The verdict: The redesigned 2019 Nissan Altima packs much-needed technology and drivability, but some versions shine more than others.
Versus the competiton: Stuck playing catch-up to its redesigned rivals, the overhauled Altima hits a lot of the right notes, and it’s a vast improvement over its predecessor. Whether that sparks enough interest in a sedan in an SUV-mad market remains to be seen.
Available in six trim levels with two engines and front- or all-wheel drive, the Altima gives shoppers a smorgasbord of variants. The availability of AWD — a first for the nameplate — distinguishes Nissan in a largely front-drive class. We tested three Altimas: a mid-level front-drive SV and well-equipped AWD Platinum, both with the base 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, as well as a loaded Edition One with the Altima’s uplevel engine: a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that replaces last year’s V-6. The 2019 Altima is on sale now, with prices ranging from about $25,000 to around $37,000.
Exterior and Styling
Nissan’s sixth-generation redesign is all grille with a plunging unit ensconced in a trough of silver garnish. The automaker calls it “V-Motion,” but this is the first time in the U.S. that the Vee has run from hood to ground. Many sedans have gone similarly big on the grille, and the approach seems destined for ruination by a front license plate (in states that require it). Still, I’ll take the focused approach over the outgoing generation’s chaotic front styling.
Base Altima trims have 16-inch steel wheels with plastic covers. Higher trims get 17- or 19-inch alloys, and the sportier Altima SR gets darkened body trim.
A CVT That Doesn’t Suck
We’ve devoted a lot of virtual ink to continuously variable automatic transmissions, whose penchant for droning, nonlinear revving persists even as automakers incorporate programming to simulate upshifts and downshifts for a more conventional feel. We’ve pulled no punches with the Altima, a longtime employer of CVTs, but the 2019 improves a lot on the formula. With either four-cylinder — the 2.5-liter (188 horsepower) or the turbo 2.0-liter (248 hp) — the CVT raises revs in tandem with your right foot to accelerate out of corners or pass slower highway traffic. Stay on the gas past 4,000 rpm or so, and it eventually drops revs in crisp, simulated upshifts.
That responsiveness is vital with the 2.5-liter engine, whose modest power requires a snappy transmission to keep the Altima from feeling stuck in the slow lane. The CVT does just that. Driven back-to-back with a CVT-equipped Honda Accord, the Altima’s transmission proved its worth whenever we dug into the gas. The Accord’s transmission is no slouch, but Nissan has it beat.
Available only with the base engine, AWD adds some 130 pounds to the Altima’s curb weight — a reasonable weight penalty, as they go — yet the car moves with a vigor similar to the FWD version. The turbocharged four-cylinder, meanwhile, delivers strong, continuous power at all speeds. Acceleration feels comparable to the uplevel engines in other mid-size sedans, which is to say it’s plentiful, and the CVT still kicks up revs in a jiffy.
EPA-estimated combined gas mileage is a competitive 29-32 mpg with the 2.5-liter engine. It’s 29 mpg with the 2.0-liter turbo, an impressive figure compared with other sedans’ upgrade engines. Alas, to get the advertised horsepower for the turbo engine, Nissan stipulates premium gasoline, a grade that costs 22 percent more than regular gas as of this writing.
Ride and Handling
Gone is the Altima’s high-effort steering at low speeds — a longstanding characteristic of the nameplate. In its place is a setup you can turn with a couple of fingers; the power assist is so high, in fact, that it drew criticism from several editors for numb feedback. Still, Nissan pairs it with an ultra-quick steering ratio that reorients the nose at the flick of your wrist. Some may find that a small consolation for the lack of feedback — both the Accord and Toyota Camry feel livelier in this regard — but the setup retains a degree of nimbleness, and the extra power assist should suit anyone who wants low-effort driving above all else.
Noise abatement is impressive, and I found shock absorption and overall isolation acceptable with the Altima’s 17-inch wheels. Some Cars.com editors deemed the setup overly firm, however, with bumps of all kinds disrupting occupants. We all agreed on one thing: Such harshness is assuredly the case if you get the Altima’s 19-inch wheels, which come with lower-profile tires. Fitted with those, both the Platinum and Edition One trims took sewer covers and potholes with more chop than a sous chef. Over anything short of glass-smooth highway, both cars settled into a turbulent rhythm. Front-drive SR models further sportify the experience by pairing the 19s with firmer shock absorbers. We didn’t drive an Altima thus equipped, but considering the regular shocks produced so much chop, it’s a safe bet the SR is no choice for comfort.
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
Featuring a high-mounted touchscreen above two rows of straightforward controls, the Altima’s dashboard will draw inevitable comparisons to the Accord’s, which is similar. Most controls are intuitive, with oversized climate dials and plenty of physical controls below the touchscreen, including the must-have volume and tuning knobs. Standard tech features are generous for this class, with a 7-inch reconfigurable gauge display, four USB ports and an 8-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto included on all trims.
Interior quality is mixed, with lavish padding on the armrests and upper doors but plenty of cheap, grainy materials on middle portions of the dash and center console. Higher trim levels swap some of the cheap stuff for lower-gloss padding, but no matter the trim, quality declines when you get to the backseat; even in the $36,000-plus Edition One, the rear doors feel straight out of a cheap compact car. Certain competitors — the Accord in particular — are similarly hit-and-miss, but higher trims of the Camry and Mazda6 elevate quality standards for this class. Nissan, by contrast, might direct quality-focused shoppers to the similarly sized Maxima.
It might direct larger shoppers there, too. The Altima’s seats are supportive but undersized, with short bottom cushions and narrow confines between the doors and center console. A power driver’s seat is standard — a nice provision in this class — but the passenger seat lacks a height adjustment, even if you get the optional powered seat. The backseat, meanwhile, has adult-friendly knee clearance and strikes a good compromise between seat height and headroom. But the lower cushions, like those up front, are short.
Also short is storage space, with relatively modest cubbies ahead of the gearshift and under the center armrest. The Altima’s glove compartment, once a veritable tunnel to China, now feels like a shoebox. Nissan’s claimed 15.4 cubic feet of trunk volume trails many major competitors on paper, and our measurements yielded slightly less volume than we measured in the Accord and Camry. Fold the seats down to fit larger cargo, and the Altima affords only 33 inches of maximum width, versus about 40 inches in the Accord.
Safety and Self-Driving Tech
Crash-test scores for the redesign are still pending. When completed, they’ll replace the 2018 results here. Standard features include drowsy-driver detection and forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking. SR and higher trims add a blind spot warning system, while the SV, SL, Platinum and Edition One add Nissan’s ProPilot Assist, which includes adaptive cruise control and lane-centering steering that work all the way to a stop — the latter still a rarity among non-luxury cars today. They also get a pedestrian detection system for the automatic braking, as well as a collision warning system with automatic braking when in Reverse. The standard backup camera has static guidelines, meaning they don’t move as you turn the wheel, a more common convenience nowadays. Moving lines come if you get the 360-degree camera system, which is included on the Platinum.
Parents of young children, take note: The Altima’s fixed rear head restraints prevented our booster seat from sitting flush with the seatback, and its floppy seat belt buckles will be difficult for kids to grasp. Both factors diminished the 2019 Altima’s otherwise good scores in Cars.com’s Car Seat Check.
Good Enough to Shop?
In a recent Cars.com Challenge, the Altima finished second in a tight contest with the Camry and Accord, both of which were redesigned for 2018. The points were so close, though, that the real winner will depend more on shopper preference than absolute hierarchy. The Altima comes up short in certain traditional categories, but it leads in multimedia and driver assist technologies. Nissan’s redesign won’t stop shoppers from ditching sedans en masse for SUVs, but it’s a compelling choice for those who still want one.
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