Nissan Altima 3.5 SR — Refreshening done right

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

In the 1980s Nissan proclaimed its upscale Maxima a “premium four-door sports car.” It came with a healthy-for-the-time V-6 engine and a manual shifter for those of the sporting set. The Maxima is still the company’s flagship, but it now offers more luxury than sportiness.

Nissan still builds what many consider a family sports sedan — perhaps the sportiest of all the popular mid-sized brands — but it no longer wears the Maxima emblem. Altima has inherited the sports sedan tagline.

The sports sedan moniker was bestowed on Nissan’s mid-sized family hauler nearly a decade ago when the Altima was drastically restyled and endowed with an optional 250-horsepower V-6 engine mated to a manual transmission and with decent road-holding credentials.

The Altima was updated in 2007 keeping its commitment to the sports sedan concept with entertaining driving dynamics combined with an energetic 270-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 engine.

The Altima now in the fourth year of the current generation has its sporty credentials still very much in place and with a minor facelift and model lineup restructuring.

Here’s what’s new for ’10: Unlike some competitors, the Altima simply did not need a major facelift. On the outside the Altima gets a restyled grille, hood and bumper, and new wheel designs. We like the subtle, but effective styling changes made in 2007 and we think the hard-to detect 2010 mid-cycle refreshening continues in the right direction. Nissan designers did not touch the rear of the car leaving the stylish taillight treatment. And that’s a good thing.

Upgrades were needed in the interior and Nissan took criticisms to heart infusing the Altima’s living quarters with newly revised and more upscale fabrics and trim.

New technology includes a nine-speaker Bose audio system with USB port, iPod, and Bluetooth. Now available is a hard-drive navigation system with 6.5-inch touch-screen display (replacing the previous 4.3-inch display) and 9.3 gigs for music. In the safety department, Vehicle Dynamic Control is standard across the lineup.

The Altima comes in sedan, coupe and hybrid configurations. But the hybrid is only sold in a handful of states.

Our test car was the new V-6 sedan, which has been slimmed down to just three trim levels — the base and S with a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine and the 3.5 SR equipped with a V-6. The base model, priced at $20,620 including destination, is sold in limited numbers. The 2.5 S starts at $22,560 and the V-6-equipped SR pricing starts at $25,240. Several packages can be added depending on your wants and budget.
Nissan also revised its option package structure, but the new lineup can be confusing making it difficult to pick and choose among options you want and options that you don’t want. For instance, to get dual-zone climate control on the 3.5 SR trim level, you have to order the $2,370 sport package, which also brings a power moonroof and rear spoiler, both of which you might not want.

What haven’t changed are the engine choices, and they did not need changing. The base 2.5-liter 4-cylinder is a very competent performer with 175 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque. It’s mated to a continuously variable transmission (CVT) with exceptional gas mileage of 23 mpg city and 32 mpg highway.

The optional engine is the 3.5-liter V-6 making 270 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. It’s also mated to a CVT and is rated at 20/27.

A very entertaining manual transmission is available in both the 4-cylinder and V-6 in the coupe, but sedan buyers do not get the manual option.

The 4-cylinder is a solid performer and should offer enough muscle for most driving needs. It can accomplish a 0-to-60 run in the 8 second range. The V-6 gives the sedan a very energetic feel and has been measured in the upper range of six seconds in 0-to-60 runs.

Nissan builds more CVTs than any other manufacturer and we think it does the best job with the non-shifting transmission. It gets the job done as effectively as a five-speed or six-speed automatic.

The 3.5 SR sedan felt tighter and tauter, and more nimble than most of the competition, with rewarding performance and entertaining handling traits. And that speaks our language. We found the vehicle to be compliant even with its slightly stiffer suspension.

The Altima has interior dimensions that match up well with the competition including 44 inches of front-seat leg room and 36 inches in the rear. This means front seat occupants can stretch out and rear-seat passengers will have comfortable accommodations unless the 6-foot-5 driver needs his seat shoved to the rear-most position.

Trunk space is average for the class at just over 15 cubic feet, just a fraction smaller than the previous edition. The Altima passed our all-important two-golf-bag test with flying colors.

We found the driver’s seat very accommodating. The perch offered a good view of the road and excellent visibility from all sides. We also found the rear seats to our liking, but one passenger felt after an hour’s drive that the seat was just a bit too firm.
Standard equipment is abundant. All sedans get what has become the mid-sized standard including full power, keyless entry, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, and a six-speaker stereo with CD player.

Standard safety includes antilock brakes, stability and traction control and a full complement of airbags. And important to many people, the 2010 Altima sedan has received top five-star front and side crash test ratings from the government.

Our 3.5 SR test car came with considerable standard features including a sport-tuned suspension. Options included the Sport Package noted above; the Premium Package ($2,380) that included leather, heated seats; Bluetooth and XM Satellite Radio; a Bose audio system and a few other odds and ends. Our SR also had the technology package ($1,780) that includes the touch screen navigation system; more than 9 gigs of hard drive; XM traffic and weather and a DVD player bringing the bottom line to $31,945 including destination charges.

We particularly enjoyed the overall driving experience of the Altima. Nissan has done a creditable job of making what has been for several years a very good mid-sized sedan even better for 2010.

Base price: $20,620; as driven, $31,945
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Horsepower: 270 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 258 pound-feet @ 4,400 rpm
Drive: front-wheel
Transmission: Continuously variable
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 109.3 inches
Length: 190.7 inches
Curb weight: 3,357 pounds
Turning circle: 37.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 15.3 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 20 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 27 mpg highway, 20 mpg city
0-60: 6.6 seconds (Motor Trend)
Also consider: Mazda6, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord

The Good
• Sports sedan feel
• Reasonably good fuel economy
• Great styling

The Bad
• No manual transmission in sedan

The Ugly
• Too many bundled options