First Drive: 2013 Nissan Altima [Review]

Nissan says that it went safely upmarket with its all-new 2013 Altima. Does it deliver?

For those midsize sedan buyers fixated only on spec sheets, the 2013 Nissan Altima provides the kind of figure that will get just about any shopper to sign on the bottom line: An unmatched 38 mpg found on even the cheapest, entry-level model.

Although that figure isn't EPA-certified yet, Nissan wasn't shy about hammering home the big 3-8 during our preview evaluation at its North American headquarters just south of Nashville, Tennessee. And we think they're justifiably proud since no midsize rival currently comes close without resorting to some sort of extra-cost hybrid or "hybrid light" (think General Motors' eAssist) add-on.

But that's not to say that the rest of the Altima isn't worth a few words, as we discovered after a brief glimpse into its vices and virtues in the Music City.

Reaching 38
Nissan was a CVT pioneer, so the automaker has had a few years to get things just right. For 2013, the Altima's standard CVT underwent a thorough reworking to become significantly smoother and more fuel efficient - and it had to, since Nissan made comparatively few changes to its 182-horsepower 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine.

With a solid 180 lb-ft. of torque coming on at 4,000 rpm, the engine is decently, but not overwhelmingly, powerful on paper by class standards, which makes it even more impressive that the CVT magicians at Nissan have coaxed this lithe 3,100 lbs. midsizer to a 7.1-second 0-60 mph sprint. Unlike many rivals, the Nissan 2.5 doesn't include direct injection since the automaker said such an inclusion would up its cost without returning notably improved fuel consumption.

For power demons, a similarly lightly changed 3.5-liter V6 putting out 270 horses and 258 lb-ft. of torque is also available, although Nissan expects fewer than 10 percent of all buyers will go for the full cylinder count. Those who do will find V6-exclusive paddle shifters for manual-style shifting of seven pre-selected gear ratios.

As for fuel economy, the EPA hasn't released all figures, but Nissan anticipates a 27 mpg city rating to go along with the much ballyhooed 38 mpg highway figure for four-cylinder models. V6s, meanwhile, should net 22/30 mpg.

Regardless of engine, all Altimas remain front-wheel-drive, although a new platform and increased use of high-strength steels provide increased rigidity. Out back, a rethought multi-link rear suspension is designed to further improve lateral rigidity, while the stability control implements a new active understeer system designed to brake the inside front wheel during aggressive cornering to improve 9/10ths steering.

All of that is designed to add up to a slightly more sporty than average driving experience, though we found on our preview drives that the Altima continues to prioritize the kind of comfort and space buyers tend to want in this segment. In short, don't expect to find a cut-rate M3 and you'll be satisfied.

Even over rough pavement, the Altima's suspension took potholes and expansion joints in stride. When the road turned twisty, we enjoyed the Altima's direct and nicely-weighted electro-hydraulic steering, even if it was a little down on feel. Altima settles confidently into corners, imparting a solid, unflappable sense of security, but we found that it ultimately fell short of entertaining.

Instead, refinement is the Altima's forte. The syrup-smooth CVT kept either engine within its power band, while extensive sound deadening restricted most mechanical and road roar from the cabin. The CVT keeps the engine to ultra-low engine revolutions, even at high speeds, further contributing to the almost other-worldly silence. If there's a quieter and more upmarket-feeling midsizer on the market, we'd like to see it.

If anything, it's this high level of isolation that prevents Altima from truly shining as a sporting car. We doubt we're alone in hoping that a trim level with a more aggressive suspension is on Nissan's drawing board.

Inside and out
Enthusiastic drivers represent only a small share of the midsize sedan market, so Nissan knew that it needed to get its volume seller's interior and exterior just right.

Externally, the look is all new yet comfortably familiar, drawing heavily from the larger Maxima. We're not sure that occasionally awkwardly-proportioned four-door was the right inspiration, but the Altima does look pleasantly upmarket. Careful detailing around the fog lamps (standard on most models) and tail lamps looks elegant, although we didn't necessarily care for the wide, grinning grille up front. All models boast classy dual chrome-tipped tailpipes.

Inside, the Altima again breaks little ground but clearly moves forward. Passenger space is up slightly, giving this 191-inch long sedan a gigantic back seat and plenty of room for front row occupants. Those front thrones were engineered according to NASA's "zero gravity" specifications, but we found them to be a little too strong on lumbar for our preferences. Cloth-seated Altimas feature a love-it-or-hate-it upholstery that felt like a mix between appealing suede and kitschy Grandma's Grand Marquis. Leather is optional.

The dashboard is conventional but effectively organized, with a handful of satin silver accents on board to enliven the atmosphere. An optional seven-inch navigation display could serve as a model for most rivals thanks to both its bright screen and its fast, simple menus. Another high-res screen sits between the primary gauges to provide the driver with all the vehicle, audio and navigation information he or she could ever need.

A quartet of trim levels for the four-cylinder range from the rather fleet-feeling $21,500 2.5 base model up to a loaded $28,050 SL. Options are limited to a couple of packages that add convenience and infotainment goodies, plus a number of accessory-style factory add-ons like a spoiler and floor mats. The V6 lineup mostly mirrors the four-banger's but there is no 3.5-liter base model. On its own, the V6 represents a roughly $2,000 premium, but we'd actually be hard-pressed to step up since the four is so capable on its own.

Leftlane's bottom line
Altima doesn't reinvent the midsize sedan segment, but it brings with it an especially compelling combination of class-up features, overall refinement and capable driving dynamics.

We'd like to see a little more corner-carving tenacity, but otherwise there are precious few obvious marks against what could be the best overall four-door in the segment. Consider the bar raised.

2013 Nissan Altima base price range, $21,500 to $30,080.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.