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Review: 2013 Nissan Altima – Keeping up with the Camcordsontibusion

Jim Brennan June 6, 2012 Featured, Nissan Reviews 33 Comments

The US Midsize Sedan is the most competitive market segment, with an ever growing list of competitors from almost all the automotive brands. There are entry level models, mid-priced entries, and even entry-level luxury options. There are some very good models vying for your hard earned dollars, as well as some also-ran entries that are more at home in the daily rental fleet. There are the cars that dominate the sales charts month after month (only full-sized Pickup Trucks, and some mid-sized SUVs sell more) and have become very important to the manufacturers bottom line.

So why should we even care about these yawn inducing vehicles when you really want to read about the latest 2-seat sportscar, or that hot Italian or German exotic? Because folks, without a top selling Midsize Sedan that generates enough profit for the parent company, there would be little development dollars available to produce said sportscar or exotic.

With that thought in mind, we flew to Tennessee to have a look at the redesigned 2013 Nissan Altima.

Five Generations of US Built Altimas

Within the US there are at least twenty different mid-sized models, priced all over the place, vying to become the default choice for you and your family when choosing your next car. All the Japanese Brands offered in this country has at least one model offering, including their luxury divisions. The Korean Brands are represented with strong entries, and even stronger warranties. The Europeans are starting to pay close attention to this segment, and the American contingent is shoring up their lineup as well.

To see how combative you can get in this growing market, once compact entries like the VW Jetta, and the Buick Regal represent the smaller end of the midsized market, while the Chevrolet Impala and Buick Lacrosse huddle around the larger end of the pool. The Lexus ES, the Acura TL, and the BMW 3 Series congregate at the entry level luxury arena, offering more features, while becoming increasingly affordable.

However, the sales champions within the midsized sedan market have been seven very successful nameplates: The Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Hyundai Sonata, Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu, Volkswagen Passat, and the Nissan Altima. There have been a few others (like the Subaru Legacy, and the Kia Optima) that are in the hunt, others (like the Suzuki Kizashi, The Mazda 6, The Mitsubishi Galant, The Chrysler 200 and Dodge Avenger) are either statistically outliers, or are just produced for the daily rental fleets.

Within this backdrop, Nissan realized that this is a very important segment to them, and the 5th generation Altima would have to be a very competent vehicle, offer better than average fuel economy, include almost every comfort and convenience feature expected by today’s car buyer, and sell at a price that won’t break the bank. There is one more thing that should be taken into account with the new Altima… The outgoing model became the 2nd best selling car for the 2011 model year, a feat that is unheard of for a model that is virtually unchanged since its introduction six years earlier.

The Altima is also a car that has some meaning personally, since I have used one as a company car some years ago and can attest to the strengths and weaknesses of this perennial best seller. While the car I used to drive all over New England was a 3rd generation model, sitting behind the wheel of the new Altima 2.5 was almost like coming home to a familiar friend. I actually chose to experience the base model before trying any of the other trim groups for the following reason; If the basic car performs adequately, provides a comfortable driving environment, delivers improved fuel economy with enhanced performance, and doesn’t feel like a penalty box while doing so, then the rest of the model lineup should be even better.

There was but one 2013 Altima 2.5 available to the gathering press and I was standing next to it, claiming it like it was some lost treasure. It was an engineering mule as I later found out while taking pictures under the hood (it was missing the usual plastic engine cover, and some finishing details around the driver side fender) but overall, it didn’t feel like a bottom feeder. In fact the standard equipment features included almost everything you expect in today’s transportation devices, and a few that you expect to pay extra for.

The instrumentation was complete, including a display that Nissan calls the Advanced Drive-Assist Display. The base car includes Bluetooth, with hands-free streaming audio. There is Keyless Entry with push-button start, stability control, a rather good stereo CD unit, manual multi-adjustable seats in cloth, and everything else that seems to be standard today from Air Conditioning, to power windows, and a nicely tuned Electric Power Steering system. There is also Active Understeer Control, which is suppose to compensate the tendency that most front-wheel drive cars seem to “plow” or understeer around corners. The only glaring exception is the lack of Cruise Control, an omission I noticed when I last rented a base Nissan Versa a few months ago.

The 2.5L QR25 engine is virtually a carry over design with the exception of the inclusion of variable valve timing the previous versions lacked. This inched the horsepower rating up to 182, up slightly from 175. The torque rating is identical to last year at 180 Lb/Ft. Backing up the engine is a next-generation CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) with more than 70% of the internal parts redesigned, and reducing internal friction by 40%. Now is a good time to tell you that there will be no manual transmission available on this generation of Altima, so stop asking. The combination of the 2.5L inline 4, and the redesigned CVT, yields 27 MPG in the city and 38 MPG on the highway. The time I had the Altima 2.5, I was experiencing 35.5 MPG overall with a lot of back country roads and small town streets mixed in for good measure.

A lovely older woman agreed to let me take this shot with her 2005 Altima.

Nissan is also very proud of their new Active Understeer Control system, which utilizes intelligent control logic coupled with high-response brake actuators to brake the inside front wheels during cornering to increase yaw-movement. In other words, this system will reduce the tendency that most FWD based cars to plow into corners at higher rates of speed, and I had the chance to experience how it worked.

While on the open roads just outside of Nashville, there was a very sharp corner that I nearly missed as I was suppose to be the navigator on this stint. Well, I shouted “Turn Here” and we did… and the car handled the corner as advertised, with a lot of protest from the tires I might add. As a matter of fact, the tires were the most disappointing thing about the car, and we agreed that a better set of tires would have improved handling and road-ability of the car overall. The base tire for the Altima 2.5 and the 2.5S is the 215/60R16 Continental ContiProContact all-season tires on steel rims with plastic wheel covers. The 2.5SV and 2.5SL models step up to 215/55R17 V-rated all season tires, which I didn’t have the opportunity to try out.

Speaking of trying out other vehicles, Nissan supplied three competitors for us to sample at the half way point of the journey. Sitting in the parking lot of the Jack Daniels Distillery in Lynchburg Tennessee, was a Toyota Camry, a Hyundai Sonata, and a Volkswagen Passat. The cars were all white, with mid-level equipment levels, ready for us to take on a short test loop. I passed on the Camry, and briefly sat in the Sonata which was equipped with the most nauseating interior color scheme of dark gray and putty.

I went for the Passat, since I haven’t driven one since they started producing them here in the states. This was the SE version, with the 2.5L Inline 5-cylinder engine and the 6-speed automatic. The VW actually had the handling edge over the Altima 2.5, and I liked the feel of the steering wheel, and the growl of the 5-cylinder engine. The tires were 17 inch Continental ContiSportContacts in the 215/55R17 size and didn’t protest in the same manner as the ones on the Altima. The Passat came across as a German Sedan (Taut suspension, supportive seats, no none sense attitude) with a bit of a Tennessee Twang. I may have liked the Passat, but not enough for me to purchase one.

After driving the morning session in the base Altima, I managed to snag a top tier version for the afternoon; An Altima 3.5SL. This car was what they used to call “Fully Loaded”. Under the hood was the famous VQ35DE 3.5L V6 rated at 270 HP, and 258 Lb/Ft of torque. This model also has a “Sport” setting for the CVT, with a pair of “Flappy Paddle” shifters attached behind the steering wheel. Once situated inside, the ambiance of the cabin was just a little different from the base version. The leather combined with a lighter tone of the interior made it look richer, though I could have done without the tacky plastiwood used on the dash and door surrounds. Nissan touts the new NASA inspired “zero-gravity” seats as class leading comfort, but they failed to impress me as they lost their support after about an hour. They look good, but my backside says they could be improved.

One thing that the Altima 3.5SL does very well is make the Maxima look redundant. The interior is well crafted, with mostly well done plastics, intuitive controls and instrumentation, and room galore. The back seat is almost limousine like with proper head, shoulder, and leg room, all thanks to a modest increase in overall length of one inch. I tend to look at the available trunk room (because I throw a lot of crap back there) and this car has more than enough room for anything I could muster, and the SL versions are properly finished with carpeting covering the lid. Other features include a lane departure warning system (that got old real fast) as well as a blind spot detection system. Heated steering wheel is also new this year (ask me how I found that out sometime…)

A 2013 Altima 2.5SL, Courtesy of Nissan

The 3.5SL is also a very fast car for this price point. I absolutely loved the acceleration, which could get addictive if you’re not careful. Put the transmission in Sport Mode, and with the “Flappy Paddle Shifters” you get six upshifts while accelerating, or downshifts when you want to take corners. Curiously, the 4-cylinder versions do without the manual shift modes. Handling is also fairly crisp for this top spec car, with either Michelin or Dunlop 235/45R18 tires mounted on machine faced alloys, newly standard speed sensitive electric power steering, electronic brake force distribution, beefy stabilizer bars, premium ZF SACHS shock absorbers, and brake assist.

This is a very competent sedan in a sea of competent sedans, and Nissan has ticked all the right boxes as far as keeping up with the rest of the pack. Pricing plays a very inportant role in this decision, and Nissan seems to have done their homework here as well. The Base Altima 2.5 has an MSRP of $21,500, with a $1,000 increase for the best selling 2.5S version. Step up to the better equipped 2.5SL, in which you get 17″ Alloys, remote engine start, rearview monitor, dual-zone A/C, and Nissan Connect (Hands Free Texting, Pandora Integration, iPod Connectivity, and XM Satellite Radio) for $24,100.

My Base Altima 2.5, missing the Decorative Exhaust Tips

I could live with a 2.5, but it’s the 3.5 that sets Nissan apart from the competition, and a 3.5S that is a well equipped sedan that sells for $25,360. Our fully loaded 3.5SL with the Technology Package (Navigation with 7″ touchscreen, Google POI, Google Send-To-Car, Blind Spot Warning, Lane Departure Warning, and Moving Object Detection) tops out at almost $31,200. For that money, there was one very glaring omission in the equipment level and that would be ventilated seats. After a couple of hours sitting on leather seats in almost ninety degree heat, it would have been a nice option to have.

Overall, the Altima is a very strong contender within this segment. Nissan has tweaked its best seller and it shows. Out of all the entries I have mentioned above, the Altima would be my pick as the best midsized sedan for the money currently. It is far more entertaining than the Camry, and a bit more stylish than the Accord. The V6 option gives it an edge over the Sonata and the Optima. If you want to see Nissan continue to develop models that we like (The GT-R and the 370-Z for example) then it would be in your best interest to recommend the Altima to your parents, siblings, loved ones, co-workers, or just about anyone if they ask for your advise on which car to purchase.

[Disclosure: Nissan provided airfare to Nashville, a hotel stay, southern hospitality, copious amounts of drink, an evening of music, and a tour of the Jack Daniels distillery. What more could a displaced Yankee ask for?]

Images copyright 2012 Hooniverse/Jim Brennan

  • Stu_Rock

    Does anyone know if Nissan resolved that pre-catalyst ingestion issue on the QR25? I remember there was a while when it was "not if but when" type of problem.

    • JHoward

      Uh, yeah… like in 03 or 04. Doesn't mean you won't get a used one with the problem, but that motor's been reworked so many times it isn't even funny. Sure, it's the same block, but everything around it has changed. QR25 in name only

      • Stu_Rock

        Goes to show how much Nissan isn't on my radar. There was a TSB or recall on the earlier cars you mentioned, but I did hear about people having problems on subsequent model years. You're right, though, that it's getting to be a long time ago.

        What did they do to resolve the problem? Did they move the pre-catalyst farther downstream?

        • JHoward

          Some people actually got whole new cars, some got new engines, and those that didn't have an immediate threat… well they just replaced the manifold and cat.

  • Jeb

    That's cool…you were in my hometown area (Tullahoma, TN). I was in Bell Buckle for lunch about three weeks ago, in fact, and my mother works in Lynchburg.

    Interesting to note no carping about the CVT; I thought CVT complaints were standard issue in car reviews.

    • I haven't driven this car, but Nissan seems to be the one automaker who is making a halfway decent CVT

      • Devin

        CVTs seem to be a programming thing. Driving a Nissan CVT I don't really notice it, but people claim that the Dodge Caliber had a CVT from the same manufacturer and that thing just felt like it had a broken transmission. An infinite supply of gear ratios, but somehow always in the wrong one.

  • MVEilenstein

    Big. Bloated. Plastic. I guess the jelly bean is back – thanks, Taurus!

    • Savant_Idiot

      Yep, melted-soap styling brought on by the Taurus has poisoned the well…

  • craigsu

    What's the point of paddle shifters with a CVT? CVTs have shift points now? Color me confused and in need of further edumacating.

    • BobWellington

      It's just programmed to feel more like a normal geared transmission if you want it to.

    • Perc

      It's just for show.

      Like every modern CVT the Nissan box is, of course, computer controlled. This makes it possible to set as many fixed gear ratios as you want for when you feel like doing pretend-manual shifting.

      Audi does the same thing on their "multitronic" CVT found in some FWD models from around '00 and up. This is what I have experience with and I bet the Nissan is similar.

      Leave it in D and it behaves just like you'd expect a CVT to behave. Relaxed and nice when cruising, but a bit annoying when your foot is welded to the floor because it climbs to around 5000rpm and stays there until you lift off. Put the selector in S and it fakes 6 (or 7?) fixed gear ratios with behavior similar to any normal automatic. It's just for show because the shifting back and forth makes it slower than just letting the engine work at optimum revs. You can also shift those ratios manually, which I guess could come in handy for engine braking.

      • Devin

        The manual shift option is really handy for passing, going by the last time I was driving one of these. Just punching it doesn't speed you up quite as fast, the "downshift" works better, handy when you've got to get around a semi.

    • It's a nice feature when on the highway. Traffic slowing a bit, rather than grabbing brakes tell the CVT to "change" down a ratio… also good for passing.

  • BobWellington

    Seems like a pretty nice car, but the styling is just way off for me. I'll take the new Fusion, please.

  • Eeegads it's hideous.

    Undoubtedly an excellent allround machine, most likely it does just what it's told to with unblanching obedience, and that should matter more than styling, of course. But this new Altima is really pushing my tolerance. I can cope with blandness; conservatism sells cars to unadventurous folk. I have driven excellent cars which have been "styled" with an orthadoxy verging on the reckless, which is fine; at least you can ignore the boring.

    But this is styled wrongly. I can't forgive thoughtlessness. There has been scant consideration given to where any of the curves are heading, nor the integration of the grille with those big, silly muttonchops, or the fact that the headlamp lenses bulge out like facial warts when viewed from the rear three quarters. It's just horrible.

    And I doubt that'll make a blind bit of difference. People will buy these in vast numbers and come back for more, just as people will continue to download Black Eye Peas tracks at 128Kbps bitrate to play back through their $12 MP3 players, under the misapprehension that they're listening to "music".

    It's society at large who are responsible for the dumbing down of society at large.

    • UDman

      Rusty, Nissan is threatening to bring these over the pond now that the Primera is toast. Remember, resistance is futile…

      • I'll do my best to look the other way when I sense one approaching.

    • Devin

      When I first saw it I hated it as well, but now it's growing on me. Maybe because I know I'll see these constantly so I might as well embrace them, Stockholm Syndrome and all that.

  • Savant_Idiot

    CVT only? …UGH!

    • JHoward

      Get over it… it's just fine for normal people.

      • Savant_Idiot

        I will not "get over it", therefore I will not be purchasing a vehicle without a manual transmission. If that makes me "abnormal" so be it.

        • I've got a couple of CVT-equipped vehicles and I assure you I'm perfectly normal.

          <img src="http://farm2.staticflickr.com/1412/4732772669_6986f7f583.jpg&quot; width="450">

          • Savant_Idiot

            Uh…those are "normal" where exactly?

            • jeepjeff

              They look normal to me.

            • Minnesota and France.

              • Savant_Idiot

                THAT explains it…!

                • They made literally hundreds of them there, respectively, so I assume* they must be all over the place.

                  *I've never been to France and have spent only a few hours in Minnesota. Please do not disillusion me.

  • mark

    I find the styling to be OK although a bit overdone; lots of curves for the sake of curves. Seems to be the style now. I cannot overlook that awful grill nor the giant slab of chrome thrown onto the trunklid, however. The photo of the new car next to the 2005 is interesting as the grill on the older model looks much better, to me. Time to bring back "European" styling from the 80's — little to no chrome, black trim.

    But.. a decently powerful 4-cylinder with good gas mileage and a nice interior is appealing to me. Other reviewers seem impressed with the CVT but that's a sticking point for me.

    • JHoward

      If you've ever driven a good CVT, you'll rethink it as a sticking point. Nissan's CVT's are really stinking amazing these days. They took a marginally good idea and perfected it. Only downside is that you can't fix one (not that you'd need to on the newer ones)… only replace it. Kinda goes with the "appliance" mentality though.

  • Syrax

    It's dangerously close to the Maxima now.

  • Jay Allen

    The 2013 version of the Altima seems like an awesome preview of what Nissan has in next in store. I better check out the recent listings over at Nissan Dealers Long Island.

  • thomasstrome

    Why is it everytime I look at this car, it keeps reminding me of Camry? Altima is a great sedan and offers a lot of great features for frequent travellers. Trying to look for nissan pre owned?