Test Drive: Nissan Altima

By Bill Schaffer

Nashville, Tenn. ?A car has to be pretty darn good to do the things the Nissan Altima has done during the last year.? Usually three or four years into a new model sales slip badly, but in the sixth year of the fourth generation model, Altima sales advanced to the position of second best selling car in the U.S. just behind the Toyota Camry.? That?s also in spite of major changes and new models from Honda, Hyundai, Kia and Volkswagen.

The Altima, which has always been built in America, celebrates 20 year in the market, after selling more than 3.8 million cars to date.? It also beat the Honda Accord and the Camry last year in the annual J.D. Power and Associates APEAL awards, which is an indication of how gratifying the car is to own and drive.

The new Altima breaks new ground in America?s most competitive automotive segment, by producing a segment best 38 mpg fuel economy making the significant jump over 35 mpg numbers touted by several competitors.? The impressive number is the result of a combination of factors including lower weight, a more aerodynamic shape, and the redesigned 2.5-liter DOHC four-cylinder engine and CVT (continuously variable transmission).

At 182 horsepower, up seven from the previous model, this new engine/transmission team produces a 7.2-seconds 0 to 60 mph acceleration time, making it one of the best in its class. Although a CVT would not normally be my first choice on a car, this latest generation Nissan CVT is positive and amazingly efficient.? It?s the best CVT in the industry.? Even for someone who misses the pauses of transmission shifting can get the feeling of shifting gears by pulling the shifter into the sport mode and feeling the seven simulated shift points. ?Driving through the beautiful countryside south of Nissan?s American headquarters in Franklin, Tenn., the engine demonstrated the acceleration by making quick passes around slower moving vehicles with the speed reaching nearly 100 mph in some instances.

Drivers wanting even higher velocity can opt for Nissans award winning VQ V-6 engine.? Upgraded for the 2013 model year the super smooth 270-hp engine not only offers excellent acceleration and passing power, but gives the driver even more control of the CVT providing seven preset ratios which are controlled by using the highly desirable column-mounted shift paddles.? Shifts with the paddles are swift and crisp, plus with the paddles on the column, it isn?t necessary to try to find them when the wheel is being turned.

Nissan engineers have developed a new multi-link rear suspension emulating the drivability of cars like the BMW 3 series and Audi A4.? The innovative new design, which uses high-end shock absorbers, allows for better camber angle and toe angle control to produce handling more comparable to a rear-wheel drive sport sedan than front-wheel drive family sedan. ?The rear suspension also employs a new active understeer control system to help maintain better driver control.? Driving through a variety of corners at speeds often twice the posted level produced confident feeling with no hint of the understeer often prevalent on FWD sedans.

The innovative steering system, which combines electric assist with hydraulic controls gives excellent driver feedback and feel.

???????? Altima gets high marks for its new interior.? The design is visually pleasing with the use of high quality materials and user-friendly instrument panel including the new Advanced Drive-Assist? display system on the center of the instrument cluster. ?All models also include a Bluetooth hands-free phone system and steaming audio.? Models equipped with the optional NissanConnet and navigation include hands-free text message integration, Pandora? audio and real-time Google point of interest search.

Standard on all models, the ADA?s color four-inch display screen uses 3D-effect graphics displaying information for the audio system, trip computer, optional navigation system and tire pressure monitoring system in screens that can be customized by the driver.

The Altima uses enhanced levels of sound deadening materials to produce one of the quietest cabins in the segment.? Driver and the front seat passenger comfort is enriched by Nissan?s new Zero Gravity designed seats.? Based on a design developed by NASA to increase blood flow, muscular load and lower fatigue of the astronauts, the new attractive looking seats do the same for the front-seat occupants of the Altima. ?I noticed I wasn?t nearly as stiff as normal after an hour or two behind the wheel.? The only thing I really didn?t care for was the velour-like cloths seats.? I?d much rather see some of the new harder finish woven fabrics, and the leather option is a much better choice.

?? The Altima engineers have developed an interesting multi use rear view camera.? In addition to showing the area behind the car when the transmission is in reverse, on the highway, this camera also recognizes when another vehicle is in the blind spot position on either side of the car, and warns the driver using a light in the side view mirrors.?? The same 180-degree view camera also recognizes movement when the driver is backing out of a parking place.? It will warn the driver if another car, pedestrian or pet is about to move into the area behind the car.

Another warning system Nissan has expanded is the low tire warning system.? It tells the driver which tire is low.? When the driver starts to add air to the low tire, the emergency warning blinkers will indicate to the person filling the tire that the pressure is changing, and when it reaches the recommended level, it honks the horn.? No tire pressure gauge is needed.

The Altima models include the engine defined 2.5, 2.5S, 2.5SV, 2.5SL, 3.5S, 3.5SV and 3.5SL.? The 2.5-liter four-cylinder pricing starts at $21,500 for the S and goes up to $28,050 for the SL.? The V-6 powered Altimas start at $25,360 for the S and peaks at $30,080 for the SL.?? Optional packages include a $1,350 convenience package for the 2.5SV and a $590 Navigation Package for both SV models.? Both SL versions have an optional $1,090 Technology Package.? The destination charge adds $780 to each model.

I think the new Nissan Altima is a winner — it?s smart, comfortable, quiet, roomy and distinctively styled.?? The fact that the four-cylinder engine gets up to 38 mpg during highway driving is a major plus, and it would be my choice.? If Nissan handles their marketing right, I wouldn?t be surprised to see the Altima at the number one spot by the end of 2013.