Editor's note: This review was written in March 2007 about the 3.5 SE version of the 2008 Nissan Altima. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what details are different this year, check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Most car buyers don't have the luxury of purchasing a different car for all the types of driving they do. While a sports car for a favorite road, a luxury sedan for a night out and a wagon for family road trips would be nice if you had the means — and a three-car garage — most shoppers don't. That's why it makes sense to look for a car that best combines all your needs and wants, however conflicting they may be. Nissan's redesigned Altima plays to this type of buyer, and it's rather successful at balancing the performance and comfort needs of enthusiast drivers who also have families to shuttle around.
Ride & Handling
I tested an Altima 3.5 SE. In Nissan's world, SE means sporty, and sporty for the Altima means 17-inch all-season tires on alloy wheels and a sport-oriented four-wheel independent suspension with bigger stabilizer bars.
The taut suspension faithfully communicates the quality of the road back to the driver, so if you drive on rundown roads, expect to feel their state of disrepair. Even this sportiest of Altimas, though, doesn't jostle occupants like a Honda Accord.
At highway speeds, the Altima is a quiet cruiser on asphalt, but concrete stirs up some tire noise. The car doesn't demand a lot of the driver, which makes for carefree commuting even when you're stuck in traffic.
The Altima has a power rack-and-pinion steering system that delivers predictable responses. Adjusting the tilt/telescoping steering column is a bit more difficult than on some cars because getting enough leverage to push it in or pull it out requires grasping the bottom of the wheel. Obviously, that won't be a big concern if you're the only one driving the car.
Going & Stopping
Base Altimas have a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 175 horsepower (170 hp in states that have adopted California's emissions rules). A 270-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 is optional. A six-speed manual transmission is standard for both engines, but a continuously variable automatic transmission is optional. CVTs don't have gears like conventional automatic transmissions, instead using movable pulleys and a belt to connect the engine with the driveline, resulting in perfectly smooth acceleration without noticeable gear changes. Nissan's CVT also features a clutchless-manual mode, which simulates traditional stepped-gear shifting.
One of the advantages of a CVT is that it can have an unlimited number of gear ratios and a broad range from the lowest to the highest, which in theory should mean better gas mileage. Compared to the manual transmission, the CVT's gas mileage estimates are slightly worse with the four-cylinder — 26/34 mpg (city/highway) versus 26/35 mpg — and are mixed with the V-6: 21/29 mpg for the six-speed and 22/28 mpg for the CVT.
In everyday driving, the 3.5-liter V-6 and CVT make a better pair than I thought they would. The V-6, for its part, revs smoothly and pulls the 3,334-pound car easily. The drivetrain is eager to please most of the time, but there's some mild torque steer when accelerating hard out of a turn as the engine forces power down to the front wheels — not an uncommon characteristic in high-power front-wheel-drive cars.
My opinion of the CVT itself is split. I really like its ability to quickly raise engine rpm when a quick burst of acceleration is needed while darting through traffic, but when cruising at steady, slow speeds, the CVT adjusts itself so as to keep engine rpm extremely low, which robs the V-6 of power. The transmission's clutchless-manual mode, meanwhile, is about as good as they come in terms of responsiveness. That praise is faint because I don't find these things very entertaining in general, but compared to ones paired with conventional automatics this one is quite good.
The Altima's all-disc brakes have a natural feel; unlike some systems, they don't ask that you learn their quirks and idiosyncrasies.
Even though its swoopy styling might suggest limited cabin space, the five-seat Altima has sufficient room in both the front and rear seats. The optional leather front bucket seats are comfortable and driver visibility is good.
The three-person rear bench seat has a nicely angled backrest that should make passengers' ride more comfortable, and there are cutouts in the backs of the front seats to give riders a little extra knee room. There's not a lot of extra headroom in the backseat, but it should be adequate for most passengers. The flip-down center armrest has two cupholders.
The redesigned interior has a lot of upscale touches, like a soft-touch dashboard surface and chrome detailing on the air vents. Included with the optional leather seats are leather door inserts and armrests that are especially plush. One of our test car's dashboard speaker covers and a right-side vent weren't perfectly aligned, but the quality of most materials is among the best in this class.
The exception is the faux wood trim on the doors and center stack of models with the blond (tan) interior color scheme; it's not convincing in the least and cheapens the otherwise-appealing interior. Even though our expensive 3.5 SE test car carried an as-tested price of nearly $31,000, I don't think most buyers expect wood trim in an Altima, so why include it? Frost (gray) and charcoal interiors have metallic accents that seem better matched to the car.
While a few significant stand-alone options like antilock brakes, an electronic stability system and the CVT are offered, most popular options are grouped together in expensive packages. While that's fine if you want everything in the package, you may not be as happy when you learn that it will cost $2,150 to add a moonroof to the 2.5 S trim level. (It's part of a Convenience Plus Package that also includes a power driver's seat, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls and automatic headlights.)
The 2007 Nissan Altima received a Good rating — the highest possible — in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's frontal-offset crash test. As of publication, IIHS hasn't subjected the Altima to its side-impact crash test.
All Altimas have standard side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags and active head restraints for the front seats. Antilock brakes are not offered on the base 2.5 model but are optional on the 2.5 S and standard on V-6-powered Altimas. Nissan's electronic stability system is optional for V-6 Altimas.
The Altima is one of few family-oriented midsize sedans that can have an optional rearview camera. Part of the Technology Package that includes a navigation system with a 6.5-inch screen and XM satellite radio, the navigation screen displays the camera's image when the car is in Reverse.
Cargo & Towing
The Altima's trunk measures 15.3 cubic feet, which is average for the class, but it shrinks to 13.1 cubic feet with the full-size spare tire that's included with the optional stability system. (Stability features don't work properly with one small tire.)
A 60/40-split folding rear seat is standard, but Nissan's method for releasing the seatbacks is rather unusual. Instead of having a handle at the top of the seatback to release the seats from the cabin, or one near the edge of the trunk opening to release them from the cargo area, there's a strap for either section of the seatback hanging from the top of the trunk that, when pulled, releases the backrests. They work just fine, but you have to reach pretty far into the trunk to pull them.
With proper equipment, both the four-cylinder and V-6 Altima can tow up to 1,000 pounds.
Altima in the Market
Though it's subtle, Nissan's redesign of the Altima — its most popular model and the sixth-best-selling car in the U.S. last year — is significant, which is nothing less than what was needed in the intensely competitive midsize sedan segment. There's not a deal breaker in the Altima for us, which makes it easy to recommend if you're shopping for a car to satisfy your split selves — the part of you that needs a responsible family sedan, along with the selfish part that wants an entertaining, sporty car.
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