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First drive: 2019 Nissan Altima

Nissan steps up its game in the midsize segment, but is it enough?

You've read it before. Sedan sales are down. This period of decline has also given us a bumper crop of high-quality sedans, including a new Toyota Camry and Honda Accord--surely the undisputed juggernauts of the midsize segment.

This glut of desirable product leads us to the inevitable question: Is it worth investing aggressively in this segment, or are automakers throwing money away developing solid answers to a question nobody is asking?

Cold segment, hot takes

Nissan, like Honda--whose reps pointed out that its Accord sedan outsells some mainstream automakers' entire lineups--is taking an optimistic view, and was equally eager to point out that while the midsize segment may be shrinking, it still represents more than two million sales in the U.S. auto market every year. This isn't exactly a niche.

Nissan even offered a fresh take: Gen Z (the sub-millennial demographic lumped in with them by everybody who thinks the term just means "anybody younger than me who doesn't want to work in a coal mine") may actually be softening on SUVs and crossovers.

The theory (backed up by data, Nissan insists) is that whereas millennials grew up during the tail end of the minivan era, Gen Z was raised in the trucklet boom. As a result, its members regard them as mom and dad cars--the same stigma that ultimately doomed the minivan (and the station wagon before it).

Nissan is spinning this as good news for sedans, perhaps banking on Gen Z's youthful open-mindedness. We're skeptical, to say the least, especially since most of its members are a little young to have a significance influence on the new-car market.

Vehicular diplomacy

If Nissan is going all-in on a four-door, at least the Altima makes sense as an investment target. Nissan calls it the company's "brand ambassador" for sedans--a notion we're comfortable with. Unlike the Maxima, which the company loosely refers to as the "halo" car of its sedan lineup, the Altima is an everyday sighting just about anywhere in the United States.

To that end, the 2019 Nissan Altima's overhaul has been nothing short of comprehensive. The generational changeover marks the end of availability of the workhorse 3.5L V6. In its place, Altima gets a 2.0-liter, variable-compression turbocharged engine (or VC-T in the company vernacular). It's a variant of the same engine offered in Infinti's new crossovers, and it develops 248 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque in this application.

Anchoring the entry-level models is the carry-over 2.5L four which, to be fair, has been thoroughly refreshed itself. It gained nine horsepower in the process (up to 188 now) and still produces a respectable 180 lb-ft of torque. Both engines are mated to a continuously-variable automatic transmission.

The real story here, though, is the addition of all-wheel-drive. It's only available with the 2.5L engine, but it can be had on every trim, from the lowly S all the way up to Platinum. 2.5L engines with front-wheel-drive are rated at 28 mpg city, 39 highway and 32 combined. Add all-wheel-drive and those figures drop to 26/36/30. The most comparable alternative--the Subaru Legacy sedan--checks in at 25/34.

The eagle-eyed reader will note that we didn't mention the VC-T in combination with all-wheel-drive. Nissan says it's not off the table, but for the time being, there are no plans to deliver that combination. Bummer.

A brand new bag

Styling is a subjective thing, but it's impossible to simply gloss over the 2019 Altima's updated styling. The outgoing model wasn't ugly, but it sure wasn't sexy. We'd argue that this sixth-generation Altima represents the most significant step forward in styling for the nameplate since 2001. Nissan's stylists gave us a conceptual overview that had something to do with designer purses (the 2019 Altima in this analogy) and diaper bags (not the 2019 Altima in this analogy). Sure.

Nissan made the 2019 model lower, longer and wider, which did the Altima some serious favors. The awkwardly rising front fenders of the 2018 are gone, replaced with a consistent front-to-rear rake that integrates the car's pedestrian-friendly nose with a cleanliness even Audi should be envious of.

The nose itself may be the car's weakest styling element. Nissan's designers have been all over the place with the new "V-Motion" grille, and while this works well enough, it kind of looks like somebody hit the nose of a Mazda6 with a cricket bat. The greenhouse is very Nissan, borrowing directly from the larger Maxima (especially the c-pillar) which gives the rear end a vaguely Kia-ish look, but not necessarily in a bad way.

Inside

Traditionally, this is where Nissan's appeal is weakest. The 2001 Altima was a great-looking car, but man was that interior cheap. Some of the company's newer offerings have improved in this regard (Maxima, Kicks, Armada and Rogue Sport are all decent or better.), but none have any real "wow" factor on the inside.

Altima follows this trend. It's nice enough, but it's not going to blow your mind. The seats are comfortable (and more aggressively bolstered than the 2018's) but not spectacular. The dash materials are fine. The styling is pretty good. Like Kicks, it comes off as an execution that genuinely made the most of the budget allotted.

There's also more tech, as one would expect. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard on every trim, Safety Shield 360 (automatic emergency braking, auto high beams, rear automatic braking, lane departure warning, blind spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert) is standard on SV and above and ProPILOT Assist (semi-autonomous driving aid integrating dynamic cruise control and lane centering) is available at the high end of the grade walk. NissanConnect also integrates with Amazon Alexa, if you're into that sort of thing.

On the road

The Altima has always been a competent handler (as most Nissans are) and the 2019 carries on that legacy. We set off in an SR model equipped with the VC-T, giving us the chance to sample both the sportiest trim's unique suspension tuning and the high-output engine straight away.

There's a lot that works about Nissan's VC-T. It's a flexible engine, offering plenty of torque down low but willing to be revved if called upon. We made use of the SR's paddle shifters in some of the tighter corners where the CVT wanted to ease off on the gear ratio even in sport mode, and being able to hold the revs where we wanted really allowed the 2.0L to shine.

On the flip side, we were also greeted by some pretty gnarly torque steer when accelerating onto the highway, and we can't say we were really impressed by the VC-T's exhaust note. It's louder than the 2.5L, but it's not better. The turbocharger muffles the good sounds and the CVT tends to enhance the bad ones. Not exactly the best of both worlds.

What impressed us most about the SR was its spot-on ride/handling balance. It's comfortable but competent. Even on its rather ho-hum tires, it remains predictably planted and is communicative enough for what it is--a sporty-ish family sedan. The SR is also not appreciably louder nor more uncomfortable than the others in the lineup, even on crumbling mountain roads. The isolation balance is pretty much spot-on.

We switched to a 2.5L with all-wheel-drive for the afternoon, and we were immediately (and pleasantly) surprised by the naturally aspirated four-cylinder's engine note. Its traditional purr was a welcome change from the confused noises coming from the VC-T.

The all-wheel-drive adds roughly 150 pounds to the Altima's curb weight, and with just 188 horsepower on tap, the 2.5L isn't exactly quick. It doesn't produce the torque steer of the VC-T, as you'd likely expect, though Nissan's engineers stressed that the AWD system, lifted largely from the Rogue, is geared exclusively for all-weather confidence, not performance.

This Platinum-trim model also gave us the opportunity to try out ProPILOT Assist, and we came away impressed. Don't go into this expecting it to be a self-driving mode; it's not. In fact, we found we had to hold the wheel even more deliberately than we normally would on the highway just to keep the system from yelling at us (and eventually disengaging).

It's great in thicker traffic, maintaining speed well and accelerating nicely when gaps open up. It's not without flaws. Aside from having to take greater care to please the wheel torque sensors, we also found the controls a bit finicky. It took quite a bit of trial-and-error just to get the whole suite operating, but once we figured it out, it was a one-button affair from then on. For those who prefer old-school cruise control, it can operate that way too.

Leftlane's bottom line

While the 2019 Nissan Altima still tilts toward the value end of the spectrum, this redesign makes it genuinely competitive in the midsize segment and its available all-wheel-drive gives it an edge over other mainstream sedans. It lacks the polish of the Honda Accord and the athleticism of the Mazda6, but it's a competent offering in its own right.

2019 Nissan Altima SR VC-T base price, $29,150; as-tested, $30,045

Destination, $895

2019 Nissan Altima Platinum base price, $31,780; as-tested, $34,025

All-wheel drive, $1,350; Destination, $895

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