In the engine room, the Altima offers updated versions of its previous engines. The base engine is a 2.5L four, rated at 182hp. Although some of the Altima’s competition has abandoned the option of a V-6, the Accord and Camry continue to offer one, and so does the Altima. Here, a 3.5L V-6 makes 270hp. Both engines are paired to an updated CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission). No manual is offered. While our last time out with an Altima had the powerful V-6, this time around we had the four cylinder, which makes sense-it is estimated 90% of all Altimas sold have the four. Which I am pleased to say is quite a refined engine, and for this car, and the typical Altima buyer, is all they really need. However, the Altima has a few feathers in its cap worth mentioning when equipped with the four. Nissan claims 0-60mph in 7.1 seconds, which is plenty quick for a four cylinder in this size. But, when you take in consideration the car’s EPA ratings of 27/38 MPG city/highway, the results are impressive. That sprint to 60 was once the territory of Porsche 944’s and Mazda RX-7’s. Now it’s a family sedan that can sip 38 MPG on the highway.
Yes, it is Nissan’s XTronic CVT that helps make it all happen. And the numbers look great, but mash the pedal to the carpet, and the buzz-killing engine drone sucks all the fun out of the equation. Again, another reality check is needed here. Most Altima owners are not going to floor it. They will drive gently through town, merge seamlessly into highway traffic, and likely never push the engine hard enough to even notice the ‘motorboat’ effect that is the curse of the CVT. And I would be fine with that, but the trouble is, the Altima’s handling is absolutely superb. Steering, brakes, chassis, the whole package is, well, exemplary for this class of car. Put a six-speed manual in this car and the Altima becomes quite the package for the family man with a knack for driving fun. Sadly, the vast majority of Altima owners will never appreciate just how well this car can handle.
The Altima is available as a sedan or coupe, but the coupe is a continuation of the fourth generation car. The four cylinder sedan is offered in Base, S, SV, or SL trim. Our car was the 2.5 SV, the most popular Altima. With a base price of $24,100USD, standard equipment is generous. All 2.5 Altima SV’s come standard with 17″ alloys, power driver’s seat, SiriusXM satellite radio, Bluetooth, RearView monitor, dual zone auto climate control, iPod integration, push button start and chrome exhaust tips. Our test car added the Convenience Package (moonroof, auto dimming rearview mirror with HomeLink, fog lights, and LED turn indicators), floor mats, and navigation. All in, our Altima totaled $27,005, including destination. Overall, a competitive price for a car with sought after features, but nothing that is remarkable.
With the fifth generation Altima, you get a clear sense of what Nissan wanted. To their exterior/interior designers, the message must have been “Listen, we have a good thing going here, let’s not take any risks and screw this up.” And that leaves us with a pretty vanilla car, judging by appearance only. Yet, to the engineers, a different message: “The last Altima was good. Make it better.” The beauty of the Altima lies within it. The engineers were let loose to make the impossible possible. An extremely efficient car that can seat five, sprint from 0-60mph in just a click over seven seconds, and deliver 38MPG. All in supreme comfort with all the amenities of a modern luxury car. The magic of the Altima is not what you see, but what you feel.
There is a glimmer of hope for us enthusiasts. Nissan has prepared an Altima for the Australian V8 Supercar race series. The chassis is so well sorted it deserves to be raced. Surely, an Altima SR could be in the works. For that matter, a NISMO Altima? Take the V-6 with a hot cam and a reprogrammed ECU with a manual, and Nissan has a bargain-priced Audi S4. NISMO, Nissan, are you listening?