Comparison Test/Review: Second Place: 2009 Nissan Altima 2.5 S

William C Montgomery
by William C Montgomery
comparison test review second place 2009 nissan altima 2 5 s

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.

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  • Blahber Blahber on Jun 02, 2009

    i have a 1989 maxima 200k+ which still runs dandy. also have a 2000 altima which is nearing 200k and never had any problems with it. i know plenty of other nissan owners who've never had any problems with their cars. all those reliability consumer reports are bs. nissan owners tend to be loyal nissan customers and are not as vocal as other japanese car owners about how great their car is.

  • Danboy24 Danboy24 on May 22, 2010

    I apologize for being so blunt, but rear head room is the very last thing on my mind when purchasing a car. Im buying the car so odds are i will never sit back why the hell would i care about the headroom? If my rear passengers are cramped they should take their own car next time and stop killing my gas mileage with the added weight! Next i would like to comment about the cvt. The cvt is a very simple and reliably built transmission that adapts to your style of driving. its like breaking in a new pair of shoes. after a few thousand miles everytime you drive it, it will hit the sweet spot that its adapted to being in. And as for nissan reliability I had a nissan 200sx that had 270k miles on it when i sold it. only problem i ever had was a water pump. Mazdas are decent cars but the millenia that i owned crapped out at about 150k. Toyota are nice except for the bland interiors and unfinished finish work. Cant argue with a honda either. In nissans defense if you go with the 3.5L engine you cant get much better, its been the top ten engine in the world for 15 years running. 3.5L engine is the same that was in the 350z and maxima and altima 3.5 also nissans are all timing chain driven while hondas and toyota are timing belt driven. we all know belts usually dont last longer than 100k while the chain can last 200k or higher. and being that the cost for changing timing belts is close to $1000 ill take the chain. Last but not least ive more problems with audis than any other vehicle. couple friends that have owned them told me if i bought one to have a savings account on the side for repairs after the warranty goes out and that it felt like the car was in the shop more than it was on the road..however most of the time a cars longevity is dependant on the driver, how its taken care of and a little luck. Some cars no matter the make are straight up lemons, it happens after all they are designed and manufacture by human beings!

  • EngineerfromBaja_1990 I'd love a well preserved Mark VII LSC with the HO 5.0 for a weekend cruiser. Its design aged better than both the VI and VIII. Although I'd gladly take the latter as well (quad cam V8 and wrap around interior FTW)
  • Teddyc73 The Mark VIII was the first car I lusted over as a young new auto enthusiast. Still think it's a beauty after all these years.
  • Art Vandelay wish They’d do an SS version of the Bolt. We need more electric hot hatches and this is a clean enough design that it would look good
  • ToolGuy Your Jeep is too studly.
  • ToolGuy I had a point to make, but can't remember if it related to Part XXVIIII or Part XXIX.