The new four-door's addressed many of the previous car's shortcomings--a price-sensitive interior and below-par safety gear chief among them. But it's also struck a new balance that puts a premium ride and quietness above the old Altima's leaner, tauter feel.
The new Altima begins life with a new shape, which Nissan says comes from an emotional take on styling, and some advanced manufacturing techniques that enable some complex surfaces on the attractive new body. The front end wears some of the angled, arrowed cues of other Nissans and Infinitis at the headlamps and taillights, while the side glass tapers gradually to a tasteful backstop. The fenders swell out in ways that recall Nissan's compact Juke crossover. The interior's a big contrast: it's conservatively drawn, with straight lines dividing off the center stack of controls from the driver and the passenger. There's also more space left for larger LCD screens for more advanced infotainment systems, a selling point where the Altima's lagged behind the Koreans and Americans.
The standard powertrain is a 182-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder mated to a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Tuned here for higher mileage than ever, Nissan's aiming for an EPA highway rating of 27 miles per gallon city, 38 miles per gallon highway, putting it on par with some hybrids and above leaders like today's standard Hyundai Sonata, rated at 35 mpg highway. It's plenty of power for the point-A-to-point-B school of driving, though the drivetrain can be loud at the higher reaches of its range. Premium Altimas will continue to offer a quick-footed 3.5-liter V-6 with 270 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, rated at 22/30 mpg. They'll also be fitted with the CVT, but with standard paddle controls and a manual shift mode that simulates the gear ratios on a conventional automatic transmission.
All versions of the Altima sedan will continue to ride on an independent suspension, and it's upgraded to Sachs shocks for better ride control and a more luxurious feel, Nissan says. They've hit that goal--and coupled with a switch to fancy electrohydraulic steering, they've polished the Altima's road manners to a quiet gloss. The Altima now has excellent compliance over most every surface, but the tightly controlled ride and eager feel dialed into the old hydraulic-only steering have gone AWOL. We miss the more immediate feel already, because it's long disappeared from cars like the Honda Accord.
The Altima sedan's still a five-seater, riding on the same 109.3-inch wheelbase it did in the 2012 model year, 191.5 inches long in all. There's not much more room in any direction, and that's fine--the Altima was large enough for almost any family. Nissan's spent quality time on the seats, and it's paid off in very comfortable chairs that hold up for hours on end, at least for the front-seat passengers. On base models, the front seats are adjustable six ways for the driver, four for the passenger. A power driver seat and heated front seats are an option. The rear seats are split 60/40 and fold down to expand access to the trunk. Leather seats are still an option
With safety as strong a selling point as fuel economy in the Altima's class, Nissan's updated the sedan's technology to include all the advanced features on the shelves of suppliers. The list will include standard or optional rearview camera, blind-spot monitors, and lane-departure warning systems. The IIHS hasn't said yet if the new Altima earns its best ratings, but the NHTSA gives it five stars overall for crash-test performance.
Finally, on the infotainment front, the Altima catches up to the competition with new bundles of features connected to audio and Bluetooth, which now comes standard on the sedan, as does audio streaming and incoming text-to-voice translation, along with a CD player and an auxiliary jack. The Altima's infotainment system also permits streaming from Pandora, and accepts mapping information from Google Maps, too. A central display in the instrument cluster brings together all this information for the driver to monitor while on the road.
Other available features will include automatic headlights; LED taillights; heated rearview side mirrors; a USB port; Bose audio; satellite radio; a navigation with a 7-inch screen, a big step up from the Altima's current small navi display; dual-zone climate control; pushbutton start; a wide-view rearview camera; and a glass sunroof.
The Altima sedan is priced from $21,500. Seven models will range in price up to $30,000. Now in the thick of the family-sedan sales race, the Altima's come a long way since its scrappy also-ran days. Maturity has its upside--but we'll sure miss the frisky old feel.
Meanwhile, the Altima Coupe carries over in a single powertrain configuration for the 2013 model year. As of yet, Nissan hasn't said if a new version is in the works.