The Nissan Altima is more than a midsize transportation appliance. The Altima is a driver's car. For drivers who appreciate sharp handling, the Altima excels. It connects with its driver and inspires confidence. It's steady and predictable in extreme handling situations. As a tradeoff, its suspension is firm compared to other midsize cars, so it isn't as smooth over bumps.
The Nissan Altima is best known as a midsize sedan but it's also available in a coupe version. Four-cylinder, V6, and gas/electric hybrid powertrains are offered. Each version of the Altima has sharper handling than is expected in a mainstream midsize car. This gives the Altima a unique place among the Honda Accords, Toyota Camrys, and Ford Fusions of the world.
The standard four-cylinder engine delivers more-than-ample power with good fuel economy. It is rated at 175 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque (170 and 175, respectively, in California). The available V6, closely related to the engine in Nissan's 370Z sports car, delivers exciting performance, with 270 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque.
The gas-electric Altima Hybrid Sedan boasts an EPA-rated 35 miles per gallon in the city, extending its range past 600 miles between fill-ups. The Hybrid features a less powerful version of the four-cylinder (158 horsepower) and an electric hybrid drive. Its electrically powered air conditioning works even when the engine is stopped.
Altima Sedan models are equipped with a continuously variable transmission, or CVT, which works like an automatic but varies gearing and doesn't shift. Nissan has excelled at CVT technology. The Coupe is also available with a six-speed manual transmission.
The Altima Sedan is comfortable, practical and well suited to growing families. It gives up little rear-seat room to the larger Nissan Maxima, with plenty of room in the trunk for luggage and cargo. In both the Sedan and Coupe, the Altima's cargo space can be expanded into the cabin, thanks to a standard fold-down, locking rear seatback.
The Altima Coupe two-door looks sportier than the Sedan. It sacrifices a substantial amount of rear seat room and we'd say it's a car for two people.
The Altima model line fits a wide range of tastes and budgets. The base sedan begins with the essentials, while the generous list of options, most grouped into packages, allows equipping the Altima at luxury-class levels.
Nissan Altima models get high marks for safety; standard equipment includes a full complement of airbags, anti-lock brakes, Nissan's Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) and Traction Control. A rearview camera is optional.
After receiving a midcycle update for 2010, the Altima gets only minor equipment shuffling in the various packages for 2011.
Drivers who put an emphasis on value for the money with a sportier feel than the average midsize car will find the Nissan Altima worth a look.
The Altima Sedan and Coupe share a similar front end, but there are big differences in the roofline, wheelbase, and at the rear. The Sedan's roofline extends far back to create a large passenger space. As a result the rear deck is distinctively short. The Sedan's fender flares are pronounced, allowing the rest of the body to be narrower and slip through the wind with less frontal area. The gap between the tires and flares looks tight, just as we like it.
The headlight and taillight clusters are elaborate, almost exotic. The halogen headlamps are irregular, vertical trapezoids with soft edges, with four bulbs inside for the high beam, low beam, turn signal and parking lights. Nissan calls the headlamp arrangement a multi-parabola, which means its coverage is all over the place. As for the taillights, Nissan says they cost nearly as much as the headlamps, so don't back into anything. 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 Altima Coupe has the look of a pure sport two-door. There's good balance between the longish hood, greenhouse and short trunk lid, with just the right amount of sheet metal between the cleanly outlined wheel arches. Credit for these proportions goes to a wheelbase (distance between the tires front to rear) shortened by four inches from the sedan, which enabled a shortened overall length.
The Coupe's back end shows a bustle shape that's fed by the arc of the roof flowing toward the trunk lid. This design probably increases stability at socially irresponsible speeds, but at rest it can look almost plump. The rear glass offers decent rearward visibility from the driver's seat.
The Altima Sedan's cabin is roomy and comfortable front and rear. The Coupe is just as roomy up front, but the rear seat is best left to kids or packages. Equipment ranges from sparse to fully loaded. The base model lacks a radio, but you can get an Altima with such features as Bluetooth, navigation, and a backup camera at the top of the line.
The overall level of fit, finish and refinement inside the Altima is very good and highly competitive in the class. The available leather upholstery feels rich, and soft materials are used for touches like padded armrests.
Nissan's available Intelligent Key allows the car to be started with the key in your purse or pocket. When the key is close enough to the car, the driver starts it by pressing a red button to the right of the steering wheel. Many owners find these systems convenient, but you can wind up with a dead battery if you inadvertently press the start button two times instead of once to shut down the car. That leaves the system in the accessories mode, and it can eventually drain the juice. We prefer traditional keys.
The front seats in the Altima sedan are relatively large. They feel firm and supportive. They also have optional power lumbar support and elevate substantially, allowing a better view between all the SUVs on the road. The seats in the Coupe are unique, with more aggressive bolsters befitting this model's sporty aspirations.
Beyond the seats, the dashboard is functional without being boring, and stylish without being frilly. We like the layout. The steering wheel has an original, artistic design. The gauges are arranged in a practical shape, with speedometer in the center, tachometer on the left, and fuel gauge and water temperature on the right. The lettering is sharp and easy to read. LCD insets display trip information, outside temperature, safety-related data and personalized settings. A premium audio upgrade includes a 4.3-inch color display, Bluetooth Hands-free Phone System, USB port with iPod connectivity, XM Satellite Radio, a Rearview Monitor, and other features. While the base audio system is satisfactory, the nine-speaker Bose upgrade sounds particularly rich.
The center stack is neatly designed, with three big HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) knobs at the bottom. They're easy to understand and operate. Controls for the base and up-level audio systems sit just above the heater knobs, and they're friendly to the eye and fingers.
The shift lever occupies the forward portion of the center console separating the front bucket seats. Two upholders sit behind it and in front of a bi-level storage bin. Altimas with the continuously variable transmission have a foot-operated parking brake, but the gear selector is slightly awkward for using the manual shift feature. Cars with a manual transmission have a handbrake next to the shifter, where it belongs.
The primary storage space inside the Altima is the glovebox. It's huge, and it locks, so you can store a laptop computer in there. There's also a storage bin with a hinged cover at the bottom of the center stack. The problem is that the only power point accessible for plugging in a radar detector is tucked deep inside this bin. The fixed pockets in each front door are too small for maps, but they have molds that fit half-liter water bottles. That's nice, because tall, thin bottles are too small for the center console holders, where they flop this way and that through the mildest maneuvers. There are two more upholders in the rear seat.
The Altima Sedan's rear seat is roomy enough for two good-sized adults traveling to dinner or the movies, though they may not have enough contour for a cross-country trek. The center seat is best left to age 12 or less. Access to the rear seat is easy, in the Sedan.
As would be expected, the Coupe is a slightly different story. Its front-passenger seatback has a release lever on the inboard side that allows the driver to ease passenger access to the rear seat. That access isn't particularly awkward, because the lever folds the seatback and slides the entire front-passenger seat forward in its track. The only problem is that the front seat forgets its settings, returning to a pre-set, default position in its track and seatback angle.
Once a passenger is settled in the Coupe's back seat, the change in exterior dimensions is obvious. Most of the Coupe's four-inch reduction in wheelbase translates to a decrease in rear-seat legroom, and this isn't a place most adults will want to spend more than 20 or 30 minutes. The Altima Coupe is a coupe, to be sure, and tighter rear-seat space is to be expected. Still, it seems tighter in the Altima than in the Honda Accord Coupe.
In trunk room, the Altima Sedan is competitive in its class, with 15.3 cubic feet of space. Thanks to a relatively short trunk lid, though, a lot of that space stretches forward under the rear parcel shelf. The Altima Coupe isn't really in the game, with only 8.2 cubic feet of truck space.
In a class characterized by vanilla, the Altima adds a bit more flavor. With tauter suspension tuning than the norm, the Altima is fun to drive, a trait that is aided by a strong engine lineup.
In the grand scheme, Honda's Accords are a bit better balanced than the Altimas, with an outstanding mix of ride quality, good handling and smoothness. Toyota's Camry sedan is even more refined and more comfortable, but far less responsive. Nissan has managed to give the Altima an edge in performance and driving feel that might please car enthusiasts.
The 3.5-liter V6 is the preferred engine for drivers who measure a car's desirability by how quickly it gets away from a stoplight, or how readily it might attract the attention of cars with flashing red lights. The V6 makes a potent 270 horsepower, and it's a very close relative of the 3.7-liter V6 in the Nissan 370Z sports car. There's more than enough scoot here, and it's awesome for passing. If you get it up to its 6600 rpm redline, you're probably having a blast. The V6 also delivers 258 pound-feet of torque, which is very useful with the optional CVT automatic transmission.
The four-cylinder engine is the more prudent choice, given the reality check of today's gas prices. The Altima's four-cylinder engine delivers competent performance, so there's less reason to pay more now at the dealer and more later at the gas pump. The Altima 2.5 S models we drove had plenty of power, from our perspective. Modern and refined for a large four-cylinder, Nissan's 2.5-liter engine delivers 175 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque.
Of the two transmissions, the six-speed manual, available only with the Coupe, is the choice for fun driving. This manual is relaxed and manageable, but offers sharp, precise gear selection and tight shift patterns.
The CVT, or continuously variable transmission, works like an automatic and is intended to improve fuel mileage compared to a conventional, stepped-gear automatic. Regardless, EPA ratings only barely surpass those for gas-only Altimas with the manual transmission: 23/31 mpg City/Highway with the four-cylinder and manual, and 23/32 with the four-cylinder and CVT. The V6 is rated at 19/26 mpg (premium fuel required).
The sophisticated electronic system that manages the CVT attempts to keep the engine turning at an optimum speed that balances power output, fuel economy, and emissions. In doing so, the transmission can make the engine sound a bit noisy, or just funny, particularly with the four-cylinder. In full automatic mode, the CVT can seem lazy and ill at ease, leaving the engine wandering about its power curves and often sounding as if it's straining, even if it isn't – and most of the time it isn't.
For enthusiast driving, we found the CVT works better when it's shifted manually, changing its ratios in steps like a conventional transmission. Using the shift lever, this transmission responds quickly and consistently to the driver's commands. When we used it in the real world, shifting the Altima like a 370Z on the road from the Golden Gate Bridge northward to Stinson Beach, the CVT was beautiful. Downshifting to slow down worked well, complementing the brakes when rushing toward those downhill curves.
In general, the Altimas have a distinct fun-to-drive character. The chassis feels tight, and there is a minimum of noise and vibration passed on to the occupants. Powertrain sounds aren't intrusive, except for some roaming whine as the CVT wanders through its infinite ratios or during sustained hard acceleration. There's little wind noise, though thump from the tires may keep Altima occupants well informed of pavement quality.
The suspension delivers responsive handling. There's little or no swaying in switchback turns, so the steering stays true. Yet it isn't harsh over jagged parts of the road, and it takes some good punches from potholes without flinching. The tuning makes it more communicative than the norm, and some drivers may find that extra feedback to be distracting or read it as harshness.
Steering is respectably responsive in all Altimas, if not especially crisp, with competent turn-in and feedback through the steering wheel. Torque steer (a tendency for the steering wheel to tug side-to-side under hard acceleration) is well managed in all models, and that's saying something with the 270-hp V6.
The Altima Coupe drives like a well-tuned front-wheel-drive car. Like the Sedan, it has a major front-end weight bias, ranging from 60/40 front/rear in the four-cylinder manual to 63/37 front/rear in the V6 CVT. But its well-tuned tuned suspension does a good job of compensating. Coupe buyers shouldn't expect pure sports car handling, though. When pushed, the Coupe's dominant characteristic is nice, safe understeer (where the car wants to go straight instead of turning), which intuitively encourages the driver to ease up on the gas pedal.
The brakes are vented discs in front and solid discs in the rear. All Altimas come with four-channel, four-sensor ABS with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), which optimizes the front/rear brake balance depending on load condition (passengers and cargo). A variable-ratio-pivot brake pedal provides a rigid feel at freeway speeds and less sensitive, more controllable operation in city driving.
When fuel economy is the priority, the Altima Hybrid Sedan is the choice. Just remember that it will take years and years of driving to make up the $5,000-$7,000 price premium in reduced gasoline costs compared to a conventional four-cylinder Altima. The Hybrid is EPA-rated at 35/33 mpg.
The Hybrid uses a somewhat de-tuned version of the 2.5-liter four-cylinder, rated at 158 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque at 2800-4800. Mounted in tandem, its AC synchronous motor-generator can produce up to 40 horsepower and 199 pound-feet, both at 0-1500 rpm. Potentially, that totals a substantial 198 horsepower and 261 pound-feet of torque.
Such high torque at low rpm allows the Altima Hybrid to start from a dead stop using only the electric motor to accelerate. So, precisely where a conventional internal combustion vehicle is operating at minimal efficiency, the Altima Hybrid isn't using any gasoline at all. After the electric motor provides initial acceleration, the gasoline engine quietly starts and shoulders most of the load. Eventually the electric motor shuts off, and the gasoline engine does what it does best, which is constant-speed cruising. Then, when required, the electric motor restarts to give the gas engine some help in, say, a passing situation. It all works seamlessly, though it takes a fairly light foot on the accelerator to maximize the Altima Hybrid's operation in electric mode. Drivers who routinely mash that gas in most circumstances aren't likely to see the maximum improvement in mileage.
In the Hybrid, the CVT works with the master control system to determine which power source or combination of power sources will turn the wheels. The Hybrid uses regenerative braking to recharge its 245-volt nickel-metal hydride battery, turning the electric motor into a generator as the car slows down. You never have to plug it in.
The Nissan Altima offers a sporty alternative to the other midsize cars and is available in Sedan and Coupe body styles. The Altima is available with a strong four-cylinder engine, a gas-sipping electric Hybrid powertrain, or a truly powerful, satisfying V6. The Altima Sedan is roomy, comfortable and stylish, and overall we consider it a great choice versus the competition. The Coupe makes a solid, appealing two-door, though a tight back seat makes it best for two people.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondents J.P. Vettraino reported from Detroit, with Sam Moses in San Francisco, Tom Lankard in Minneapolis, John Katz in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Kirk Bell in Chicago.