Perhaps it's time for Nissan to get out of the business of building cars and get into the business of telling everyone else how to build cars. The all-new 2013 Nissan Altima is the perfect example of how to improve an already-great product. What makes this mid-size sedan a winner? Read on.
First Glance: I'll have more of the same, thank you
Press launches can be nerve-wracking affairs for me, especially when an automaker redesigns a car I really like, such as the Nissan Altima. What if they've totally screwed it up? What if they've taken the car in the wrong direction? What if I have to turn around and tell my readers that this former go-to bastion of its segment should now be avoided like a week-old halibut filet? It's enough to keep me awake at night. (My wife has suggested that I might take my job too seriously.)
Well, for those who are concerned about my health, worry not -- I slept like a baby the night after driving the all-new 2013 Nissan Altima. The outgoing Altima was one of the better cars in the mid-size segment, and those brilliant boffins at Nissan have done the smart thing for 2013: Instead of change for change's sake, they've stuck with a formula that works. What a relief!
Let's start with the outside: Existing Altima owners said they were perfectly happy with the size of their cars, so Nissan left pretty well alone, changing dimensions by only an inch or so (longer, lower and wider) to give the car a sportier, more aggressive look). I'm not a big fan of Nissan's styling -- I sometimes think their designers are messing with us on a grand scale -- but I rather like the aggressive look of the new Altima's front end (link goes to photo), although viewed from the back, the slight droop of the taillights make it look as if the car was left out in the sun to melt.
In the Driver's Seat: Building on the basics
Inside, I found more genuine relief: The basic dash layout is the same, with clear gauges, a big easy-to-read LCD screen, and simple climate controls that you can operate without taking your eyes off the road. Nissan designed the front seats using data from a NASA study that determined optimum support points for the human body, and I guess it worked, because my body felt supported just fine. Neither the trunk (15.4 cubic feet) nor the back seat are best-in-class, but both offer a respectable amount of room. And when it came to interior materials, Nissan spent lavishly: I sampled several Altimas, from the cheapest (Altima 2.5, $22,280) to the most posh (Altima 3.5 SL with Tech Package, $31,950) and aside from the lack of cruise control in the base model, I thought every one looked and felt more expensive than its sticker price (although when I started poking, tapping and prodding some of the surfaces, my mental cost estimate dropped by a few bucks). Too bad there are only six airbags under all that lovely trim, though -- the Toyota Camry, Altima's arch-nemesis, packs ten.
In the infotainment wars, Nissan has gotten off to a bit of a false start: The new NissanConnect system brags about features like hands-free text messaging and Pandora Internet radio. Problem is, text messaging only works with Androids and Blackberrys, not iPhones, while Pandora is only truly integrated with the car if you have an iPhone, not an Android. The good news is that even the base-model stereo (which lacks the LCD screen) sounds good, while the higher-end systems are easy enough to use and most of the cool functions (such as the ability to send addresses to the navigation system via Google) work independently of your phone.
On the Road: Sticking with what works
Under the hood, I found two familiar friends*: An improved version of the 2.5 liter 4-cylinder and the VQ-series 3.5 liter V6. The four is the way to go: With 182 hp and 180 lb-ft on tap, zero to 60 comes up in well under 8 seconds, and because Nissan worked hard to keep the Altima's weight down, EPA fuel economy estimates are a laudable 27 MPG city and 38 MPG highway -- better than the Hyundai Sonata (35 MPG) and even the "mild hybrid" Malibu Eco (37 MPG). And it works in the real world: I had no problem averaging 39 MPG in gentle driving, although this dropped quite a bit once I hit stop-and-go city traffic.
* (Er, I found the two engines in two different cars. Nissan does not stuff both engines into one Altima, although there is a rumor that they'll try that for the 2016 facelift.)
Instead of a turbo four, Nissan decided to stick with a V6, logic being that big-engine buyers want the smooth, luxurious feel that a V6 delivers. Despite its muscle-bound 270 hp, the six still delivers a respectable 22 MPG city and 30 MPG highway.
Both engines come exclusively with a continuously-variable automatic transmission (CVT). CVTs are controversial; most journalists and car enthusiasts can't stand them, but the tuning Nissan has applied to this new version seems to have quelled the complaints from the nay-sayers. And as for me, standing alone on the Island of CVT Love, the changes did not bother me in the least -- this iteration of the CVT still delivers the smooth, seamless flow of power and outstanding fuel economy that have made me such a big fan of these transmissions.
Handling is a high point: Rather than switch to electrically-assisted power steering (EPS) Nissan has stayed with hydraulic, although instead of using an engine-driven pump, the Altima uses an electric motor to provide pressure on demand. Steering feel is a cut above EPS-equipped cars like the Toyota Camry, Hyundai Sonata, and Kia Optima, and a carefully-tuned chassis cranks the fun-to-drive factor up quite a bit higher, even if it doesn't quite corner with the aplomb of the Volkswagen Passat.