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If there's a model that epitomizes the concept of flying under the radar, it's the Nissan Altima. Often overlooked when the topic of family sedans comes up, it's quietly become one of the best-selling cars in the U.S. and is currently behind only the Toyota Camry, year-to-date.
The 2012 Nissan Altima remains a well-rounded family sedan that gets passing grades in many areas despite having few exceptional qualities.
We evaluated a 2.5 S sedan with an as-tested price of $24,450. Similarly priced competitors include the Toyota Camry LE and Honda Accord LX-P; to see a side-by-side comparison of these three cars, click here.
Ride & Handling
The Altima's ride quality is sportier than the family sedan norm. Some editors thought it was too firm, but I found it tolerable, though its body control isn't as good as the Volkswagen Passat's over bumps. The ride firmness might have been more appreciated were we testing the performance-oriented V-6 model as opposed to the mainstream 2.5 S.
The steering is well-executed. It provides nice weighting that strikes a balance between being overly heavy or light. There's actually a little steering feedback, too.
Nissan has embraced continuously variable automatic transmissions to a larger degree than most automakers, and the transmission is used in all versions of the Altima; neither a manual transmission nor a conventional automatic are offered.
The transmission brings out the best in the four-cylinder. The Altima moves away easily from a stop and there's power to spare at midrange cruising speeds. It's great for around-town driving. Gas mileage is a respectable 23/32 mpg city/highway.
The drivetrain takes some getting used to, though. The transmission's lack of traditional gears leads to engine drone when accelerating hard, like when merging on the highway. On the other hand, the transmission's manual-shift mode is actually pretty responsive — more like a dual-clutch automatic than the average traditional automatic.
The sedan has little trouble keeping pace with fast-moving highway traffic, but at 70 mph there's not much power left in reserve, which isn't uncommon among four-cylinder family sedans. When you press down hard on the gas pedal, you get more noise than acceleration.
There was one quirk: After first putting the car in Drive, I could consistently count on a clunking sound when passing 25 to 30 mph. I wouldn't hear it again for the rest of the drive, but it returned again when starting a new trip. It didn't badly compromise the driving experience, but the presence of something like this in a relatively new car is a little worrisome.
The Altima has room for five, but its cabin doesn't feel as spacious as some of its newer competitors, like the Passat. This is most evident in the backseat, which is reasonably comfortable for adults thanks to cutouts in the front-seat backrests that provide extra knee room.
The front bucket seats are comfortable, but our test car's cloth upholstery didn't look that great in Blond (light tan). The whole interior was finished in drab shades of tan, in fact, which made me wish for the Charcoal (black) color scheme. That said, cabin materials still rate well, and the controls are easy to use.
The trunk measures 15.3 cubic feet, which is respectable for this class, but Nissan created a less-than-ideal method of folding the standard 60/40-split backseat. Instead of traditional trunk-mounted knobs, you have to reach deep in the trunk and pull a strap to release each backrest section.
The Altima has been crash-tested by both the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In IIHS testing, the Altima sedan received Good ratings in frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests and Acceptable ratings in the roof-strength and head restraint tests. Meanwhile, NHTSA awarded the Altima four out of five stars in its front-crash and rollover-resistance tests and five stars in its side crash test. Its overall rating is four stars.
Standard safety features include antilock brakes and an electronic stability system, which are required on all new vehicles as of the 2012 model year. Additional standard features include side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags for both rows and active front head restraints. Check out the Standard Equipment & Options page to see additional safety features.
Altima in the Market
The Altima's sales success might have industry-watchers scratching their heads, as the car hasn't had a full redesign since the 2007 model year, but its formula for success is no secret. Simply, it does well in areas that matter most to families: It's easy to drive, relatively fuel efficient and has a good reliability record. Add to that some enticing cash-back deals and it's no wonder the Altima is a popular choice for value-conscious families.
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