Rental Review: 2014 Nissan Altima S

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

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.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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4 of 131 comments
  • Crabspirits Crabspirits on Feb 08, 2015

    I'm renting one of these now. I put about 300 miles on it. This example is red metallic and has 30k on it. The paint doesn't seem to be holding up well, with the clearcoat really getting some haze. Just checking in to see if others noticed the steering. There must be no caster on this thing. I yelled at it a few times. Pretty dangerous when you turn to look at something, and then realize you've turned into oncoming traffic. CVT is the other reason I came here. Not a bad box, just puzzling behavio , and the tach had me wonder if it was a 5speed. The brakes feel like they have that little rust film when a car has been sitting awhile and you first drive it, only, it never goes away. This is by far the newest car I've driven in awhile, and it's just as I imagined these mainstream cars to be. Plasticy, and isolated in good and bad ways. Why aren't more people depressed driving these slabs? Do they not know? It's like eating the best TV dinner...every day.

    • See 1 previous
    • Crabspirits Crabspirits on Feb 09, 2015

      @DeadWeight I assume it's because it's the biggest car that can be had at the lowest out the door price that isn't a ______ (insert car that a large demo doesn’t like for some reason). It is quite roomy. MPG's aren't bad either.

  • Go Down Moses Go Down Moses on Jun 18, 2015

    Well, as the owner of a 2014 Altima with 23,422 miles who found this review while searching for something else, I thought I'd chime in. First off, I'm 6'6" and 190 .lbs and the car is very, very comfortable. I live in Texas and drive a lot of long distances and the seats are just phenomenal. So comfortable, in fact, that I slept just fine in the driver's seat for several days while out at Big Bend National Park last year. Put my blankets over me and slept like a stone at the bottom of the sea. So far, I've had no reliability issues. Everything works fine. No rattles or buzzes. I've read about a shudder in the CVT that some owners have experienced but mine is quiet and smooth. The best thing for me has been the gas mileage. I am not kidding when I say that I get very close to 40 when I drive between Fredericksburg and El Paso. Of course, it is all pretty much the very best kind of highway driving (wide open spaces, cruise control city) and I poke along at 70 mph but I really can't believe how much better mileage it gets than my previous car, a 2006 Camry. Driving around Austin I average almost 35 mpg. I mean, this is a decent sized car with a 2.5 litre engine that gets better mileage than my old VW Super Beetle did, and it had a 1600 cc motor. My one real complaint is that, for somebody as tall as I am, the rear view mirror doesn't work as it should. What I mean is that I can't tilt it high enough so that I can see the entire rear window. It's no biggie, but it seems like it would be such an easy fix at the assembly level. I did have one issue when the malfunction indicator light came on, but I took my gas cap off, put it back on, and the light disappeared.

  • Varezhka The biggest underlying issue of Mitsubishi Motors was that for most of its history the commercial vehicles division was where all the profit was being made, subsidizing the passenger vehicle division losses. Just like Isuzu.And because it was a runt of a giant conglomerate who mainly operated B2G and B2B, it never got the attention it needed to really succeed. So when Daimler came in early 2000s and took away the money making Mitsubishi-Fuso commercial division, it was screwed.Right now it's living off of its legacy user base in SE Asia, while its new parent Nissan is sucking away at its remaining engineering expertise in EV and kei cars. I'd love to see the upcoming US market Delica, so crossing fingers they will last that long.
  • ToolGuy A deep-dive of the TTAC Podcast Archives gleans some valuable insight here.
  • Tassos I heard the same clueless, bigoted BULLSHEET about the Chinese brands, 40 years ago about the Japanese Brands, and more recently about the Koreans.If the Japanese and the Koreans have succeeded in the US market, at the expense of losers such as Fiat, Alfa, Peugeot, and the Domestics,there is ZERO DOUBT in my mind, that if the Chinese want to succeed here, THEY WILL. No matter what one or two bigots do about it.PS try to distinguish between the hard working CHINESE PEOPLE and their GOVERNMENT once in your miserable lives.
  • 28-Cars-Later I guess Santa showed up with bales of cash for Mitsu this past Christmas.
  • Lou_BC I was looking at an extended warranty for my truck. The F&I guy was trying to sell me on the idea by telling me how his wife's Cadillac had 2 infotainment failures costing $4,600 dollars each and how it was very common in all of their products. These idiots can't build a reliable vehicle and they want me to trust them with the vehicle "taking over" for me.