Where others are going for turbocharged four-cylinders, Nissan is sticking with its smooth V6 for its mainstream sedan.
While most automakers - Nissan included - primarily target mainstream shoppers looking to maximize their mpgs, the V6-powered version of Nissan's Altima has long catered to a small, but surprisingly dedicated performance-oriented midsize sedan buyer.
For fuel misers, Nissan's industry-beating 38 mpg-rated four-cylinder Altima that your neighbor bought fits the bill quite well indeed, but what if you're interested in a little more underhood motivation? Enter the Altima V6, which bucks the boosted four-cylinder trend we've seen in competitive Korean and American sedans.
What was once a big selling engine has now been relegated to fewer than one in 10 Altimas sold, yet we reckon that it's still worth considering - especially since this legendarily smooth V6 is slotted into the best Altima ever.
What is it?
Nissan introduced its fifth-generation Altima sedan earlier this year to much fanfare centered primarily around the number 38, but there's way more to this story than just the four-cylinder's highway fuel economy figure.
Wrapped in more evocative, Infiniti-like sheet metal, the Altima rides on a new platform that utilizes an uprated suspension and a nifty torque vectoring-imitating active understeer system that brakes the inside wheel during hard cornering.
The 3.5-liter V6, rated here at 270 horsepower, sees only minor changes for the new model year, but it does mate to a refreshed CVT, essentially the same gearbox that allows the four cylinder to sip fuel. Even with all that power under its hood, the Altima is rated at 22/31 mpg, a figure that seemed impressive until the 2013 Honda Accord V6 arrived boasting 34 mpg. Well, dang.
At least we weren't wanting for features in our range-topping Altima 3.5SL, the fanciest Altima money can buy. A reasonably priced ($1,090) Technology Package added navigation, a blind spot monitor and lane departure warning, among other goodies.
What's it up against?
That pesky Accord V6 is the Altima's most natural rival, but the Toyota Camry also continues to offer that automaker's similarly impressive 3.5-liter V6 as an option.
Most other volume rivals aside from the Volkswagen Passat have lopped off cylinders and installed turbochargers in a bid to increase power while decreasing fuel economy - the Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Chevrolet Malibu and Ford Fusion among them.
What's it look like?
A stylistic cross between the Infiniti M and the Nissan Maxima, the Altima is generously voluptuous from every angle. Whether that's your thing or not depends on your personal preference, of course, but we found ourselves smitten by its Rubenesque curves.
At the front, deliberate detailing like big fog and running lamp enclosures and a bold black grille give the Altima much-needed presence. Out back, we're less interested in the sedan's clear tail lamp covers, but the way the belt line sweeps across the car's flanks to help define its rump is a classy touch.
Despite the underhood punch, there are few visual cues aside from a 3.5 badge that buyers have taken home the sportiest Altima around. The design cohesion might simplify the production process and make base models not look so, well, base, but we still think the V6s deserve something more dramatic to set them apart.
And on the inside?
That the last-generation Altima got a bad rep for its interior was primarily a carry-over from its particularly natty predecessor. For 2013, the floating center stack and symmetrical dashboard doesn't represent a major departure from before, but there are a number of upgrades worth noting.
You'll find not one but two LCD screens - the center dash-mounted infotainment and a slanted, oddly-shaped screen between the speedometer and tachometer. The former suffers from low-end graphics but is generally intuitive to use and its birdseye-style navigation screen is a real boon for many users. The instrument cluster screen, meanwhile, doesn't contain much new compared to a typical trip computer, but its high resolution appearance gives the dashboard a much-needed classing up.
And that's because the rest of the Altima interior is a little bland. Sure, there's a tech-style plastic trim designed to enliven things up a bit and the steering wheel has paddle shifters (which "simulate" shift points when called upon), but there's more cost-cutting evident here than we remember in the outgoing car.
Most surfaces out of a passenger's immediate reach are composed of low buck plastics and even those he or she might use often - like the steering wheel - feel a little downmarket for a car of this price point.
Still, there's plenty to love about the spacious passenger and cargo compartments, plus the so-called "zero gravity" front seats proved tremendously comfortable over long treks. At first, we found the lumbar to be a little too much, but our backs quickly adjusted. Going between the Altima to other vehicles really revealed the advantage of these front thrones.
But does it go?
In a straight line, boy does it. The 3.5-liter V6 has been around for a while in various iterations, but we've yet to encounter a so-equipped vehicle that didn't impress us with its performance. In addition to the aforementioned 270 horsepower, the V6 cranks out 258 lb-ft. of torque.
Sending power to the front wheels, the CVT behaved admirably. With no shortage of torque found in the lower reaches of the rev range, the CVT rarely had to exercise the tachometer, thus alleviating one of our concerns about the inherently buzzy character of these transmissions. But even when called into action, the CVT was quick to rev up the quiet and refined V6, which emitted only a muffled growl even as it approached redline. If all CVTs behaved this admirably, we'd want to see them in every car.
Further aiding the Altima's slightly more athletic nature was a firm ride and quick steering, two things that don't necessarily add up to a genuine sports sedan. Over lumpy roads, the ride got a little "busy" as it transmitted perhaps too many bumps to the cabin, which in turn set off a symphony of rattles from our preproduction tester's rear parcel shelf. And while the steering was quick and accurate, it delivered nothing in the way of road feel.
But perhaps that's looking at the Altima too harshly. Compared to its direct rivals, the taut tuning and zippy steering made it something of a surprising delight on curvy back roads, where the big sedan settled confidently into wide, sweeping curves. Pushed hard into a tight corner or even too fast into a sweeper, the Altima's understeer reduction system gives this big sedan a remarkably nimble feel that belies its big footprint. For a daily driver capable of hauling five passengers in serene comfort, the Altima should exceed any expectation.
Moreover, we netted an average of nearly 27 mpg despite fairly liberal use of the skinny pedal. Well under a decade ago, that kind of fuel economy was reserved for four-cylinder midsize sedans with about half the horsepower. Progress is clearly a good thing.
Leftlane's bottom line
Measurably more entertaining to drive than the average midsize anony-box, the Altima V6 might be just the ticket for drivers seeking a little bit more verve.
The Volkswagen Passat and Honda Accord might be slightly more polished, but there's much to like about the latest Altima.
2013 Nissan Altima 3.5SL base price, $30,500. As tested, $32,380.
Technology Package, $1,090; Destination, $790.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.