Editor's note: This review was written in June 2012 about the 2013 Nissan Altima. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2014, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
With the 2013 Altima's redesign, Nissan stays true to the car's sporty identity and adds to its appeal with impressive EPA-estimated gas mileage and available high-tech features.
I spent a day driving the Altima near Nissan's U.S. headquarters in Franklin, Tenn. The 2013 Altima starts at $22,280 (including a $780 destination charge). I tested both the midlevel 2.5 SV four-cylinder sedan, which starts at $24,880, and the V-6-powered 3.5 SV, which starts at $28,560. To see how the Altima's specs compare with the Toyota Camry, Hyundai Sonata and Chevrolet Malibu, click here.
One of the Altima's biggest styling influences appears to be Nissan's own Maxima, a premium sedan — also midsize — based on the previous-generation Altima. The 2013 model takes a Maxima design cue in the flowing, full-length shoulder line, and the headlights and rear also resemble the Maxima. Since the Altima's increase in size a few generations ago, the Maxima has always seemed like a redundant model in Nissan's lineup. It's even more so now that the Altima looks so much like it.
The 2013 Altima is wider and longer than its predecessor by about an inch in both dimensions. The minimal size increase bucks a trend that's seen family sedans grow considerably when redesigned. According to John Curl, Nissan's senior manager for product planning, current owners are satisfied with the Altima's size. See a comparison of the 2012 and 2013 models here.
Four-Cylinder, V-6 Performance
There's a clear difference in performance between the standard four-cylinder engine and the optional V-6, but during a day of driving, the difference in observed fuel economy was surprisingly minimal.
The 2.5-liter four-cylinder does almost everything you want a four-cylinder to do. It revs smoothly, and it provides good off-the-line acceleration with three adults aboard, though as you might expect, power for passing on two-lane roads is relatively modest.
What it doesn't do well is sound good; an incessant drone makes its way inside the cabin when accelerating, making the engine seem less refined. It's all the more surprising because the outgoing 2012 Altima didn't exhibit anything like this when we reviewed it, and it's not a common issue among four-cylinder cars in this class.
The four-cylinder Altima gets an EPA-estimated 27/38 mpg city/highway, and Nissan drilled the highway estimate into my brain by plastering the Tennessee drive route with 38s — including the side of a barn and a stack of hay bales. A look at the trip computer after a 50-mile leg on traffic-free country roads showed average gas mileage of 32.7 mpg. Not bad considering our spirited driving and passenger count, but the number seemed less impressive after observing the V-6's results.
The V-6 Altima's trip computer tallied 30.9 mpg over 50 miles of similar country roads — not the same route — right at its 31-mpg highway estimate. Our third occupant had departed by this point, so the car was a little less burdened than the four-cylinder sedan had been, but the quick pace was consistent with the earlier drive.
The V-6 is no slouch. There's much more power in reserve to push you back in the seat when accelerating hard, and the engine makes much nicer music than the four-cylinder.
Either engine drives the front wheels through a continuously variable automatic transmission that's been overhauled for 2013. Nissan cites the CVT as the main reason for the Altima's fuel-efficiency gains and claims that when it's paired with the four-cylinder it offers a ratio spread that's as wide as a conventional eight-speed automatic's.
One of the ways the CVT improves fuel economy is by keeping engine rpm as low as possible. Both the four-cylinder and V-6 were turning at less than 1,500 rpm when cruising at 60 mph. When you need more power to accelerate, the CVT's lack of conventional gears lets it increase engine speed more quickly than a traditional automatic; it's very responsive when you step on the gas.
The driving experience also isn't much different from a regular automatic. The CVT will keep engine rpm steady when you accelerate hard — normal for this type of transmission — but otherwise the drivetrain doesn't draw attention to itself. If you prefer the feeling and sound of engine revs rising and falling during acceleration, the DS (Drive Sport) position on the gear selector simulates the behavior of a traditional automatic.
Ride & Handling
Like its predecessor, the 2013 Altima has a sportier feel than the family sedan norm. It feels more composed when driven hard into corners than a Toyota Camry or Volkswagen Passat, and the chassis does an admirable job limiting understeer, which is often a problem with front-wheel-drive cars. The new Altima comes standard with Active Understeer Control, a system that automatically applies the inside front brake during an aggressive turn to keep the car's nose tucked in. There's moderate body roll, but it doesn't take away from the feeling of control when cornering.
The Altima's suspension feels more compliant and comfortable than the outgoing car's, and more similar to the family sedan norm. It's refined, too, quickly dispatching bumps without becoming unsettled.
The car's steering tuning, however, is disappointing. The Altima uses a power-steering system that consists of a hydraulic rack driven by an electric motor. Theoretically, this electro-hydraulic system would be more efficient than the conventional hydraulic type but exhibit the steering feel that fully electric systems sometimes lack. Unfortunately, the Altima's steering feedback feels artificial, alternating between tight and firm when driving in a straight line and light during cornering. Greater consistency throughout the steering wheel's range would be preferred. There was also more than normal play in the wheel.
The Altima's restyled interior features functionally arranged controls, but the overall design is notably conservative at a time when competitors are getting bolder with their interiors. I expected to see more of the Altima's distinctive exterior flair on the inside.
One of the nice surprises was the front bucket seats. Nissan claims the design was inspired by NASA's research into how the body naturally positions itself in zero-gravity situations. While that may sound like an incredibly gimmicky (though original) way to market seats, they're actually quite comfortable. Compared with other bucket seats, where you can clearly feel what part of the cushion you're sitting on, in the Altima you feel suspended by the seat cushion, and this made for a day of ache-free driving. Unfortunately, adjustable lumbar support is offered only on the range-topping SL trim.
The Altima's three-person backseat is among the roomier spaces in this car class. Even with the front seat positioned for a 6-foot-tall driver, there's enough space in back for a 6-foot-tall passenger to ride comfortably.
Bluetooth cellphone connectivity and audio streaming are standard along with push-button start. The available NissanConnect system provides enhanced cellphone connectivity and can read incoming text messages aloud to the driver. The feature also lets the driver respond with brief, preset replies using steering-wheel controls. Pandora internet radio integration is also part of NissanConnect.
The system has a few connectivity drawbacks. The text-messaging assistant works with BlackBerry and Android devices, but not the ubiquitous iPhone. Meanwhile, Pandora integration works only with the iPhone when using the USB port.
As of publication, the 2013 Altima had not been crash-tested.
The 2013 Altima has standard antilock brakes and an electronic stability system, features that became required on new cars beginning with the 2012 model year. Side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags for both rows are also standard.
Safety features that are part of the optional Technology Package include a blind spot warning system, lane departure warning and moving-object detection when reversing. An advanced backup camera that incorporates a unique washing/drying function enables all three systems.
Low tire pressure can be a safety hazard, but the Altima's Easy Fill Tire Alert makes filling a low tire simple. Using the car's tire pressure monitoring system, Easy Fill Tire Alert flashes the hazard lights when a tire is being filled and honks the horn when the correct air pressure is achieved.
For a full list of safety features, check out the Features & Specs page.
Altima in the Market
The familiar creed of the medical community is to first do no harm, and this concept aptly sums up Nissan's strategy in redesigning the Altima. The caution is understandable: This family sedan is far and away the brand's best-selling model in the U.S., and the prior generation was the surprise No. 2-selling car last year, benefiting in part from limited inventory among the competition.
The noisy four-cylinder and inconsistent steering feel might be deal breakers for some, but the car nonetheless gives Nissan a shot at continuing the Altima's sales momentum in the face of stylish entries like the Kia Optima and Hyundai Sonata and upcoming redesigned competitors like the Ford Fusion and Honda Accord. Regardless of which midsize sedan finishes the year on top, it's a great time to be shopping for a car in this class.
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