Big Altima Energy, Winter Edition: How Does the 2024 Nissan Altima AWD Do in Snow?

nissan altima sl awd 2024 01 exterior front angle scaled jpg 2024 Nissan Altima SL AWD | photo by Aaron Bragman

We’re having a weird winter in Michigan, as is becoming the norm these days. So when I saw a new 2024 Nissan Altima SL AWD on my testing schedule, I was worried that the 55-degree Christmas weather we saw would still be in effect when the car arrived in my driveway a few weeks later. And it almost was — but an arctic blast and a dump of several inches of snow saved the day. I got to drive the new Altima with its all-wheel-drive system on snowy, icy, absolutely frigid Michigan roads for a week to see exactly how it performs and whether it’s worth considering if you’re one of the increasingly rare shoppers looking for a new mid-size family sedan.

Related: 2023 Nissan Altima 2.0 SR Review: A Sensible, Somewhat Sporty Sedan

A Word About ‘Big Altima Energy’

If you’re even just a little bit automotive-internet savvy, you’ve seen the memes about Big Altima Energy (BAE, as it’ll be referred to henceforth). For some reason, and not one that’s entirely undeserved, Nissan Altimas show up in pop culture on YouTube and TikTok as clapped-out, super-cheap, drive-’em-like-you-stole-’em cars doing all manner of boneheaded things in front of other drivers’ dashcams. For instance, when my nonmedia friends found out I was getting an Altima for a week, two of them independently suggested I replace one wheel with the mini-spare doughnut and drive down Detroit’s Interstate-696 freeway at 110 mph, weaving through traffic with just the right blinker on. They didn’t just invent that scene in their respective heads — it’s been done and witnessed frequently enough to become part of the zeitgeist of BAE.

nissan altima sl awd 2024 04 exterior rear angle scaled jpg 2024 Nissan Altima SL AWD | photo by Aaron Bragman

The Latest Altima

I had to see for myself what the hype was all about with BAE, but acquiring a rusty 15-year-old Altima in a sad-sack state was a nonstarter, so Nissan lent me the latest and greatest: a 2024 Altima SL with AWD. It’s a good-looking dark-red example of what used to be America’s most popular automotive class: the mid-size family sedan. Those days are over as everyone’s gone nuts for SUVs, but a few examples of the mid-sizers still soldier on.

The formula is still a good one. A roomy five-occupant vehicle that you don’t have to climb up into with excellent visibility, top-notch seat comfort, and all controls and displays within easy reach of the driver worked for a lot of people for a very long time. The current Altima is reasonably fresh, having just gotten its last redo for the 2023 model year; for ‘24, it’s pretty much a carryover. The base engine (the only one you can get with the AWD system) is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline motor normally rated at 188 horsepower and 180 pounds-feet of torque, but that output is reduced to 182 hp and 178 pounds-feet in the AWD model. You do get some decent EPA-estimated fuel economy out of that lackluster power rating, coming in at 26/36/30 mpg city/highway/combined. That’s due in part to the continuously variable automatic transmission that comes with every Altima, even the more powerful turbocharged 2.0-liter version (which makes a much more robust 248 hp and 273 pounds-feet of torque on premium gas). The AWD system and added weight does cost a mile or two per gallon compared to front-wheel drive models, but the difference isn’t that dramatic.

nissan altima sl awd 2024 08 interior front row scaled jpg 2024 Nissan Altima SL AWD | photo by Aaron Bragman

What is noticeable is the Altima’s CVT operation. Like most cars with such transmissions, it brings the engine to a certain rpm and then just holds it there upon accelerating. It’s not the quietest or most refined noise in the automotive world, but it’s not too offensive. More surprisingly, it’s accompanied by a decent amount of scoot from a naturally aspirated, not-terribly-powerful-on-paper engine. I never felt that the car was underpowered or struggled in highway on-ramps or passing maneuvers. The trade-off of opting for the lesser engine in exchange for some better fuel-economy numbers won’t leave drivers wishing they had gone for the turbo instead. For most people, it’s more than adequate.

All-Wheel Drive: Useful to a Point

Here’s the thing about AWD: A lot of people think it’s a must-have for living in inclement climes. “I’m good with all-season tires, I have all-wheel drive!” is something I’ve heard over and over again even from people who should know better. And while it’s true that AWD can be an excellent feature for people living in places where slippery surfaces happen more often than not, it is not a magic traction control booster. As I tell people who profess the prior statement to me, “All-wheel drive does not help you stop.

nissan altima sl awd 2024 11 interior backseat scaled jpg 2024 Nissan Altima SL AWD | photo by Aaron Bragman

The Altima AWD was the perfect example of this situation in my time with it on snow-covered, icy back roads in 9-degree weather. You do gain quite a bit of confidence when the Altima’s AWD kicks in to help you track along in snow, and it’s possible to help mitigate understeer in a corner with a bit of accelerator pedal — but only to a point, and only if the front tires also have traction. When the back end slides around on you in a corner on a snowy road, countersteer and a bit of gas can help engage the front wheels to right the ship, but if you’re on ice and the front wheels are also sliding, it’s not going to do much. The Altima’s AWD system is seamless, well integrated, and helpful on wet roads or in loose, powdery snow; on hardpack or crusty, slick ice, it helps but can’t work miracles — and, as I said, AWD does absolutely nothing for you when you hit the brakes. It makes no difference at all.

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What Would Make a Difference?

Simply put: tires. Proper winter tires, when affixed to an AWD car (or especially a vehicle without AWD) will do far more for you than any additional drive wheels can. Your first purchase for any vehicle driven in such conditions has to be proper winter tires. The tread pattern and softer, more cold-pliant material of winter tires, even when compared with all-seasons, makes them far superior to anything else in subzero or icy conditions. The tiny sipes in the tread allow for maximum grip on ice, and the softer material allows for greater deformation and a larger contact patch when the temperatures drop and turn normal tires hard.

nissan altima sl awd 2024 03 exterior profile scaled jpg 2024 Nissan Altima SL AWD | photo by Aaron Bragman

The loaded Altima SL I tested had all-season Hankook Kinergy GT all-season tires with 19-inch wheels. While the big wheels and tires look fantastic, such rubber is not ideal in winter conditions; swapping out those Hankooks for any winter tire would make an astonishing difference in vehicle performance, turning the Altima from a perfectly good, comfortable, well-optioned family sedan with an attractive interior into a potential mountain goat in wintry conditions. The Altima AWD on its own is an excellent option for someone wanting a family car with extra traction. But adding AWD by itself without winter tires, if you live in a place where winter happens, means you’ve only really gotten a minor benefit instead of the full measure of what BAE can deliver. (Note: The standard mini doughnut spare tire is not an adequate winter tire.)

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Detroit Bureau Chief Aaron Bragman has had over 25 years of experience in the auto industry as a journalist, analyst, purchasing agent and program manager. Bragman grew up around his father’s classic Triumph sports cars (which were all sold and gone when he turned 16, much to his frustration) and comes from a Detroit family where cars put food on tables as much as smiles on faces. Today, he’s a member of the Automotive Press Association and the Midwest Automotive Media Association. His pronouns are he/him, but his adjectives are fat/sassy. Email Aaron Bragman

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