Midsized sedan with 38 mpg fuel economy
Nina Russin, Sat, 26 May 2012 04:32:51 PDT
I'd never heard the term, "Altimaness," before today, but I understand what it means. After twenty years and four iterations, the Nissan Altima is part of the American lexicon. More than any other model in its lineup, the Altima is responsible for Nissan's continued popularity among US buyers.
Altima owners love the sedan's affordability, stylish exterior and lively performance, all of which distinguish it from midsized competitors.
In July, Nissan rolls out the fifth-generation models, with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and 3.5-liter V-6. All models come with a continuously-variable automatic transmission, which boosts highway fuel economy on the four-cylinder model to 38 mpg. Nissan expects four-cylinder cars to comprise 90 percent of sales. Pricing starts at $21,500 for the base grade, $22,500 for the 2.5S, and $24,100 for the volume-leading 2.5SV.
A more efficient machine
Nissan engineers didn't use a magic bullet to stretch gas mileage. They did it the old fashioned way, by making small but significant improvements to the transmission, aerodynamics, shaving weight off the chassis, reducing pumping loss in the engine and using low rolling resistance tires.
The new car weighs 79 pounds less than the outgoing model, thanks to extensive use of ultra-high strength steel and aluminum throughout the chassis. A new "smart" alternator only recharges the battery when engine loads are low, such as steady state cruising and deceleration.
The 2013 Altima has a .29 coefficient of drag, a .3 improvement over the car it replaces. Engineers reduced friction in the new automatic transmission by 40 percent. Expanded gear ratios improve low-end acceleration and allow the car to cruise at lower engine speeds on the highway.
Test drive in Tennessee
While reaching the federal 2016 C.A.F.E. standards with the new four-cylinder engine was a considerable achievement, it wouldn't necessarily sell cars. Engineers made other noticeable improvements to the sedan's performance, such as a redesigned suspension which allows for better control of the rear wheels' camber and caster during aggressive driving.
An active understeer feature serves a similar purpose to torque vectoring. When the driver goes into a corner too fast, the on-board computer applies the inside front brake to prevent the vehicle from pushing.
The 182-horsepower four-cylinder engine reaches peak torque, 180 foot-pounds, at about half throttle. The 2.5 liter model accelerates from zero-to-sixty miles-per-hour in just over seven seconds.
At a recent media program, I had the opportunity to drive the 2.5S on rural roads surrounding Nissan's Nashville, Tennessee headquarters. Frequent off-camber turns and pitchy hills were the perfect environment to evaluate the new model's acceleration, steering response and braking.
What I experienced was significant improvement in key areas, which had hampered the performance of earlier models. For example, the continuously-variable transmission no longer suffers from the soft "rubber band" response it once did. When the driver steps on the gas, the car responds. On the other hand, the infinitely variable gear ratios eliminate hunting and shift shock which used to plague four-cylinder cars.
While the four-cylinder engine doesn't have the abundant power of the 3.5 liter V-6, what it has is more than adequate. I had no problems passing slower vehicles on the road, even on uphill grades. On two lane roads, where passing opportunities are rare and short, I was able to maneuver around farm trucks quickly and safely.
Speed sensitive steering maintains a pleasantly heavy feel on the highway while offering plenty of assist at low speeds. A 36.1-foot turning circle makes U-turns fairly easy on wider suburban roads. Upscale models with larger wheels have a slightly larger turning diameter. On-center response is quite good, maintaining good contact patches at all four corners.
The new active understeer feature is surprisingly effective. I took some decreasing radius turns at high speeds with no loss of directional control.
The four-wheel independent suspension is compliant without feeling mushy. Body roll during cornering is minimal, thanks to stabilizer bars on both axles.
Vented disk brakes up front and solid disks in the rear stop the sedan in a firm, linear fashion.
In order to improve visibility around the perimeter, Nissan now offers blind spot monitoring, lane departure assist and moving object detection as an option. The system works off the sedan's rearview camera rather than radar. A washer cleans the camera lens to prevent malfunctions.
Engineers did a good job of minimizing road, wind and noise intrusion to the interior, so passengers can converse or enjoy new audio features such as Pandora radio and streaming Bluetooth audio. Buffering in the headliner reduces noise intrusion by 30 percent.
Keyless entry and start is standard on the S grade, making the sedan appear more expensive than it actually is. A new remote start feature comes on the SV grade. It works at distances up to 195 feet, and will keep the car running for up to ten minutes before the driver enters it.
The test car has the standard cloth upholstery. The design team paid special attention to the front seats, studying zero gravity designs from NASA to better position the driver's hips and spine. Seats have always been one of the Altima's weaknesses. There have been occasions when my hamstrings were barking after a relatively short drive.
While I'm not a big fan of the velour upholstery, the seat design itself is a huge improvement. Back support was ample without being annoying, and I had no leg discomfort during the two-hour test drive.
The standard tilt and telescoping steering wheel enables small drivers to maintain a clear forward view and safe distance from the front airbag. Redundant audio and Bluetooth controls minimize driver distraction.
A new connectivity system, also available on the 2.5SV, enables iPhone owners to use the steering wheel audio controls to give Pandora selections thumbs up or thumbs down. Android phone owners can search Google points of interest and have hands-free text messaging.
A four-inch screen in the gauge cluster displays warnings from the tire pressure monitoring system, blind spot monitoring, Pandora and Bluetooth streaming audio selections.
Although the Nissan Altima lacks the cargo versatility of crossover and sport-utility vehicles, rear seats fold flat in a 60/40 pattern to extend the trunk floor for longer items.
The Nissan Altima comes with front, side and side curtain airbags, antilock brakes, traction and stability control.
The new Altima is the first of five all-new Nissan models to roll out over the next 15 months. An all-new Pathfinder arrives this fall, followed by a new Sentra, hatchback and crossover.
Nissan builds the Altima at its Smyrna, Tennessee assembly plant.
Likes: An affordable mid-sized sedan with a high-level of standard safety, comfort and convenience features and excellent gas mileage.
Dislikes: Velour upholstery seems outdated, when compared to some new technical cloth fabrics.
Model: Altima 2.5S
Base price: $22,500
As tested: N/A
Horsepower: 182 Hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 180 lbs.-ft. @ 4000 rpm
Zero-to-sixty: 7.1 seconds
Antilock brakes: Standard
Side curtain airbags: Standard
First aid kit: N/A
Bicycle friendly: No
Fuel economy: 27/38 mpg city/highway