Editor's note: This review was written in June 2016 about the 2016 Nissan Altima, but little of substance has changed. To see what's new for 2017, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
The Altima's competitors include the Kia Optima, Chevrolet Malibu and Volkswagen Passat. These and five other sedans competed against each other in our 2016 Midsize Sedan Challenge, for which I was not a judge. I tested an Altima 2.5 SL that cost $32,115, which is more than $4,000 above the price cap we set for that comparison. As a result, my impressions are significantly different from those of my colleagues who judged the Challenge. The fact that there's such a difference in our opinions shows that how much money you spend impacts your perception of the Altima's quality more than it does for some competing models.
Exterior & Styling
For 2016, the Altima got significant updates to its front and rear ends, as well as new fenders and wheels. Available boomerang-shaped LED headlights and fog lights are new and they update the Altima's look, as do a new daytime running light design and V-shaped grille. Rear highlights include new taillights and a revised trunk lid.
The Altima looks good from the outside and maintains a more conservative look than its slightly larger and more expensive sibling, the swoopy Maxima. Among the Altima, Optima, Passat and Malibu, the Malibu looks the freshest and most modern. The Altima is the next best-looking thanks to its headlights and distinct grille.
How It Drives
The Altima can be powered by either a standard 182-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, or a 270-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 for the more power-minded buyer. Both engines are mated to a standard continuously variable automatic transmission with front-wheel drive. The car I drove had the four-cylinder.
The Altima offers decent, if not inspiring, performance. It moved away from stoplights well enough in city driving, and on the highway it kicked down to lower gear ratios to make passes pretty easy. Among this competitive set, I find the Optima and Passat to have the most get-up-and-go; the Malibu offers decent performance and the Altima brings up the rear.
Setting aside all thoughts of conserving fuel, the Altima tends to react well when driven moderately aggressively, with a tendency to understeer. There's nothing thrilling about it, but — more important for this class — nothing unexpected or surprising happens when the car is pushed.
The biggest downer of the driving experience is the engine and transmission sound. The engine sounds sort of flat and not pleasing with a bit of a weird whine from the CVT. It's not a loud sound, though, so those inclined to listen to the radio when driving might not even notice it. Road noise is worth mentioning, as I heard a bit more of it than I expected. The Malibu and Passat are the quietest of the competitive set, while the Altima and Optima are the noisiest.
Steering is acceptable. It's not so light that it feels disconnected from the car and it's easy to turn at low speeds. The ride is good, but the Malibu and Passat offer a more refined driving experience and smoother ride.
When it comes to mileage, the Altima SL 2.5 that we tested is rated 27/39/31 mpg city/highway/combined by the EPA. That combined figure is 2 mpg better than the Passat, 5 mpg better than the Malibu and 6 mpg better than the Optima, though it should be noted that the Optima figures quoted are for the SX, which is roughly the same price as the others but tuned to be a sportier model.
Altimas with the V-6 engine get 22/32/26 mpg, so the 2.5-liter four-cylinder is the clear choice for those interested in getting better mileage.
I think this is the Altima's strongest card. For starters, it's a comfortable car. In the past, I've found Nissan's seats to be unbelievably uncomfortable; I always felt like I was perched on top of the seat, unsupported, and after an hour or so my back would hurt. In this Altima, I still didn't feel as if the seats were holding me as closely as others do — there was a lot of sliding and bracing during aggressive maneuvers — but during a two-and-a-half-hour drive after a trail run, I felt no ill effects. That's unusual and praiseworthy.
Up front, there's a big, useful center console with bi-level storage, both segments of which came in handy on my test and didn't impinge on front seat room. In back, the seat neither reclines nor slides forward and the only real, usable cupholders are in the center armrest — those in the door pockets are slanted too heavily. The Altima is also roomy both in front and in back. Our crew of three 6-foot-tall passengers all reported being comfortable on a recent three-hour trip.
I like how our Altima looked on the inside, too, with a nice blend of materials. The plastic trim around the gearshift and above the glove box wasn't universally loved, but it's certainly unique, and I liked how it looked and appreciated the fact that it was a high-gloss plastic surface, though some reviewers likened its off-white, patterned appearance to that of a bowling ball. It made it that much easier to clean up when my Dr Pepper exploded during the test drive, as I find that textured and especially matte finishes tend to be harder to clean and easier to stain. All in all, the Altima clearly has the prettiest interior of the group, with the Malibu a close second and the Optima and Passat in third and fourth, respectively.
Finally, visibility is largely good. I was a little worried that the sharply raked windshield would limit forward visibility and make it hard to see pedestrians, but I didn't find that to be the case. There was a pronounced rear blind spot — something I don't normally notice on test cars — and I found myself relying on our test car's optional blind spot monitoring system.
Ergonomics & Electronics
Ergonomically, the Altima is sound. All the controls and switches are easy to find, intuitive and work as you'd expect them to. There's no drama.
The Altima's in-car electronics also deserve praise for having real, physical buttons for switching between certain features. It was one of the easiest cars I've driven lately in terms of its ability to swap between satellite radio, AM/FM, my iPod and the navigation system, and that's due entirely to the dedicated physical buttons. Another editor, however, reported that when he started up the car, he was unable to turn down the radio volume until the multimedia system had fully booted up. Something to bear in mind if you listen to embarrassing — or loud — music, I guess.
My major criticism, though, is twofold: First, the audio display is plain. It's easy to read, mind you, but it ain't thrilling to look at. Second, neither Apple CarPlay nor Android Auto is available. Nissan's proprietary NissanConnect option offers some of the same functions as those systems, but I find the Apple and Android smartphone-mirroring setups to be the most intuitive and easiest to use. I mean, you already know how to use your phone, so why learn something new?
The optional NissanConnect Services, which adds cellular communication hardware to the car itself, offers the ability to spy on your car, presumably for monitoring a teen driver. You can use a web portal to establish a curfew and set up a perimeter you don't want the car to either leave or enter. If these rules are violated, the system will send you an email or text message and can also alert the driver in the multimedia screen if desired. Kia, Hyundai and Volkswagen offer the same boundary-setting ability, but Chevrolet does not.
Cargo & Storage
The Altima offers a large trunk that's widest at the rear of the car and narrows as you go forward. I had no problem packing in everything I needed for a weekend camping trip and trail run. I'd say it'd handle four people and their roll-aboard bags easily. Another editor reported that the Altima easily accommodated two inflatable paddleboards (collapsed, of course) along with all their related equipment, including paddles, pump, lifejackets, towels, etc., in the trunk.
The Passat, meanwhile, has a trunk that stays the same width from front to back, so I find it to be the most useful of that group.
I already mentioned the center console and how useful it was, but there's also a glove box that is, in the estimation of one editor, "insanely deep." It's a welcome feature that's becoming harder and harder to find.
The 2016 Altima earned the highest rating, good, in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's crash tests. You can run through all its safety features here.
Our test car included Nissan's Technology Package, which includes such safety features as forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking. NissanConnect also includes automatic collision notification. The car we drove had the optional blind spot warning, but lane departure prevention, which actively keeps the car in your lane, isn't offered. The Malibu and Passat offer active lane-keeping assist while the Optima does not.
Value in Its Class
The Altima doesn't elicit a passionate response, but if there's one class of car in which that's acceptable, it's the midsize sedan class. Small convertible? Sports cars? Because of the inherent tradeoffs you have to make to own such cars, you want them to have some character. But a midsize sedan is a workhorse — something that should be practical and look good but doesn't have to wow you.
In this class, the Altima offers shoppers a sharp interior and solid, conservative looks but a forgettable driving experience and dull multimedia system. That's not meant to single out the Altima; the midsize sedan segment is filled with cars that offer roughly the same features and driving experience for roughly the same price. Compare the Altima with the Malibu, Optima and Passat here or run your own comparison and see what I mean.
In the end, choosing an Altima over a competitor could easily come down to the price you're able to negotiate or how the interior looks, not to any standout feature.