New Altima looks like upscale kin

The 2013 Altima has been tweaked with extensive design changes that boost mileage, handling, engine performance, and cabin comfort. This is Nissan's bread-and-butter machine; its best-selling car in the United States.
The 2013 Altima has been tweaked with extensive design changes that boost mileage, handling, engine performance, and cabin comfort. This is Nissan's bread-and-butter machine; its best-selling car in the United States.
Posted: June 18, 2012

When the Nissan Altima debuted two decades ago, it was a smallish midsize family sedan with a starting sticker under $14,000.

But it looked a lot like its much larger and more well-heeled corporate cousin, the $35,000 Infiniti J30.

As a consequence, that otherwise unremarkable Altima first-born went on to sell 120,000 copies, about 20,000 more than the marketing think tank had projected.

Since no good deed goes unrepeated in the automobile business, guess what the redesigned 2013 Altima resembles? The new midsize Altima, base price $21,500, looks enough like Infiniti's $47,700 M37 sedan that a paternity test would be unnecessary.

But the fifth-generation Altima will be sporting more than sheet metal with upmarket resonance when it arrives in the showrooms around the end of the month. It also will be graced with extensive design changes that boost mileage, handling, engine performance, and cabin comfort.

Lavishing a lot of engineering attention on the Altima is not unreasonable. This is Nissan's bread-and-butter machine. It is the automaker's best-selling car in the United States, accounting for 3.8 million sales over the last 20 years. The only popularly priced midsize sedan that sold better in 2011 was the Toyota Camry.

The Altima's designers began with some dimensions inherited from the previous car, namely wheelbase and engine displacement. They then tweaked until they dropped.

While the car got a little longer and wider than its predecessor, it lost weight. Thanks to the use of high-strength steel and an aluminum hood, roof and trunk, the four-cylinder Altima I drove at a recent regional press introduction was more than 120 pounds lighter than the previous four-banger and weighed in at well under 3,200.

That loss in weight, coupled with engine and transmission enhancements, translate into marked improvements in fuel economy and acceleration. The new car has EPA mileage ratings of 27 city and 38 highway. That's a quantum leap past the previous car's numbers (23 and 32) and makes the new Altima sedan the most economical machine in its class, if you disqualify the more costly diesels and hybrids.

The reworked 2.5-liter four enjoys a seven horsepower bump — to 182 horses — even as it improves its mileage. That horsepower boost, when teamed with the weight reduction, means reasonably brisk 0 to 60 times of 7.5 seconds, about a second faster than the old car.

While that raises the four's fun factor, it hardly puts it in a class with its 270-horsepower, V-6 stablemate, which I also test-drove. But while the V-6 is more bracing, it is also more expensive to gas and buy. The SL four I tested bases at $24,100, while its V-6 counterpart starts at $27,780. Altima marketing manager Scott Shirley said the V-6 would account for only 10 percent of the car's sales.

But while engine performance is improved in the four-cylinder car, handling is still its strong suit, especially after the working-over its suspension received. Suspension revisions have allowed the rear wheels to turn slightly in the direction of the front ones, providing a subtle amount of helpful rear steer in the corners. Up front, the Altima benefits from another standard feature: Active Understeer Control. Front-drive cars like the Altima want to go straight or "understeer" in a fast turn. This system counters that outward "push" by applying the brakes on the inside front wheel.

These features, in league with a surprising amount of tire tenacity for a family car, make the Altima feel stable and secure in the corners.

The athleticism comes with an equal measure of ride comfort — unless you're several inches north of 6 feet and sitting in the rear seat, where head room could be a problem. Up front, seat comfort, like seat support, is superb. Extensive sound-deadening measures have rigged the Altima for silent running.

Nifty techyisms abound, such as the Easy Fill Tire Alert, which beeps when you've filled your tires to t  he proper pressure.

Contact Al Haas at alhaasauto@aol.com.

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