My dad and I are suckers for family vehicles. We love the practicality of vans and large sedans alike. For years now, I’ve begged him to buy a Civic or a Prius. Even now as an empty nester, he refuses to budge, citing the fact that these vehicles are simply too small and uncomfortable. So we both eagerly awaited the new 2012 Camry, only to be bitterly disappointed by the odd looking taillights and lackluster overall design. Similar sadness ensued when Honda released official pictures of the 2013 Accord. That’s when we decided to journey the 5 minutes over to our local Nissan dealer, hoping the Altima would do something for us. Julio Ng at Serramonte Nissan was glad to show us the demo model they had – a decently loaded 2.5SL, albeit without navigation built-in.
The vehicle’s presence is the first thing that catches your eye. Unlike the Camry, which went from looking limo-like to merely a bloated Corolla, this new Altima has serious here-and-now presence. It looks large, despite being smaller than the previous generation. The fascias and overall shape are very pleasing to the eye, separating it from the Camcords without being gaudy. The mature looks strike a much-appreciated balance in a segment dominated by either bland (Camry/Accord) or overzealous (Sonata/Fusion) designs. The theme continues inside, where I was reminded how good a simple interior can look. The choice of colors, trim, and materials are all in a different league than the Nissan that we once knew. The designs are so reminiscent of cars past, including elements from the 7th and 8th generation Accords. Yet, because of minor variations – black vs. silver, glossy vs. matte, chrome vs. plastic, etc – the interior on the Altima looks so much better than others in the segment. I can even say that I remember nothing about the seats – this is great news, since I can’t remember the last time I climbed into a seat that wasn’t immediately deemed uncomfortable. The engineers and designers really did a great job with this interior – it would not be out of place in an Audi, and BMW would benefit from reverse engineering these things. The only thing we really wished for was more legroom all around. Longer-legged drivers will have the center stack area crowding their knees.
Out on the open road, I was won over by the Xtronic CVT unit. I’ve never been a fan of 2-pedal transmissions, but this would be my pick if I ever lost my left leg. The CVT does a great job of mimicking a traditional automatic, while providing faster responses to gas pedal prodding. The large gear ratio spread made for quick takeoffs and relaxed highway cruising – we were ticking around 1800RPM at 75MPH. The transmission isn’t fault free though. In the city under light throttle, the engine would commonly be forced to pull from 1000-2000RPM as a gas-saving measure. The very-strong engine (for a 182HP 4-cylinder) is fully up to the task, except that it produced a raspy, metallic noise at RPM’s under 1800RPM. Shifting into Sport mode fixes this, but exasperates a jerky take-off condition. The car would lurch forward from a stoplight with breakneck speed, then die off as the CVT brought it back to ultra-low RPM’s. Nonetheless, these are all acceptable tradeoffs for the 38MPG that this vehicle is expected to achieve. With numbers like that, highway commuters no longer have a reason to buy a hybrid.
That’s especially true if you consider that many hybrids aren’t so fun to drive in the mountains. This car rides and drives great in all the conditions we encountered. The clever suspension gives a bit of toe-out under hard cornering, which imparts a playful nature. Combined with the Active Understeer Control system, the Altima gives both a smooth ride and a fun time when the curves attack. The hushed interior will help you concentrate on the road ahead, while the light (perhaps too much so) steering will make sure that you aren’t fatigued by the road. Confidence inspiring brakes and an easy-to-read instrument cluster round out the package, adding to the drivers car vibe.
Overall, my dad and I both really liked the car, but couldn’t justify the price tag. If I absolutely had a new family sedan right now though, this is the one I’d pick. I still have some reservations about actually hitting the 38MPG highway figure, and the AWOL 3rd pedal would be sorely missed, but I firmly believe that the Altima can make a run for America’s best selling car in the years to come.