2014 Nissan Altima SL Road Test

How much better can two years' improvement make a car? A lot.

What It Is
Nissan's midsize family sedan, aimed right at the heart of the market.
Best Thing
It's vastly quieter than the last 2012 and 2013 models we drove.
Worst Thing
Some interior plastics are still cheap, infotainment system has plenty of glare.
Snap Judgment
There's a reason why the Altima is now neck and neck with the Accord and Camry on the sales chart.


The last time we drove a Nissan Altima of this generation was a 2013 model that was featured in a comparison along with the pre-refreshed 2013 Chevrolet Malibu, the Toyota Camry, the Ford Fusion, and the eventual winner, the 2013 Honda Accord.

Having the cars for two weeks back to back lent itself to a few key observations, especially about our fourth-place finisher: While an able-handling car, the Altima was much louder inside than the quietest Malibu and its interior materials were a bit chintzy. Nevermind the fact that it was redesigned for 2012, we saw a quick blurb that the 2014 model had a refreshed interior and more sound deadening. It was all we needed to drag the car back to our office for a week to see what black magic Nissan had performed.

We're glad we did.

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What We Drove

Coming in at around $23,000, the 2014 Nissan Altima is a perfectly reasonable family sedan for perfectly reasonable people. All Altima models come with power windows, power door locks, Bluetooth, and even an easy-fill tire-pressure alert system that will automatically honk the horn when it senses the car has enough pressure in its tires. Never again will you have to fidget around with that little pen-like gauge that so often falls between your seats as you pull it out of your glovebox.

But ours wasn't a base-model; it was a loaded-up four-cylinder Altima 2.5 SL, which comes with a 7.0-inch navigation display, Bose audio system, leather, sunroof, fog lights, aluminum wheels, SiriusXM radio, automatic headlights, and a long list of other features. Part of that list includes a $1,090 Technology package that also comes with blind spot warning, lane departure warning, and moving object detection.

Despite having $8,000 in options, the car we drove featured the volume-selling 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 182 horsepower that comes in all standard-level Altimas. Optional is a 270-horsepower V-6; both come paired to a continuously variable automatic transmission.

Picking an engine comes down to needs versus wants. The 2.5-liter engine may be slower, but it is rated at 27 mpg city/38 mpg highway, it's far better than the V-6's 22 mpg city/31 mpg highway. Believe it or not, the four-banger is all you really need in such a large car, mainly because the Altima weighs a relatively svelte 3,230 pounds.

The Commute

Nissan touts what it calls "zero-gravity" foam in its seats, developed by NASA, as a solution to ward off fatigue induced by long drives. If you're a skeptic of Nissan's marketing, all you have to do is sit in an evening's worth of stop-and-go traffic to get an appreciation for the work that went into them. They're not cardboard-stiff like the Toyota Camry's seats, nor are they as narrow and overly bolstered like the Mazda6's. We'd go as far as to say that Nissan's seats are among the more comfortable ones we've experienced recently.

In fact, the whole drive in the 2014 Nissan Altima was ultimately more satisfying than we last remembered it. Nissan took criticism of its interior materials and lack of sound deadening from the 2012 model to heart and corrected those foibles for 2014. Smoother, quieter, and with fewer loosely screwed-down plastics throughout the interior, The 2014 Nissan Altima feels like a far more complete car than the one we last sampled. Add to that a sweet-sounding Bose stereo with both USB and auxiliary hookups for MP3 players, and it made meandering through traffic a painless process. The only problem we had with the whole process was syncing the NissanConnect phone app with the car, which would have allowed us more integrated features like Facebook, SiriusXM Traffic, Yelp, and iHeartRadio through the infotainment screen. Alas, what should have been a plug-and-play process turned into a predicament, so we proceeded without such programs.

Pity.

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The Grocery Run

Nissan has always touted that the Altima is among the sportier cars in its class. Let us be among the group of critics that says, "Eh, not really." Although its steering is light and progressive, it's utterly devoid of feeling. This is not going to be a car that a driver rushes around a racetrack. But then again, none of its competitors are, either, with perhaps the exception of the 2014 Mazda6.

Instead, what you have here is exactly what the Toyota Camry has always been, only better: A comfortable, worry-free car that's meant to take a family wherever it may need to go with aplomb.

One place that light steering pays dividends is with parking lot navigation, making the car to pull in and out of spaces. Moving object detection keeps backing out as easy as can be, but we wish the resolution on the Altima's 7-inch camera display were a bit clearer, possibly adding the Around View monitor that's in the much cheaper Nissan Versa.

Trunk space is ample at 15.4 cubic feet, and ours was lined with an optional plush mat that comes as part of a $185 floor mat package. We just wish the trunk lid above it felt more robust, as it swung up quickly and felt insubstantial. Details can make all the difference, even when shopping for mainstream sedans.

The Weekend Fun

Without the urge to head to our favorite twisty mountain roads, we resolved that our time with the Altima would best be spent on highways and stop-and-go traffic. Not particularly exciting, we used our time at traffic lights to check out the Altima's ambience in greater detail.

Offering similar space to the Accord and Camry, the Altima has played viola to its rivals' first and second fiddles so long because of the details. The Altima plays up a level of simplicity that the Accord no longer caters to, and it offers a sense of style that traditional Camry shoppers couldn't care less about. The Altima's nav screen is a little lower on the dashboard, making it prone to glares, and its graphics aren't as sophisticated as the Accord's. The car does with a continuously variable automatic transmission that's perfectly pleasant once you get past the initial "rubber band" feel often associated with CVTs.

But, going back and forth, the Altima proved more comfortable than either of its top rivals for some surprising reasons. Its seats are more comfortable than both the Honda's and Toyota's, and its uncluttered dashboard was easy to use while driving. Add to that how much quieter it is compared to where it used to be—dare we say it, compared to the Accord and Camry even—and it seems Nissan might have struck a chord with just what ought to sell to the massive mainstream market.

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Summary

Don't get us wrong, the Altima isn't perfect. Some interior details like its plasticky dashboard top still come off as cheap-feeling. And while we're not fans of nearly $40,000 midsize sedans—the Altima tops out at well under $34,000 with the V-6 engine and everything you could ever need—we think some upscale touches and interior details that some rivals offer at that price point would help shed the Altima's somewhat bland image. Without some of the tech available in rivals like forward collision warning, the Altima won't even qualify for the IIHS's 2014 Top Safety Pick+ designation.

Nevertheless, the Nissan Altima has entered the third month of 2014 as the top-seller in the midsize sedan segment. That's no accident. Continuously updating its family sedan, Nissan has made what was a decent car with a mediocre interior into one that doesn't quite stand out in any one category but offers a compelling combination that takes the best cues from the segment's big names and tweaks them ever so slightly. Because of that, the 2014 Nissan Altima is no longer a sedan you have to settle with because Nissan offers better financing plans than Honda or Toyota. The 2014 model is legitimately a sedan that anyone looking for a family-sized five-passenger sedan ought to consider.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $30,920
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 27 mpg
EPA Highway: 38 mpg
EPA Combined: 31 mpg
Cargo Space: 15.4 cubic feet Child Seat Fitment, Second Row: Excellent
Estimated Combined Range: 558 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Average

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