Monday, January 7, 2013

Nissan Altima - All New to Fight for Market Share

The midsize sedan market is a hot place in the car business. Lots of people want the ability to carry five people in comfort, with decent trunk space and enough maneuverability to park without trauma. If they don't crave a trendy crossover or a workhorse SUV, and aren't seeking a super-economical commutermobile, what better than a Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata or Nissan Altima?

The Altima debuted in 1993 as a sedan that was situated right between a compact and midsize car. Lately, it's grown to take its place as a true contender in the midsize battle for buyers. The fifth-generation 2013 model is all-new from arrowhead headlamp to exuberant taillamp.

The car stands out with some surprising curves and edges. The front fenders have a rising wave that begins at the corner of the headlamp and then heads gradually upward to the tail. The chrome-rimmed grille looks forceably pushed in by the pointed headlights. The sides bend in and out like the much esteemed BMWs--but do it in their own way.

A few years ago, it felt like Nissan interiors were using cheaper plastic and their designs seemed a little quirky. Today, they manifest more like the ones found in Infinitis. The surfaces roll and weave across each other, with handsome silvery insets, bullnosed corners, and rich textures. From the forward-angled door grips to the rise and fall of the dash panels, there's constant motion in there--even when the car's stopped at a light.

As a commuter, I was especially impressed with the seating. Apparently, Nissan consulted with NASA engineers to design a seat that supports the body as if it's in zero gravity. NASA's seating and posture research helped set a neutral position that eases tension on long trips. And there's no 17,000-mph reentry to worry about!

In the middle of the handsome and straightforwardly laid out instrument panel is the Advanced Drive-Assist Display. Nissan is proud of how this presentation of information is closer than normal displays that sit on the center console and claim that the three-dimensional effect is restful on the eyes--it's kind of amusing, too. You can customize the information that's there to display fuel economy figures, individual tire pressure, navigation data and more.

The new Altima comes in roomy sedan or rakishly proportioned coupe shapes. Typical for the midsize segment, it offers four- and six-cylinder engines. The 2.5-liter four is 11 pounds lighter this year and gains seven horsepower, now offering 182 along with 180 lb.-ft. of torque. Most important for economy enthusiasts, it is rated at 38 mpg Highway by the EPA.

My tester, in a warm Java Metallic (brown) shade, had the mightier 3.5-liter V6. Nissan's sixes have been potent and award-winning for a long time and this one was no exception. While I hardly raced the 3,355-pound vehicle around, it felt more than able to take on anything I gave it. It boasts 270 horsepower and 251 lb.-ft. of torque--much more than its weaker sibling (although it weighs more than 200 pounds more than the 2.5-liter-equipped car). With EPA numbers of 22 City and 31 Highway (Average 25) it rates where some compact sedans do. My actual mileage was a realistic 24.5 mpg.

Between these engines and the four wheels you'll get a continuously-variable automatic transmission (CVT). Sorry--no manual. There are just too few takers to offer you one. However, Nissan has developed some fine CVTs and uses them throughout its lineup. And, the six-cylinder version has steering-wheel mounted blade-like paddles, so you can shift through some "gear ratios" if you want a sportier drive. Nissan has sold nine million cars equipped with CVTs over the last two decades. This Next-generation Xtronic CVT has 70 percent revised parts and has cut out weight with a smaller oil pump and other efficiency measures.

CVTs use belts and pulleys to create an infinite number of gear rations--and their computer programs pick the best ratio for the moment. This creates both improved fuel economy and some odd sounds from under the hood--when you can even hear them.

Many cars are moving to electric power steering these days to save hydraulic drain on the engine and remove weight. The Altima's new Electronic Hydraulic Power-Assisted Steering system claims to give you the advantages of both--a smoother feel with better fuel economy. Clever engineering makes it all work, and there is an abundance of it in the new Altima.

There's much more to enjoy, including a fine nine-speaker Bose audio system. It was so good that my wife complained about the following test car, which really did pale in comparison.

You can buy an Altima sedan in four levels. The base car comes with the 2.5-liter engine and a plain designation of "just Altima." Above that, each engine is available in the "S," "SV" or "SL." My tester was the top-level SL, which surely explained all the fancy goodies it contained. Leather seats always convey luxury, and the leather-wrapped steering wheel was heated, too. Dual-zone climate control is common today, but  you won't get it in the lesser levels.

However, the base car is kind of a deal. It runs just $22,550, but you'll probably want to move up a bit for more features. The mid-level SV with the four-cylinder engine should be a popular choice, and it starts at $25,250. My SL, with no extra options, came to $31,045. All prices include shipping.

Like so many Japanese-brand vehicles, the Altima is made in America, in this case, Smyrna, Tennessee. That means that lots of Americans are busy assembling cars in what has turned out to be a pretty good sales year in 2012.

The Altima isn't thrilling, but it is very nice, and will without a doubt deliver more than you need for as long as you own it. And with bounteous rear seat room, every passenger will feel well treated. The other brands' dealers are not going to like this.

No comments: