Nissan Altima — All the right stuff

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Nissan has huge plans for its all-new 2013 mid-sized Altima sedan. Nissan officials vow to overtake the Toyota Camry as the best-selling car in the United States. It helps that Altima begins its quest from the number two position, a spot recently earned by the 2012 Altima.

The fact that the Altima has moved to such a lofty position portends good things ahead because the new fifth-generation car is better in almost every way.

The Altima is completely redesigned and starts with best-in-segment fuel economy of 38 miles per gallon highway. It features handsome exterior styling with increased aerodynamics, premium interior materials, and a terrific balance of ride comfort, stability and fun-to-drive attributes not generally associated with a family sedan.

Handling is responsive and the ride composed. Those things are important especially when you factor in that the 2013 Altima gets better gas mileage, more refinement, and the latest in user-friendly electronic features.

The new Altima has a wider, more aggressive stance with a longer sloping roofline and a raised trunk that combine to create a more fluid silhouette. Overall the sedan is nearly the same size as the outgoing model, but body weight has been reduced on average about 80 pounds (our SV came in at a trim 3,121 pounds) via an aluminum hood and bumper reinforcements, and the expanded use of high-tensile steel.

Those are some of the reasons gas mileage has been improved from 23/32 with a combined 27 in 2012, to a segment-leading 27/38 with a combined 31 in 2013 with the 16-valve 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine.

The new Altima 4-cylinder offers the best of both worlds with an additional seven horsepower (now at 182); and 0-to-60 time measured in 7.7 seconds; and a nearly 15 percent improvement in fuel economy.

Unlike some brands that have dropped the V-6 in favor of a turbocharged four Nissan has carried over its 270-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 (including standard column mounted paddle shifters) that can rocket the sedan from 0-to-60 in 6.2 seconds. The good news here is better gas mileage rated at 22 mpg city and 31 mpg highway. The same engine last year was rated at 20/27.

Both the 4-cylinder and V-6 are mounted to Nissan’s next-generation Xtronic CVT (continuously variable transmission). Nissan has historically had the best CVTs in the industry and as difficult as it is to believe, we found the new edition noticeably smoother.

We found the 4-cylinder in our SV mid-level trim test car lively with the ability to seamlessly push the engine revs through the CVT to near peak torque for the power needed to quickly pass or merge without a hint of drama. Altima’s stability is dictated by standard Active Understeer Control, front and rear stabilizer bars and a host of suspension, steering and braking technology.

There's no letdown inside the Altima. It begins with Nissan’s NASA-inspired “Zero-Gravity” seats. In side-by-side comparisons with previous seating it’s especially noticeable. A long drive while sitting in the new seats proved it.

Premium materials, be they cloth or leather, further decrease driver fatigue. Depending on the model the driver’s seat is either six-way powered or eight-way powered and the front passenger seat is four-way adjustable. There’s plenty of standard and optional connectivity and navigation as well as several audio systems of various content.

Easily legible instrumentation contains the usual array of gauges, and between the large tachometer and speedometer is Nissan’s Advanced Drive-Assist with a four-inch LCD in-dash vehicle information display system with custom selectable settings, system warning information, and tire pressure readouts, audio and (available) navigation.

Rear-seat leg room is good, but head room is at a premium for taller folks. Trunk space is 15.4 cubic feet, about average for the segment.

The Altima comes in four 4-cylinder trim levels and in three V-6 trims. Base trim is the bare-bones 2.5 starting at bargain price of $22,280 including $780 destination charge. From there buyers can choose the S, SV and SLT with either engine. The top seller we think will be the well-equipped 2.5 SV starting at $24,880. The lowest priced V-6 model, the 3.5 S, starts at $26,140.

Our 2.5 SV test car with a few options including a convenience package and navigation package with seven-inch color display came in at $26,820.

There's a lot of quality competition in the mid-sized family sedan segment and whether the new Altima can eventually move to the head of the pack remains to be seen. But regardless, the Altima convinced us it would be a smart choice when shopping for new transportation.

Base price: $22,280; as driven, $26,820
Engine: 2.5-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 182 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 180 foot-pounds @ 4,000 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: continuously variable
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 109.3 inches
Length: 191.5 inches
Curb weight: 3,121 pounds
Turning circle: 37.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 15.4 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 18 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 38 highway, 27 city
0-60: 7.7 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Toyota Camry, Chevrolet Malibu, Honda Accord

The Good
• Excellent fuel economy
• Rewarding performance and handling
• Quiet, well-appointed cabin
• Comfortable front seats

The Bad
• Tight rear headroom

The Ugly
• CVT can make engine harsh-sounding at full throttle