Second place sucks. Witness the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics’ squad in Beijing last summer. Pony tails drooped and tears streamed down their be-sparkled cheeks when gold medals were hung on the necks of the young (we swear they’re at least sixteen!) Chinese Olympic team. My heart goes out to Nissan, whose excellent 2009 Altima 2.5 sedan fell just short of the 2009 Mazda Mazda6 i Sport in this comparo.
One cannot behold the Altima without thinking Infiniti. As Tim Gunn might say, the car shares the same silhouette and proportion as the G-series Infiniti sedans, which is a very good thing. The horizontal louvered grille with large Nissan logo is a bit of a wet blanket on the powerful Infiniti styling, but it is an appropriate adaptation for the non-luxury market.
Nissan’s marketing propaganda claims that the tail lights are inspired by jet fighter afterburners. Given the likeness this may well be true.
Every car in this competition, including the Altima, shares a long sloping rear window design. This leaves little room for a proper deck lid. Rather than putting the trunk hinges at the top of the rear window hatchback-style, all of these cars have constricted trunk openings. SUV refugees will find this particularly annoying.
Altima’s minimalist styling continues inside. The dashboard looks quieter and more soothing than Camry or Accord. More Zen. And a special treat for drivers whose carpal tunnel syndrome might be aggravated by having to twist a key: a push button start button.
Any comparison of cars selected for their practicality wouldn’t be complete without an evaluation of price, fuel economy and reliability. In this group, relative judgments involves splitting a few fine hairs. The Nissan Altima is the most expensive. But at $22,410, it’s less than $900 more than the least expensive car in the group (Camry) and just $185 more than the second most expensive (Mazda6).
When it comes to fuel efficiency, the Altima emerges as the clear winner, leading all others in city, highway and combined mileage. But again, that’s not saying much. On the highway, Camry and Accord tie at 31 mpg; the Mazda6 lags behind at 30 mpg. The differences are a little more dramatic in the city, where the Altima (23 mpg) leads the Honda (22 mpg), Toyota (21 mpg), and Mazda (20 mpg).
None of these cars are maintenance hogs but a quick and informal survey of reliability studies from Consumer Reports, J.D. Powers and Associates, Warrantee Direct, and Michael Karesh’s TrueDelta shows a general consensus. The reliability of the Camry and Accord are excellent, and the Mazda6 is solidly above average. Meanwhile, Nissan Altima reliability results are just average.
On paper Nissan’s 2.5-liter DOHC 16-valve four-cylinder should be the clear performance winner in this comparison. It produces almost as much peak horse power as the Accord (175 hp vs. 177 hp), but does so 900 revs sooner, at 5600 rpm. The Altima also grunts-out the most torque at 3900 rpm. Unfortunately, Nissan’s Xtronic Continuously Variable Transmission robs the Nissan of its power advantage. The last Nissan I drove with this engine and transmission pairing was the 2008 Nissan Altima Coupe 2.5 S. It hasn’t gotten any better.
Governing the CVT is a strict old schoolmarm with her hair in a bun and yardstick in her hand. She’s got nothing but fuel economy on her mind. While you [the occasional hooligan] precociously push the limits of the well-controlled suspension and spot-on steering, the schoolmarm sternly punishes vulgar enjoyment.
To help me determine the overall rank of these vehicles, I scored each vehicle according to the individual characteristics that TTAC writers assign Star ratings: Performance, Ride, Handling, Exterior, Interior, Fit and Finish, Toys, Desirability, Mileage,and Price as Tested. For example, I rated the Nissan’s performance second, ride quality third, handling second, etc. Then I summed the ten ranking scores to get a calculated overall score (are you bored yet?). The sum of the Altima rankings was 25, second only to the Mazda Mazda6 i Sport that totaled 20 (lower is better).
Sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. To choose first place, I relied solely on my visceral gut response to each vehicle. In this case, the above numeric gyrations mostly confirmed how I felt. All of these cars are competent family haulers. Each is economic. But compared to the others, the Mazda6 feels like a two-year-old thoroughbred that wants to run. It woke me up when I slipped behind the wheel, and made me want to drive. The Altima touched many of these same chords, only to a lesser extent. Perhaps a comparison of cars with manual transmissions would have yielded a different result. But for now Altima wins the silver medal.