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2013 Nissan Altima First Drive

Is being the best ever Altima good enough?

What It Is
Nissan's best-selling car and last year's midsize sedan bridesmaid looks to topple the segment leaders with its stylish, innovative packaging and fun-to-drive character.
Best Thing
That 38-mpg fuel highway fuel economy number is for real.
Worst Thing
The tires may be made by high-quality, name-brand labels, but their loud, squeal-prone nature reeks of budget-brand quality.
Snap Judgment
With a lot of small tweaks, the 2013 Nissan Altima adds up to be a much better car than the one it replaces.


It used to be said that the differences from the best to the worst cars in the midsize segment were huge. That's perhaps how Japanese automakers took hold of the family sedan market in the 1990s and never looked back. But today, that's not really the case, as the class's best sellers are separated by the smallest of fractions.

With the 2013 Nissan Altima, the Japanese automaker is trying to open that gap a little. But instead of trying to revolutionize the segment with some high-flying, revolutionary car, it's chiseling away with the same basic formula that has propelled it the position of the second-best-selling car in its class. And for 2013, Nissan has made its family car even better.

Headlining the 2013 Altima is its 38-mpg highway fuel economy, a number that far surpasses its non-hybrid competition. Nissan was able to accomplish this feat by improving aerodynamics, lowering the car's weight, and re-engineering its continuously variable automatic transmission for better acceleration and fuel economy. Coupled to a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that's up 7 horsepower to 182, its fuel up 4 mpg in the city and 6 mpg on the highway versus the 2012 model.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Competing against stalwarts like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, as well as other segment leaders like the Hyundai Sonata and soon-to-be-redesigned Ford Fusion, it's no longer enough for the Altima's chief selling point to be its price. The new car is plenty improved over the outgoing model, but is it improved enough to jump to the top of its class?

Walkaround

Before seeing the car in the sheetmetal, I kept tally of what some of my friends thought about the 2013 Nissan Altima. A few loved it; a few adamantly hated it. But hate isn't a bad thing; some of the world's most renown car designers have said the worst opinion of their designs would be one of neutrality, and it doesn't look like Nissan will have to worry about that. But when I saw it, it looked to me as though Nissan had struck the perfect balance between the radical Hyundai Sonata and forgettable Toyota Camry, making sure its styling would be remembered longer than 30 seconds after walking away from it.

The 2013 Nissan Altima takes much of its looks from the 2010 Ellure concept sedan, adding softer shapes but more dramatic lines to the midsize sedan. Up front, Nissan gave the new Altima large, chrome-bordered trapezoidal grille, evocative of a samurai's robe, or so the automaker says.

It shares the same 109.3-inch wheelbase with the outgoing model, giving it a fairly sprawling stance with good proportions, like its predecessor. But thanks to raising the rear seat, it has more real-world legroom. Although its roofline is steeply raked, headroom is ample for rear-seat passengers taller than six feet. Getting into the back might take a little bit of ducking, though.

The previous Altima was happily inoffensive in addition to being cheap and reliable. And it worked, with the Altima still sitting in second place in sales behind the Camry despite its six years on the market. But this new car stirs the pot a bit, hoping to get people to notice. And like it or not, people will notice.

Sitting Down

We had the opportunity to drive just two 2013 Altimas, so we did what any enterprising car reviewers would do: We got into the bargain-basement Altima 2.5 and the 270-horsepower, absolutely loaded Altima 3.5 SL. At $22,280, including $780 for destination and handling, the base model is expected to make up a tiny fraction of sales, relegated mostly to fleet and rental car duties. But even so, it came with Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity and Nissan's Advanced Drive-Assist information display in its gauges, nice touches to be sure. A representative later told us the most basic model probably shouldn't have been available in the introduction since it often goes overlooked, but we're glad Nissan didn't avert our eyes from the bare-bones model.

We found controls to be straightforward and the interior to be somewhat more conservative than what we were expecting from a car with such a distinctive wrapper. In base models, the color scheme goes for grays and charcoals, with plastics that look and feel better than the outgoing model's, but not by much. That's a shame, as some competitors have both more solid-feeling interiors and higher-quality materials. But seeing as though the 2013 Altima's goal is to knock the Toyota Camry off the top of the mountain, we can report that the Nissan's interior quality feels better than its Kentucky-built rival's.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Stepping up to the V-6-powered Altima 3.5 SL, we expected some better materials. The plastics largely remained the same, but the car's beige color scheme certainly brightened up the downtrodden look. The seats came with the same ergonomically correct NASA-engineered "zero-gravity" foam underneath, but the uplevel model featured seat heaters and perforated leather.

In back, the newly raised rear seat makes it easier for even tall passengers to sit comfortably, showing that some small tweaks in packaging can make a car's usable interior space among the best in its class. Hopping from car to car, we came to appreciate the premium technology features available at each price, acknowledging that even a roughly $32,305 Altima 3.5 SL was a pretty good deal. But even in its most basic trim level, we still didn't mind the overall look, with fewer features and a rubberized steering wheel instead of the leather one that comes in all but the base, 2.5 S, and 3.5 S models. For basic transportation, the pedestrian Altima excelled at its job. We just wish the $10,000 pricier version had a little more of a "wow" factor to it.

Driving

Nissan plotted out a route in Lynchburg, Tennessee's twisty back roads, prompting us to see just what the car could do. While steering feel was generally good thanks to a new power assist system that emphasizes steering "feel," the 2013 Nissan Altima's tires didn't prove as capable during our loop. Using low rolling resistance tires in both standard 16-, or upgraded 17- or 18-inch wheel and tire packages, the Altima squealed around twists in the road. And while quiet through most of our driving, the Altima could have used better sound deadening on the coarser roads, as noise could more readily be heard than in some of the Altima's competitors, which Nissan brought for comparison.

However, with Nissan's trick handling controlsand shock absorbers designed by German outfit ZF--the company that designs many of BMW's technologies--the Altima felt plenty competent in emergency handling situations. It just didn't sound like it. Nissan said it targeted Audis and BMWs for handling prowess; a set of tires that didn't whine like a child having to go to bed early would have completed the package.

While the low rolling-resistance tires on the 2013 Altima were our least-favorite part of the car, they helped make one of our favorite parts of it possible: fuel economy. In a 3,200-pound sedan, we were a little skeptical of Nissan's 38-mpg claim. But it didn't take long for it to make--and surpass--that number, thanks to a revised continuously variable automatic transmission. With a CVT, there is no feeling of the car changing gears; it just builds speed while engine revs remain constant. Although somewhat disconcerting at first, the Altima's lack of "shift shock" makes you think you're going a lot slower than you are until you look down at the speedometer.

Nissan says 90 percent of buyers will select the car's four-cylinder powerplant, and we don't blame anyone who does. The engine works perfectly with the transmission setup. On paper, it looks like it's lacking in horsepower versus many of its rivals, but its gearing and light weight allow it to out-accelerate its competition. And those numbers are pretty compelling in a world of ever-faster cars and ever-increasing gas prices.

Summary

Looking at the 2013 Nissan Altima next to a previous-year model, it's impossible to say that one is appreciably better than the other without a second thought. They share the same dimensions, drive mostly the same, and have the same sort of feel. But Nissan didn't set out to revolutionize the midsize sedan segment; it set out to take a good sedan and give it enough gusto to make a case for why customers should pick it over the Camrys and Accords of the world.

Nissan didn't pick one major issue to address, partly because the Altima was already pretty good overall. Instead, it picked many, many little ones, including better engine efficiency, more technology integration, more comfortable seats, and some better interior materials. Together, it adds up to be a markedly better sedan than the one it replaces.

The Altima is never going to set the world on fire, but when you realize that Nissan is designing it to go straight for the heart of the market, it's a very good package for the money. And it should serve notice to establishment players like the Camry and Honda Accord that the Altima can no longer be simply looked at as a budget player, as it comes with more features than most of its competitors and a price tag on par with Toyota's and Honda's.

We got behind the wheel of the best-equipped and most spartan versions to see what all the Altima comes with at each price point. We're confident in saying that if we had to pick a version of the Altima for a daily driver, neither car would get our nod; that honor would go to the volume-selling Altima 2.5 S and SV models. When that chance comes, you can be sure we'll bring along the class' top-sellers to compare and see if the Nissan has what it takes to win over family sedan shoppers.

Basic Specs

Altima 2.5: 2.5-liter inline-4, continuously variable automatic transmission, front-wheel drive, 182-hp, $22,280, 27 mpg city/38 mpg hwy
Altima 3.5 SL: 3.5-liter V-6, continuously variable automatic transmission, front-wheel drive, 270-hp, $30,860, 22 mpg city/30 mpg hwy

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