Photography by our very own Murilee Martin!
I gave up a Camry SE for this car. There was a silver one sitting in the “Gold Choice” lane at the Denver airport, just like the one I enjoyed so much last year. All I had to go was walk over and get in. But nooooooo, dear reader — my phone told me that I was supposed to receive a “2014 ALTIMA SDN GRY” so, thinking of you, I trudged down to spot 571 and prepared for a short high-altitude date with the third-most-popular car on the market.
Our own sales specialist, Tim Cain, has the Altima gaining slightly last month in a very close struggle with the Accord for second place. (The Camry is a full 20% ahead of them.) Without so much as setting foot in the Altima, I found that puzzling. Okay, the Toyota is the default choice and is going to sell in big numbers to everybody from Hertz to your sixty-year-old mother who still shudders at the thought of her last domestic (a 1982 Skylark). The Honda is, frankly speaking, a brilliant car and has its own group of no-comparison-shopping captives. But the Altima? Who buys it? Isn’t all the momentum behind the Koreans nowadays? Apparently not; the Sonatoptima combined doesn’t match Nissan’s numbers.
First impressions: the old Altima reeked of external cost-cutting, but this one has some nice trim details even in the “Pure Drive” 2.5 S model. The chrome is well-done and the flame surfacing looks expensive. As with pretty much every Nissan automobile in the past fifteen years, it looks like a first-generation G35 left to melt a bit in the oven. It’s frankly fascinating that Nissan has been able to do what Honda, Toyota, Ford, GM, and the aforementioned Koreans can’t, which is to build and maintain a visual brand identity. The minute I saw the first new-generation Altima in traffic, I knew immediately that it was an Altima and not something else. Even the current Malibu, which is a sort of caricature of the previous one, wasn’t immediately recognizable as a Malibu from any direction that didn’t show the grille.
Alright, let’s hop in. This car is the slightly up-optioned 2.5 S that has keyless entry and cruise control, stickering for $22,690-plus-$810 instead of the $22,170 for the base-base variant. There’s some money on the hood beyond that, of course. Surely you could buy one for under twenty grand. If you can, spring for the $320 Display Package, which includes a rearview camera and USB port, you should. Hertz didn’t, so I spent a fair amount of time guessing at where the very high tail of this sedan might exactly be.
The interior of every base-model family sedan on the market is a dark cave of brittle plastic, and the Altima is no exception. There is some relatively pleasant fake-bamboo-looking trim on the center console and passenger glovebox area. It’s tinted dark grey like the silver-flecked wood accoutrements in the recent Infiniti M56, but that is where the similarities to that wacky muscle-sedan end. The door cards bend when you lean on them. On the positive side, the touch points of steering wheel, shifter, and seat are all class-competitive and even mildly sporting-looking. Without that center console video screen, however, the main stack looks unforgivably cheap. There’s an LCD between the well-marked and well-lit twin instrument binnacles but it does very little in this model. Most of the time, it just shows an Altima from the back. In case you’d forgotten that you’d bought an Altima and thought you were in a GT-R or something.
I’ve been a fan of Nissan’s CVT implementation in the current Coupe, which is actually the old Altima, but right away I’m surprised at how much I dislike it here. There’s been a tremendous effort made to mimic a conventional automatic, to the point where I pulled off Pena Boulevard and started asking the Internet whether there was, in fact, some sort of entry-cheapie Altima with a four-speed auto. (No, there isn’t.) Under acceleration, the CVT permits big rev swings for no apparent reason before chopping into the next “gear” abruptly. Toyota and Honda are doing it better with a traditional automatic and CVT, respectively.
It wouldn’t be fair to talk about the Altima’s power too much because it was at a fifteen-percent disadvantage from the thousand-foot elevation of Columbus, Ohio, where I drove its competitors. Still, between the dopey CVT and the gasping big-inch four-cylinder I occasionally wondered if I’d make it up mild hills. When I decided to go to Mount Evans, which runs a paved road all the way to 14,100 feet, I promptly swapped it for something with a twin-turbocharged small-displacement V-8. (Plus doors that swing up — but more on that another time.) My friend Josh has this same powerplant in a better-equipped 2013 model and hasn’t complained, so I’ll chalk it up to the ‘tude.
You can’t blame elevation for dead-feeling steering and brakes, however. If the Altima has gained a bit in refinement from its predecessor — and it has, with both ride and noise levels that appear to be improved quite a bit and easily on par with the Accord, if not slightly superior — it has lost that much again in dynamic capabilities. Perhaps this is the price Nissan’s paid to sell big-boy numbers, but why buy an Altima over an Accord or Camry unless it’s the sporting, fun-loving choice? Regardless, there’s no G35 influence in the way the Altima drives. It’s pleasant and you really can feel the improvement over the old car on the freeway or a rough road, but it’s not very Nissan-ish.
The stereo’s a bit of a joke, as it is on the Accord LX but not necessarily the Camry LE. Subjectively speaking, rear-seat room trails both the Japanese-brand competitors but Malibu owners would find it positively delightful. They’d also like the relatively large amount of glass and very satisfactory visibility. It’s the equal of the Camry and superior to the Fusion in that regard, if not the Accord.
The “Pure Drive” badge on the back indicates that this is the most fuel-efficient Altima configuration available. I tested it in a very rough way by driving it 70 miles without seeing the fuel needle move. (Yes, I know that everybody does a “sticky” fuel needle now, but try driving a Kia Optima that distance and seeing what happens.) It’s clearly a huge improvement from the indifferent economy I saw in the previous generation. Perhaps all the CVT ridiculousness exists to make it Accord-competitive at the pump.
What else is there to say about this relatively basic, unassuming member of the blandest vehicle class know to man? The tilt-and-telescope wheel has a good range of adjustment. The trunk is subjectively less useful than the Accord or Camry trunk, more in line with what the Fusion offers. The odometer on my test example was in the thousand-mile range, which is too little to make the lack of obvious interior wear remarkable. The headlights were strong and usable but not exemplary.
If you’re a Nissan fan, you’ll want this because it’s a Nissan. The same will no doubt hold true if you live or work in Tennessee. One wonders, however, just how this unassuming vehicle is matching the surprise-and-delight Accord for sales. As previously discussed, there isn’t too much of that hot-ass, white-trash Nissan mojo that was so evident in the old, old Altima 3.5 SE-R. Maybe there’s none of it, in fact. It’s a little more visually interesting than the Accord or Camry, I suppose. It’s also a bit cheaper, offering an Accord EX level of equipment for the LX price even before you use the cash on the hood.
Against that, you have the major difference in reliability, real or perceived, between this and its name-brand competitors. Nor does it scream fast-fashion like the Koreans. It’s the Stringer Bell of mid-sized sedans: not smart enough to hang out with the Honda and Toyota, not brash and stylish enough to slum it with the Kia, Hyundai, and Ford. Breathes there the man with soul so dead that he thinks that the Altima is cooler than a Camry? If I see you driving one on the street, I won’t point and laugh. But when I see a Camry in Gold Choice, I’m going to choose that instead.