Eleven years ago, Nissan’s Altima became a major player in the midsize sedan segment on the basis of three things: bold styling, a roomy rear seat, and a stonkin’ 3.5-liter V6 engine good for 240 horsepower (the competition used 3.0L V6s that topped out at 200 horses). The 2007 model year redesign tamed the exterior, compacted the interior, and replaced the conventional automatic with a CVT. Nissan shifted even more of them. With the redesigned 2013 Altima, Nissan will be happy if potential buyers learn only one thing about the car, its EPA rating of 38 MPG highway. No one else’s midsize sedan comes close without burning oil or discharging batteries. But you don’t want me to stop here, do you?
It costs over a hundred million dollars to procure new sets of stamping dies for a high volume model like the Altima. What did Nissan get for its massive outlay? The metal fab folks are very proud of the depth of the stampings for the new Altima—the trunk lid sets a new company record! Passersby failed to notice the new trunk lid. Or the rest of the new metal, for that matter. Look closely, though, and the exterior styling includes some interesting details, such as the way the headlights stand proud of the fenders when viewed from the rear. A swage line that takes off from an oversized grille then undulates outward as it moves rearward will dominate the body sides of many upcoming Nissans, but it doesn’t quite manage to integrate the curvaceous front clip with the relatively square body that follows it. One fussy detail lifted from the Maxima: wake-like depressions around the door handles. The relationship between the arrowhead headlight clusters and the emphatically circular front wheel well opening is, shall we say, unresolved. Of course, typical midsize sedan buyers won’t look closely, and so won’t notice these details any more than they will the trunk lid stamping. In person, the new Altima looks less special than it does in many of these exterior photos (all of which are of the big-rimmed V6). Hyundai and Ford are fielding more immediately eye-catching designs.
The 2002 Altima had one big weakness: an egregiously cheap interior. A 2005 refresh and 2007 redesign brought welcome upgrades, but left the cabin well short of best-in-class. The 2013 redesign elevates the interior another notch or two, most notably through a wider console and upgraded controls. Just opt for black; the tan clashes with the motley assortment of silverish trim pieces. Regardless of interior color the chunky silver metallic trim that frames the center stack should have been left in the Toyota it was lifted from. But is the IP soft to the touch? Partially. The face is cushy, the top is hard. An intelligent, cost-effective solution, but not nearly as artfully executed as in the Buick Verano. On the other hand, ergonomics are better than the current average, with easy to reach knobs for major functions.
Open the door and drop into one of the things that make this “the most innovative Altima ever”: NASA-inspired “zero gravity” front seats. With one notable exception, I found them very comfortable, with a substantial feel and a fit like a baseball glove. (My co-driver’s impressions were less positive. With seats, opinions are bound to vary.) The one exception: the headrests jut so far forward that I removed them and reinserted them backwards (a safety-compromising trick I first employed in a then-new 2004 Malibu). Nissan apparently doesn’t belong to the pillbox school of automotive design, so visibility is pretty good all around.
Those troubled by the de rigueur high deck can opt for the SL’s Tech Package. This package includes an innovative rearview camera that handles blind zone warning, lane departure warning, and motion detection in addition to washing and drying itself. The lane departure system was a bit slow to sound the alarm in some cases, a bit too quick in others, but who would have thought they could provide all of these features via a single rear-facing camera? You no longer have to be rich to be beeped at every few seconds, just a touch sloppy behind the wheel.
Rear legroom and trunk volume aren’t best-in-segment, but they’re not too far off. As is often the case with sweeping coupe-ish rooflines, headroom is in shorter supply than legroom. People over 5-11 will become familiar with the headliner. Rear air vents are included with the SV and SL.
The 3.5-liter V6 is carried over, so its output remains 270 horsepower. The 2.5-liter four gets a modest bump from 175 to 182 horsepower. As with the exterior styling, Nissan has left costly turbocharging and direct injection to Ford and Hyundai. The continuously variable transmission (CVT) received much more attention. A thorough revamp reduced internal friction by 40 percent and widened the ratio spread (with the four) to 7:1, about even with an eight-speed automatic and enabling the engine to loaf at 1,450 rpm at 60 mph. Combine this with a 79-pound curb weight reduction (to a compact-like 3,108 pounds), and you get the highly touted 38 mpg EPA highway figure, and 27 in the city, way up from 32 and 23 with the 2012. The next-best Camry manages only 25 city / 35 highway. My right foot spent too much time near the floor to judge how achievable these figures will be in the real world.
Nissans claims that an independent tester got the four-cylinder Altima to sixty in 7.14 seconds. My butt-meter registered mid-to-high eights, and that with the all-too-typical big four commotion under the hood. If you want anything resembling pleasurable performance, you’ll fork over another two or three grand and take a fuel economy hit (to 22/31) to get the much more energetic V6. With the six you also get shift paddles through which you can force the CVT to mimic a quick-shifting seven-speed automatic. In general, though, I didn’t mind the operation of the mandatory CVT, especially not when paired with the V6. Floor the go pedal and the CVT gradually ramps the engine up its 6,000 rpm power peak, then holds it there. Very smooth, and with little if any of the dreaded “rubber band” effect that typified early CVTs.
Nissan claims that the 2013 Altima is “the most engaging product in the segment”. Perhaps, but then midsize sedans comprise a uniformly soporific segment. With this positioning (and perhaps cost) in mind, Nissan has fitted the 2013 car with electro-hydraulic rather than pure electric steering. The feel through the wheel is nevertheless light and well-insulated, and not as quick or as direct as that through the Maxima’s smaller diameter tiller. Last year the V6 was only available in sport-suspended SR trim. This year it’s offered as an S, SV, or SL, but not as an SR. There’s also no Sport Package. Perhaps Nissan felt the standard car behaved well enough without one? Throw the V6 sedan hard into a curve and it toes the line with moderate body roll and minimal plowing. The latter is allegedly curbed by brake-activated “active understeer control”, another of the features that (along with a uniquely jointed rear suspension lower H-arm) make this “the most innovative Altima ever”. This feature is intended to operate transparently. It did.
Suspension tuning is much the same with the four, but its higher profile tires quickly lapse into a mushy scrub. For cornering as much as straight line performance, the V6 with its 235/45VR18 performance tires is clearly the way to go. Yet, aware that the great majority of midsize sedan buyers care little for performance or handling, Nissan projects that only ten percent will go this way. The 2013 sedan’s ride is fairly smooth, well-damped, and quiet with either tire, a notable improvement over past Altimas and quite an achievement given the low curb weight. A 2013 Malibu is cushier and quieter, but it also weighs a quarter-ton more and handles like a parade float.
Eager to pass the Camry in sales, Nissan has trimmed the Altima’s price (when comparably equipped) by a couple hundred dollars. The base four starts at $22,280. An SL V6 with the $1,090 Tech Package lists for $31,950. I haven’t yet input the 2013 prices and features into TrueDelta’s price comparison tool, but a comparison of 2012s suggests that a Hyundai Sonata will continue to be about $1,500 less before adjusting for feature differences, and about $2,500 less afterwards. A Toyota Camry will continue to undercut the Altima by a few hundred dollars with the four and by over a thousand dollars with a loaded V6. This is comparing sticker prices; compare invoice prices and the Camry’s price advantage can grow to over $2,000.
The 2013 Nissan Altima isn’t cheap, and it doesn’t stand out from the crowd aside from offering the highest EPA numbers and (only on a fully loaded car) a multi-talented rearview camera. But even without these USPs and in its sixth year the current Altima has been outselling every other car except the recently redesigned Camry—and it hasn’t been far behind the Camry. If you were at Nissan, would you want to be the person whose “bold move” derailed the gravy train? If something has been working well, and especially if there’s no obvious reason why it has been working so well, you don’t futz with it. For the most part, Nissan hasn’t.
Nissan provided airfare to Nashville, a very nice hotel, regional cuisine, all we could drink (one writer for a major magazine missed the drive; when security entered his room at noon they found him passed out on the superlative bed still fully clothed), outstanding musical entertainment at the Loveless Cafe, a tour of the Jack Daniels distillery (skipped as I’d already seen too much alcohol, an error I won’t soon repeat), many friendly smiles, and insured, fueled automobiles.
Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.