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Review: 2016 Nissan Altima 2.5SL

Nissan gives its mid-size sedan a nip and tuck.

Sporting some of the Maxima's edgy style, the updated-for-2016 Nissan Altima thinks it has what it takes to stay current in what may be the industry's most competitive segment: Midsize sedans.

The latest Altima promises class-leading fuel economy and a more refined ride and drive for 2016, but does it have what is necessary to stand out against rivals offering everything from turbochargers to all-wheel-drive to Teutonic style (or all three)?

We spent some time behind the wheel of a loaded up Altima 2.5SL to find out.

What is it?For more than two decades, Altima has served as Nissan's bread-and-butter four-door. The company sells a lot of them in North America (and, interestingly enough, in the Middle East)—so many, in fact, that the four-door is routinely a top 10 best-seller.

The current Altima is actually the brand's fifth generation of the nameplate and it was last redesigned for the 2013 model year. The Tennessee-built sedan has grown over the years, but so has its segment.

For 2016, Nissan gave its four-door a fairly conventional nip-and-tuck, but the big newsmaker is a host of aero-boosting improvements that bump its fuel economy to a class-leading 39 mpg. To best that, you'll have to buy a hybrid or a Mazda6 with the company's high-tech i-ELOOP regenerative braking, things Nissan doesn't offer in its current Altima.

Instead, Nissan focused on less costly, but also simple and inexpensive aerodynamics improvements.

Our particular tester was a 2.5SL, the range-topping trim powered by a four-cylinder, naturally-aspirated engine. A continuously variable transmission is the only gearbox offered with either the 2.5 or the optional 3.5-liter V6.

SL trim adds goodies like heated leather seats and 18-inch alloy wheels, and Nissan says it represents about 20 percent of the model mix in the United States.

A new SR trim was added to lure in buyers looking for a little more sport. It's no faster, but it has a firmer suspension and a revised electronic power steering system.

Our tester was further optioned up with $1,700 worth of the Technology Package. Think forward collision warning with emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and navigation with apps and connectivity. Other extras included floor mats ($210 and curiously optional), a moonroof ($800), and a paint up-charge ($395).

At $32,510, our tester comes in toward the upper end of equivalently-optioned rivals.

What's it up against? The segment's sales leaders include the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, but those in the market should also check out some of the competition.

The Ford Fusion, Subaru Legacy, Mazda Mazda6, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, and Chevrolet Malibu all offer compelling reasons to shop around.

What does it look like?Altima's update gave it a new grille design inspired by its Nissan Maxima big brother. At first glance, the two are nearly identical, although that won't cause many problems finding your car in a parking lot since Maximas are rare birds.

At the rear, Nissan cleaned up the car's look with new tail lamps and some revised chrome trim garnishing the tailgate. Updated wheels finish the look.

Nothing about the Altima is out of the ordinary. Its swoopy look appears more toned down now thanks to the new grille and bulging hood, but that might be due more to the fact that it's hard to throw a stone without hitting an Altima these days.

Nissan's newer designs have been more daring, but that's not something that always works well in this segment.

And on the inside?There not much that breaks new ground inside the Altima, but it is a comfortable and pleasant place. New bits are limited to dash and console accent trim that looks rather IKEA-inspired and the inclusion of Apple's Siri Eyes Free accessible at the press of a button on the steering wheel.

That means that the company's "zero gravity” seats engineered with NASA return. Although perhaps a little too aggressive in the lumbar department, they are generally comfortable thrones. One thing we noticed is that the SL's standard leather trim doesn't extend to the bolsters, which are covered in harder-wearing, but not convincing leatherette (read: vinyl).

The Altima's dash is straightforward and utilizes a nice blend of soft touch materials where idle hands are likely to rest. The same applies to its door panels, although our tester's light interior color reflected strongly in the rear window.

On the tech front, Siri Eyes Free worked as advertised with our iPhone. So did the navigation system, even if its graphics and screen feel a little too yesterday up against fresher designs from rivals. The SL's Bose audio system, however, sounded a little low-fi and offered remarkably lousy FM reception.

But does it go?Most Altimas are powered by the same 2.5-liter, 182 horsepower, 180 pound-feet of torque four-cylinder. Nissan pairs both that motor and the available V6 exclusively to a CVT, which was retuned to keep revs lower and to provide a stepped, traditional automatic-like feel during hard acceleration.

Thanks to the transmission's changes, as well as new underbody panels, a higher compression ratio, and some friction reduction under the hood, the Altima now checks in at 39 mpg highway (up 1 mpg from before). City and combined figures remain 27 and 31 mpg, respectively.

We took the Altima on a highway road trip and came in just shy of 39 mpg. A lighter foot and lower speed limits could easily exceed that figure. In town, however, we saw the Altima's as-tested figures drop to a less impressive 26 mpg. Overall, we averaged 30.6 mpg.

Our testing occurred at higher elevations, where the Altima provided good around town grunt but did feel a little wheezy when trying to pass on a highway.

In SL trim, the Altima is clearly tuned for comfort. Its suspension, with new bushings and a different Michelin tire spec for 2016, is soft and compliant over rough terrain. On all roads, the big four-door delivered a comfortable ride that wouldn't be out of place on a luxury car.

Additionally, the car's new acoustic windshield reduces road noise, making the Altima among the quietest mainstream sedans we've driven.

However, there are no sporting pretentions to this particular trim level (or any Altima aside from the SR, since the rest of the lineup is tuned the same).

Enter a corner and the suspension leans heavily and the steering becomes light and numb. There's plenty of grip, and overall the car corners confidently, but rivals like the Honda Accord and Subaru Legacy manage to deliver a similarly high-quality ride without sacrificing a certain level of sportiness and composure.

Fortunately, we didn't need to test our car's optional forward collision warning system, which can actually monitor two cars ahead to predict when the brakes might need to be applied. That's cool tech, but the Altima did lack a system to nudge it back into its lane if its driver inadvertently veers, and some rivals brake automatically if they start to back out into traffic (like in a parking lot).

Leftlane's bottom lineLacking any especially stand-out features, the Nissan Altima comes across as something of an also-ran in the midsize segment. That's not to say it isn't a pleasant and refined car with a comfortable, quiet cabin and excellent fuel economy, but it needs a technology upgrade inside and better dynamics to really stand out.

Drive the Altima, but make sure to visit rivals' showrooms before making your decision.

2016 Nissan Altima 2.5SL base price, $28,570. As tested, $32,510.Premium paint, $395; Moonroof, $800; Floor/trunk mats, $210; Technology Package, $1,700; Destination, $835.

Photos by Andrew Ganz.

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