The object of the redesign was to bring the feel and power of a luxury car to this everyman's midsize sedan, and Nissan has succeeded, at least with the Altima model that has the V6 engine and all the options, including plush leather. There are still models with a four-cylinder engine, which offer good power and get 26 city and 34 highway miles per gallon.
The 3.5-liter V6 is a new engine generation. It makes 270 horsepower, more than what's available in other midsize cars (excluding turbocharged or expensive sports sedans), along with 258 pound-feet of torque. The price for that power: The V6 requires premium fuel and gets 22/28 mpg.
Another thing that makes the Altima stand out is its new optional CVT, or continuously variable transmission. It's the only automatic transmission available in this car, and it's a winner with its manual mode, which allows six speeds or ranges. A CVT improves gas mileage because there's less internal friction.
The handling is true, and the suspension is quite firm without ever being harsh. It inspires confidence. It's a match for rough pavement and is steady and predictable in extreme situations. The Altima also comes loaded with safety features.
An intelligent key comes standard in the Altima. This system enables the car to be started with the keys in your purse or pocket. This might be convenient for some, but it leads to new problems, having to do with the memory of the human brain and confusion of the car's electronic brain.
Nissan Altima 2.5; 2.5S; 2.5SL; 3.5SE; 3.5SL
The deck is distinctively short, yet trunk space has grown by 15 percent. Like some other new cars, in particular Lexus, the fender flares are edgy and extend farther than before, allowing the body itself to be narrower and offer less frontal area. The gap between the tires and flares has been tightened. Overall aerodynamics are improved from 0.33 to 0.31, thanks to many things as always, not least the more steeply sloped windshield.
The wheelbase has been shortened by nearly an inch, and the overall length cut by 2.5 inches, with shorter overhangs. The cowl was moved forward and rear glass rearward, which allowed for no overall decrease in cabin space. The beltline is low so there's more side glass, which adds to the roomy feeling.
The headlamps and taillamps appear almost exotic, certainly elaborate. The halogen headlamps are vertical irregular trapezoids with soft edges, called multi-parabola, which means their coverage is all over the place, with four bulbs inside for the high beam, low beam, turn signal and parking lamps. As for the taillamps, Nissan says they cost nearly as much as the headlamps (so don't back into anything!), and they definitely do look expensive. They're covered with clear plastic like the headlamps, and contain a silver ray-gun looking cylinder with the red lamp, plus a round white beam for the backup light and a big orange piece for the parking lamp and turn signal.
The seats are relatively large. They feel firm and longer and higher than in last year's models. They also have power lumbar support and elevate higher, something that most cars do nowadays, as people need a better view of the road, with all the SUVs out there blocking visibility.
Our test model, a 3.5SL, came standard with leather, and it was very rich-feeling in gray. We've been in many luxury cars that didn't feel this classy inside. More soft materials are used, for touches like padded armrests, and the overall level of refinement is higher than with the former Altima. There's a new four-spoke steering wheel having an original artistic design, with two spokes flowing vertically downward.
The gauges are new, called Fine Vision Gauges by Nissan. It's the common and practical tripod design, with speedo in center, tachometer on left and gas and temp on right. The lettering is sharp, white on black, with red needles.
The center stack is neatly designed, with three dual-zone HVAC vents at top over the sound system and good knobs, leading down to usable storage slots and the transmission lever, in this case for the CVT. However the lever is located in an ergonomically awkward position, so if you use the manual mode, shifting is compromised.
The glovebox is huge; we're not sure of the volume in cubic inches, but Nissan says the capacity is 13 liters (should you ever want to fill it up with Diet Coke). It locks, so you can store a laptop computer in there. The space for the big glovebox was created by downsizing the air conditioning unit, but Nissan says there's no compromise in AC effectiveness; in fact, Nissan says the AC is best in class, thanks to improved airflow and a quieter fan.
The Intelligent Key is standard on all Altima models, but we don't think it's so smart. It may be true that women don't like to bother with putting a key in an ignition, as the manufacturers say, and like to keep their keys in their purse at all times; but it's also true that since intelligent keys have been invented, there has been a rash of dead batteries. This happens if you inadvertently (and easily) press the ignition button two times instead of once, to shut down the car. It's left on the accessories mode, and drains the juice. We've had three such experiences with intelligent keys in the last couple of years, including with our test Altima, and have heard of many more.
A stiffer chassis contributes to a reduction in noise and vibration in the cabin, and the Altima proves it. However you can still hear the front wheels whacking bumps, and the open sunroof blew out the silence with a big whooshing sound. There are no less than nine cupholders in the cabin, allowing two big cups of coffee for almost everyone in your carpool.
The touch-screen, voice-command DVD navigation system is the first Nissan and first non-luxury car to offer real time traffic information. We got stuck in a traffic jam on a Sunday afternoon trying to get across the Golden Gate Bridge and through San Francisco to the airport, but our pre-production Altima didn't have an owner's manual, and without one we couldn't begin to figure out the nav system to hear the real time traffic information. Not even with a passenger totally devoted to the challenge, while we were stuck in traffic. So pay attention during the post-sale walkaround and study your owner's manual.
Had we been able to breathe deep and relax, we migh
The V6 engine in our 3.5SL makes a potent 270 horsepower, being a very close relative to the 3.5-liter V6 in the Nissan 350Z sports car, and we used much of it on this road. There's more than enough; in fact it's awesome for passing. Redline 6600 rpm is a blast. There's also 258 pound-feet of torque, which was very useful with the new CVT transmission.
The suspension has been redesigned on the new rigid chassis, and it passed this difficult test with flying colors. It's quite firm; there's no swaying in the switchback turns, so the steering stays true. And it wasn't harsh over the jagged parts of the road. It took some good punches from potholes, without flinching.
The electric power steering, speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion, works well, and because it uses less power than hydraulic, it improves gas mileage by a touch. The Altima 3.5SL doesn't quite feel like a sports sedan, but the handling is fairly nimble.
The engine has been lowered in its cradle for better balance, and there have been changes to the steering geometry that lead to breakthroughs in reducing torque steer, that disconcerting effect in a front-wheel-drive car whereby the steering wheel twists when you stand on the gas. Engineers have worked with kingpins and half shafts, and believe they have raised the bar for other powerful front-wheel-drive cars. Indeed, the torque steer in the Altima is extremely mild, which is saying something for 270 horsepower.
But the real engineering breakthrough might be with the CVT, or continuously variable transmission. This is the fourth generation of this transmission design, which doesn't have the separate gears of a standard automatic transmission, and Nissan has been a standout in this technology. The Sentra's CVT, for example, has just two ranges. But the CVT in the Altima has a manual mode, which, in effect, makes the transmission a six-speed.
We love it because it's true to us. It's totally responsive and obedient. It did things that the manual mode in some expensive cars (Mercedes and BMW, to name two) have apparently never dreamed of. It listened to the driver. We challenged it by upshifting all the way up to sixth gear at no more than 30 miles per hour, then downshifting back down, and it made every shift instead of ignoring them, unlikely as they would have been under regular driving conditions.
So, when we used it in the real world, shifting the Altima like a 350Z on the road to Stinson Beach, it was beautiful. And you still get the fuel efficiency of a CVT: 22 city and 28 highway miles per gallon (premium fuel required) with the powerful V6 (26/34 with the four-cylinder). Downshifting with the CVT to slow down worked well, combining with the good brakes when rushing up to those downhill curves. The brakes are vented discs in front and solid in rear.
We drove a 3.5SE with the six-speed manual gearbox, and the linkage didn't feel exceptional, which makes the CVT seem especially like the best of both worlds.
We also got some seat time in a 2.5S, with the 175-hp engine, and it felt like it had plenty of power.
The all-new 2007 Nissan Altima is a midsize car with the performance and feel of a luxury sedan, at least in the model with the V6 engine and options. The basic models come with a strong four-cylinder engine. The Altima is roomier, safer, more comfortable and more economical than before, and has stylish new looks. It's a thorough improvement from top to bottom, inside and out. Based on the track record of Nissan engineering, it would be hard to go wrong with a new Altima.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from San Francisco.