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.
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.
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…)
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.
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