Our 2.5 SV tester is just one of those trim levels, but the biggest news is a 38 mpg benchmark bound to leave a few more shekels lingering behind in the pocket. Will that be enough to leave a smile on the owner's face?
Now entering the third decade of its storied life, the latest Altima has evolved, but is it enough to wrestle away sales from its competitive base, which is now larger and feistier than ever?
What is it?
Five generations in, we find the 2013 Altima cut, sculpted and refined, not to mention decidedly more upscale than its predecessor, but without becoming bloated and overbuilt. Part of Nissan's D-platform lineup, at just over 191 inches, it is nearly the same size as Nissan's flagship Maxima a decade ago. Through the use of high-tensile steel, aluminum panels and cross-members, the Altima now weighs in at 3,121 lbs. which is about 80 lbs. lighter than last year.
Technically, a mid-sized five-passenger sedan, it pushes boundaries set by the upstarts from Korea and the more-established competition from Japan. With less being more, our Altima 2.5 SV is equipped with an updated version of the automaker's 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine. Now making 182 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, and 180 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm, it is much more efficient than the engine it replaces. Nissan eschewed higher-tech direct-injection fueling system en vogue with so many competitors in favor of the lowered cost of "mere" multi-port fuel injection. Still, they must have done something right to squeeze 27/38 miles out of a gallon of fuel.
The 2.5-liter-powered Altima can be had in four trim levels; our mid-level SV represents the heart of the market.
For power users, the Altima remains available with a 3.5-liter V6 making 270 ponies and 251 lb-ft of torque. Still, an improved CVT is the only gearbox available regardless of mill. With 70 percent of its guts new, and 40 percent less internal friction, we have high hopes for this simulated slusher.
What's it up against?
Originally, the Altima competed as a compact offering, but it eventually stepped up to the adult table, where the mid-size offerings hold court. And what a crowded table it has become:
The soon to be available 2013 Honda Accord, with its slightly new style, will lead the pack of obvious competitors. Running neck-and-neck will be the all-new Ford Fusion, plus the Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Toyota Camry and Volkswagen Passat, which continue on with minor changes. Add in the Subaru Legacy and the soon-to-be-updated Mazda Mazda6 and you have the makings of a full shopping list.
How does it look?
Clearly derivative of the outgoing Altima and the Maxima, the styling has evolved and even expanded to accommodate a larger interior. Overall length is extended by to 191.5 inches, while width grows by two more. Surprisingly, the 109.3 inch wheelbase remains the same.
The end result is a design that moves the car in an upmarket direction. The Altim's beltline has moved upward as well, extending the fullness of the side doors, while the eyebrows over the wheels have become smaller and more sophisticated. Squint a bit and you might even channel an Infiniti M.
A frontal remake features headlights that push the entire grille outward to appear wider than the two-inch growth would indicate. The rear is more expressive favoring the family with the use of boomerang-inspired taillights inspired by those on the 370Z. Finally, bold chrome on the front, sides and rear, lend an upscale sensibility that others in the segment, including last year's model, lack.
And on the inside?
Genius in packaging. Nissan has amazed us by sculpting out a larger interior within the same footprint of the last version of this car. Regardless, everything fit inside, including the four other passengers we delivered during recent summer vacations. Loaded with legroom, the rear seats seemingly sat higher, as well, for a clear view forward.
Nissan went space age from a value-added standpoint, utilizing technology from NASA that resulted in "zero gravity" front seats. They claim a reduced load on the spine, pelvis and muscles for less "front seat fatigue" that comes from extended stints behind the wheel. We're not sure what goes into the articulation of the seats, but we definitely liked the results.
A two-gauge binnacle with an extra display kept us informed of the car's functions. Customizable, it displayed audio, turn-by-turn navigation, trip and tire pressure readouts, and even allowed you to change the vehicle icon color to that of your own car. It did make for a quick - and safer- reference point that was better than shifting our attention towards the centerstack.
Our Altima also came with optional Navigation and Convenience packages and the fixings that come with both, including a backup camera display, for a definitive push into the big leagues.
Had it been equipped with leather, we think a quick change of logos would have been all that was needed to make this well-outfitted interior feel right at home in an Infiniti G37 sedan.
But does it go?
With a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, you'd think this SV would have its work cut out for itself. That four-banger is going to feel every bit of the Altima if its 182 horses don't step up.
Thankfully, they do.
In its standard setting, the four-cylinder and CVT made for nice, leisurely startups that wouldn't have Aunt Millie's wig shifting around after takeoff. Nissan figured a way to put the mill on an 11 lbs. diet while adding variable valve timing. At the same time, engineers revised the CVT for smoother operation and less friction.
Switching over to Sport mode remaps the shift points to hold preset "gears" longer for a zippier feel that we haven't seen in a CVT before. It is a true testament to Nissan's 20 years of expertise with cog-less gearboxes that other manufacturers are only just starting to explore. And, yes, we would like to see paddles in this car, too. Why should V6 owners have all the fun?
Heavy acceleration did produce a rumble from underhood, as well as the telltale escalating pitch of the CVT and the fast-moving tachometer needle, but Nissan's NVH engineers did a good job of preventing most of it from intruding into the cockpit.
Handling is top-shelf, due to several factors including the ZF Sachs dampers and active understeer control, which applies light braking to the inside drive wheel during hard cornering for a pseudo torque-ectoring feel. Altima's ride quality is a cross between firm and comfortable that will not disrupt a large cup of joe in the cupholder. At the same time, it won't make you think you're ready for a qualifying lap at Road America, either.
A stiff structure combines with MacPherson front struts and a multi-link independent rear suspension and electric power steering for a firm and confident feel at speed and especially during a lane change avoidance maneuver. Although a slight bit of side-to-side wallow crept in, the Altima remained composed and allowed us to correct and continue on our way. It's just as we would expect from a well-tuned midsized four-door, five-passenger sedan.
Squeezing the inside front brake in a turn, the active understeer control caused an almost imperceptible slowing of the inside wheel which accelerated the yaw factor to help the car turn inward faster. In short, the Altima feels remarkably nimble when pushed. Meanwhile, the CVT did its part for a quick exit with its brake downshift that artificially downshifts the tranny when we applied the brakes in the middle of a turn.
For a midsize family sedan, the Altima is significantly more composed than most buyers might even realize.
Why you would buy it:
You tend to throw your money after companies who still have a passion for building good cars.
Why you wouldn't:
Cars, washing machines, refrigerators"¦ what's the difference?
Leftlane's bottom line
Nissan sweats the details with styling, interiors and features, and even pays attention to the lowliest of engines that power the new 2013 Altima.
The result is a sedan that looks and feels like it should cost thousands more. That's absolutely a win in this competitive segment.
2013 Nissan Altima 2.5 SV base price, $24,100. As tested, $26,950.
Convenient Package, $1,350; Navigation Package, $590; Floor mats, $130; Destination, $780.
Words and photos by Mark Elias.