The cars we loved.
Through the 90’s, the Altima was a scrappy, fun to drive compact car that forgot that it was a family sedan. It won awards and everybody loved it. Then it grew in size and meidorictity as the new millennium approached. Before long it was just another bland compact sedan. Then it went through a massive overhaul in 2001 where it emerged like a butterfly from the remains of the short lived American designed second gen car. The new car introduced in 2002 spread its wings into new territorty and went upscale, nearly matching the Maxima in style and growing larger in size. When Nissan’s middle range family sedan made the leap from the bigger end of compact to full-size in 2002, it had Honda’s Accord firmly in its sights. It even spawned a coupe version like the Accord.
By 2002 the Altima had regained some of its street cred as a drivers car, or at least more so than the Accord, but suffered from spotty fit and finish and lower quality interior materials. For 2013 Nissan continued the evolution of Altima styling into a direction that put it closer to the Maxima. Unlike the Maxima, the Altima reverted to mid-sized status, although its one of the largest in that class.
The primary differences between the Altima and the Maxima are in power and luxury interior treatments, all in keeping with the Maxima’s billing as a “Four Door Sports Car”. Most of the Altimas technology carries over from the previous car, despite Nissans claims of it being the “Most Innovative Ever”. The innovation may come in the packaging as the 2013 car has more room inside than the 2012, although the it weighs less. It’s also smaller than the 2002-2006 models.
While the outside gets a makeover, the inside got a badly needed one too. Nissan has addressed critics’ complaints about the Altima’s interior with improved materials and more creature comforts that include touchscreen nav/entertainment systems. The overall look is more upscale, if not generic from certain angles. The new interior is highlighted by a simplified dashboard that appears more elegant in its execution. While these are welcome improvements, the mid-sized sedan segment continues to evolve with and closely matched competition. While the Accord was always its main competitor, nearly all the major players have stepped up their game with redesigns and a broad range of efficient powerplants.
The North American built Altima comes in seven trim lines, two engine choices and one means of power transfer: a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The CVT delivers smooth power transfer while allowing Nissan to claim fuel efficiency numbers as high as 38 mpg on the highway with the four-cylinder. The V6 claims 31 mpg on the highway, a figure not so impressive considering that some 300 hp engines from BMW and Ford get 30.
Altima skips the trendy hydrogen, electric and hybrid engines finding their way into other sedans for two holdovers from the previous car: an oversized 2.5 L 4 cylinder and a 3.5 LV6. No turbocharging or direct injection here, the Altima engines are good old-fashioned multi-valve DOHC designs with port tuned fuel injection. The 182 hp 4 cylinder is the economy leader with up to 38 mpg, while performance oriented 24-valve V6 produces 270 hp. Altima’s four-cylinder compares favorably to the 170 hp 2.5 Duratech in the new Fusion, but looks ancient next to the 260 hp 2.0 direct injection turbo available in the 2013 Malibu.
The Altima retains some of its sporty nature, even with the omission of the six speed manual transmission from the 2012 model. An independent strut front and rear multi-link suspension with front and rear stabilizer bars keeps handling sharp, but the Altima has gradually become a softer car. Cars like Kia’s Optima and Ford’s 2013 Fusion are hungry for market share and have become aggressive style leaders and in many ways outperform the Altima.
Critics still agree that the Altima remains more driver oriented than most mid-sized family sedans with good performance (skidpad around 0.85 and 0 to 60 times in the high 7 second range for the 2.5). The lack of more modern engine technology and choices may eventually hurt sales, but the Altima’s biggest liability may be its overall lack of edge. This is ironic from a company known for the Skyline and Z cars. Nissan once made the connection to Z cars with the first Altima. Now it seems content with making a scaled down clone of the “I’m almost an Infiniti” Maxima. With the competition nipping at what was once Altima’s clear strengths (style and performance), the 2013 model is impressive, but may not be enough to put what was once a clear leader back in front.