2020 Nissan Altima AWD Review - The 'Not a Rental' Review

Chris Tonn
by Chris Tonn
Fast Facts

2020 Nissan Altima 2.5 SR AWD

2.5-liter twincam four (182 hp @ 6000 rpm, 178 lb/ft. @ 3600 rpm)
Continuously-variable transmission, all-wheel drive
25 city / 35 highway / 29 combined (EPA Rating, MPG)
32.9 (observed mileage, MPG)
9.3 city / 6.7 highway / 8.1 combined (NRCan Rating, L/100km)
Base Price: $27,945 US / $33,540 CAN
As Tested: $30,720 US / $35,172 CAN
Prices include $895 destination charge in the United States and $1942 for freight, PDI, and A/C tax in Canada and, because of cross-border equipment differences, can't be directly compared.

A few years ago, the family and I rented a car and drove to a national park, just like thousands of others do every year. After a few hours of hiking and sightseeing, we found a restaurant in the park for lunch. Our rental that day? A silver Nissan Altima. Here’s the weird part: there were eight more silver Altimas parked side-by-side, all with minor trim differences and stickers from different rental agencies.

It was genuinely weird.

TTAC has a long history of reviewing cars from rental agencies – initially as a ward against potential influence from the automakers, and occasionally to review cars we don’t normally see in media fleets. This isn’t one of those. This 2020 Nissan Altima AWD is a marked improvement from the rental counter – it’s no longer the ubiquitous scourge of indifferent travelers.

Oh, and it has all-wheel drive.

[Get new and used Nissan Altima pricing here!]

Putting all-wheel drive in a family sedan seems like a simple task. After all, nearly every brand offers a compact or midsized crossover based upon a once-mighty midsized platform. And there are still thousands of buyers every year who buck the trend and buy something with a real trunk.

Despite this, until this year there was but one automaker offering four driven wheels on a budget-priced family sedan. Subaru has had the market basically to itself for years. Of course, there is yet another new entrant in the all-wheel drive sedan field – but the Nissan got there first. Well, second.

One frequent complaint about optional AWD is the cost; some automakers charge thousands of extra dollars to power all four wheels. The Altima is different. Across the board, the all-wheel option adds just $1,350 to the bottom line. As Autoblog reports, close to a quarter of all new Altima buyers are choosing AWD – and in northern states, unsurprisingly, nearly half plunk down the extra cash.

While Ohio is indeed in the north, we’ve been the unwitting beneficiary of climate change this winter, as we really haven’t had enough snowfall to warrant even shoveling the sidewalk. Thus, I can’t legitimately tell you that the Altima AWD will climb ice-covered mountains with ease. Driving it feels much like any front-drive car. It’s predictable and quiet, with muted levels of road noise. My SR-trimmed tester wore 19-inch alloy wheels, however, which do give a bit of harshness to pothole impacts.

I’d like more sidewall, please.

Nissan has made its bread-and-butter sedan a looker. It’s genuinely attractive, though the sloping rear glass and accompanying “floating” roof treatment does produce a C-pillar that affects views over the shoulder. The extra cost ($395) Sunset Drift Chromaflair orange paint reminds me of the LeMans Sunset on the 2002 350Z that I so love. If you aren’t into the orange but want something beyond the usual silver, gray, black, or red, there is a lovely Deep Blue Pearl that is a no-cost option.

The seating here is comfortable for long days in the saddle, front and rear. Leg room in this midsizer is better than any of the full-sized sedans I was shuttled in as a kid. The touch-screen audio system is easy to use, though the screen seems a bit busy at first glance. Controls for HVAC are clearly marked and easy to manipulate. The faux-carbon trim surrounding the cupholder and other surfaces remind me of the NOPI catalog circa 2002, however.

Can we talk a moment about the flat-bottomed steering wheel phenomenon? Automakers have apparently noticed that some high-performance cars have non-round rims, and seemingly hope this thirteen-or-so-inch ring will be some sort of showroom halo for an entire brand.

Stop it.

It’s absurd.

Flat-bottom wheels come from motorsports, where cockpits are tight, often leaving little room for essentials such as legs. For racers who rarely take their hands from 9 and 3, removing some of the round wheel makes sense. When I was a hundred pounds heavier, the Sparco flat-bottom wheel I fitted to my early Miata made sense – it’s cheaper than liposuction and easier than a diet. But for a family sedan with a tilting column and no legitimate sporting aspiration? No.

Power from the familiar 2.5-liter four is adequate. Those of you who read Tim’s first drive coverage will recall that the more powerful variable-compression turbocharged four is not offered with all-wheel drive – a shame, as the combo of power and grip could potentially yield a sleeper sports sedan. As it is, however, the 182 hp engine is let down a bit by the CVT Nissan is determined to inflict upon each of their mainstream cars.

The CVT – Nissan calls it Xtronic CVT – is getting better. In another life a decade or so ago, I had a CVT-equipped Sentra as a company car that was so incredibly miserable to drive that I dreaded merging on the interstate to call on my clients, as the engine would thrash towards redline with no discernible impact on acceleration. The modern CVT as fitted to this Altima and other Nissans has improved greatly, though getting off of the line isn’t as brisk as I’d like.

The payoff comes at the pump. This Altima, despite having all-wheel drive like most crossovers, gets better fuel economy. I averaged 32.9mpg over my mostly-city driving – measurably better than the 29 mpg EPA combined figure. Car and Driver says they managed 41 mpg with the Altima AWD – that’s incredible, but believable.

With available, affordable all-wheel drive, the 2020 Nissan Altima is a legitimate alternative to a crossover for those who need the security of additional traction. It’s certainly a contender in the waning but still-important midsized sedan market.

Most importantly, it’s no longer a penalty when you’re upgraded from a compact at the rental counter.

[Images: © 2020 Chris Tonn/TTAC]

Chris Tonn
Chris Tonn

Some enthusiasts say they were born with gasoline in their veins. Chris Tonn, on the other hand, had rust flakes in his eyes nearly since birth. Living in salty Ohio and being hopelessly addicted to vintage British and Japanese steel will do that to you. His work has appeared in eBay Motors, Hagerty, The Truth About Cars, Reader's Digest, AutoGuide, Family Handyman, and Jalopnik. He is a member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, and he's currently looking for the safety glasses he just set down somewhere.

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2 of 37 comments
  • Old_WRX Old_WRX on Mar 14, 2020

    Call me a global warmingist disbeliever, but one warm winter does not climate change make.

  • Thornmark Thornmark on Mar 17, 2020

    that Altima may not be a rental car but close to everyone will think it is a rental it will take decades if not forever for Nissan to lose its krap reputation

  • Canam23 My old boss had a Seville STS with the Northstar that he would lend me when I wanted to drive from LA to Vegas. I have to admit that I loved it. Compared to my father-in-laws FWD Deville with the 4.1, the Seville was smooth, fast, comfortable and nice handling. It also was stingy on gas. Fortunately he never had a problem with his Northstar motor and I still think fondly of that car today.
  • V16 I'm sure you could copy and paste most of the "NO" responses to 1960's Japanese sourced vehicles.
  • Canam23 I believe the Chinese are entirely capable of building good cars, BYD has shown that they are very forward thinking and their battery technology is very good, BUT, I won't buy one because I don't believe in close to slave labor conditions, their animosity to the west, the lack of safety conditions for their workers and also the tremendous amount of pollution their factories produce. It's not an equal playing field and when I buy a car I want it made with as little pollution as possible in decent working conditions and paying a livable wage. I find it curious that people are taking swipes at the UAW in this thread because you can clearly see what horrific labor conditions exist in China, no union to protect them. I also don't own an iphone, I prefer my phones made where there aren't nets around to catch possible suicide jumpers. I am currently living in France, Citroen makes their top model in China, but you see very few. BYD has yet to make an impression here and the French government has recently imposed huge tariffs on Chinese autos. Currently the ones I see the most are the new MG's, mostly electric cars that remind me of early Korean cars, but they are progressing. In fact, the French buy very little Chinese goods, they are very protective of their industries.
  • Jerry Haan I have these same lights, and the light output, color, and coverage is amazing!Be aware, these lights interfere with AM and FM radio reception with the stereoreceiver I have in my garage. When the lights are on, I all the AM stations havelots of static, and there are only a couple of FM stations that are clear. When Iturn the lights off, all the radio stations work fine. I have tried magnetic cores on the power cords of the lights, that did not makeany change. The next thing I am going to try is mounting an antenna in my atticto get them away from the lights. I contacted the company for support, they never responded.
  • Lou_BC Are Hot Wheels cars made in China?