2013 Nissan Altima First Test Drive
Parents who like to drive and want a fun family sedan naturally consider the Nissan Altima when shopping for a new family car because the Altima is widely believed to be the sporty alternative to the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry. A decade ago, when the 2002 Altima virtually redefined the midsize sedan segment with impressive performance, upscale and appealing design, and a roomy interior, it was the most stylish and entertaining four-door in its class. Today, that’s no longer the case. With the redesigned 2013 Altima, Nissan intends to do something about that.
THE ALTIMA REFRESHER COURSE
Earlier this year, we posted a comprehensive 2013 Altima preview, as well as a follow-up post letting people know that Altima buyers willing to pre-order their car would get a free three-year/45,000-mile maintenance plan.
To briefly review, the new Altima is sold with a new 182-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine (Altima 2.5) or a carryover 270-horse 3.5-liter V6 (Altima 3.5), each connected to a continuously variable transmission (CVT) driving the front wheels. Most Altimas shipped to dealers will have S, SV and SL trim designations. The Altima 2.5 is also available in a stripped-down base variant, but finding one of these outside of a rental car lot should prove difficult.
The Altima Coupe carries over from last year, and Nissan declined to answer questions about whether a new two-door version of the redesigned Altima would go on sale for 2014. Company spokespeople did, however, confirm that Nissan is working on a gas/electric hybrid version of the Altima Sedan.
A key goal with the Altima Sedan’s redesign was to make the car look and feel more upscale than a typical midsize four-door. From its exterior styling and upgraded interior materials to its NASA-inspired “zero-gravity” seat designs and new technology features, the new 2013 Altima has most of what it will take to retain its status as one of the best-selling models in the country.
However, there’s nothing like putting your hands on the final product to determine if what looks good on paper feels good on the road, so we went to Nissan HQ near Nashville, Tennessee, to see if the new Altima has what it takes to battle a diverse field of capable competitors.
2013 ALTIMA 2.5 S TEST DRIVE IMPRESSIONS
We started our day in an Altima 2.5 S, the affordable model with cloth seats and 16-inch steel wheels with plastic wheel covers. Within minutes of setting off from Nissan’s North American headquarters building, three things were instantly apparent about the new 2013 Altima.
First, this car is quiet inside. Nissan claims an interior noise reduction of 30 percent thanks to new sound absorption materials, and we believe it.
Second, the CVT, which contains a slew of new parts as well as modified ratios, is dramatically refined in terms of improved response, reduced friction, and muffled sound. You can still hear it droning away, but you barely notice it under normal acceleration. Stab the go-pedal, and the CVT’s bleating gets more obnoxious as revs climb and then peg themselves at about five grand. Shift the gear selector into Sport mode, and simulated “gears” make the car sound more natural.
Third, the electro/hydraulic steering offers excellent heft, response, and even road feel. While electric steering systems have been getting better in recent years, almost all of them exhibit hints of ghosts in the machine. This is not an issue with the Altima.
While sashaying our way to the Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg, winding across central Tennessee’s lush spring landscape, the Altima rode and handled perfectly, exhibiting balance, poise, and grace. This car is not a sports sedan, but it is rewarding to drive, the 2.5 S model limited in terms of athleticism only by its undersized all-season tires.
In combination with the revamped CVT, the 182-horsepower four-cylinder offers lively acceleration. In fact, in independent testing conducted by AMCI, the Altima 2.5 accelerated from zero to 60 mph in less than 7.2 seconds. That’s not fast by today’s standards, but it is brisk. And considering that we averaged 32.2 mpg during our trip over hills and down dales, it’s a number most people will be happy to live with.
2013 NISSAN ALTIMA 3.5 SL TEST DRIVE IMPRESSIONS
After a lunch of authentic Southern barbecue, we jumped into an Altima 3.5 SL for the ride back to Nashville. The added weight of the VQ-series V6 engine over the front wheels was instantly apparent through the steering, which felt much heavier at low speeds. The larger engine’s installation also limited the Altima’s turning radius, which could be a liability in tight parking quarters.
Back out on the writhing rural roads of central Tennessee, the Altima 3.5 SL displayed the quicker acceleration and more refined power delivery expected of a V6, and Nissan’s award-winning VQ-series engine in particular. Despite the extra weight over the front wheels, the Altima 3.5 attacked curves with tenacity, the superior grip from its handsome 18-inch wheels and more aggressive tires in plain evidence.
As with the Altima 2.5, the CVT tends to drone when accelerating hard. Shifting into Sport mode helps in this regard, and when paired with the V6 engine, the CVT offers paddle shifters for manual control over the transmission’s ratios. We spent most of our time driving with the transmission selector in Sport, and got 25.2 mpg on rural two-lane roads.
The 3.5 SL’s suspension also felt a bit better buttoned down, but that could also have been the lower-profile sidewalls talking. In any case, as entertaining as it is to drive, the Altima 3.5 is best characterized as a sporty sedan rather than an outright sport sedan. We’ll need to get one out on our regular Southern California test loop before making any changes in that judgment.
We also need to punish the new Altima’s brakes when we get a chance to run the car across the Santa Monica Mountains. In Tennessee, we determined that the brake pedal responds instantly to input and feels good underfoot, but driving speeds and conditions didn’t require severe use, so we cannot comment on their propensity to fade, if any, when the car is driven con brio.
ALTIMA’S NEW INTERIOR IMPRESSES. MOSTLY
In designing the new Altima’s interior, Nissan wanted to create a “class above” experience for the driver and passengers. To that end, the company elected to employ soft-touch materials where people are most likely to come into contact with the cabin: upper door panels, door armrests, center armrests, the center of the dashboard, and where rear-seat passengers might rub their shins at the bottom of the front seats.
The new Altima also has “zero-gravity” seat designs, which incorporate NASA research to provide the best possible comfort and support. We sat in the new Altima for a total of four hours over 200 miles, and we can confirm that this is an exceptionally comfortable car. That compliment extends to the rear seat, too, where passengers sit on a tall, supportive bench with plenty of room for legs and feet.
For 2013, Nissan adds a number of new standard and available technologies to the Altima. All except the bare-bones Altima 2.5 are equipped with Bluetooth hands-free calling and music streaming. New Nissan Connect technology is available on the SV and standard on the SL models, providing smartphone integration and, depending on your device, access to Pandora radio and the ability to read incoming text messages and convert spoken replies into text.
The new Altima hasn’t been crash-tested yet. Until those ratings are available, we can only discuss what comes standard, what is available, and what is missing from the 2013 Altima.
Every model includes six airbags, traction and stability control, and antilock brakes. A reversing camera is available on the SV and SL models, but buyers must upgrade to the SL if they want to be able to pay extra for a blind-spot warning system, a lane departure warning system, and a rear Moving Object Detection system. We think these features ought to be available on the SV model, at a minimum.
The Altima also lacks a system similar to Ford Sync and MyKey, GM OnStar, and Hyundai Blue Link. Each of those systems provides some kind of automatic collision notification and SOS emergency assist service, while MyKey and Blue Link also offer programmable safety features that parents of teenagers can appreciate, like speed limits and alerts, inability to defeat the stability control system, geographic boundary fencing, curfew alerts, and more.
If there’s a major flaw with the 2013 Nissan Altima, aside from an uncompetitive basic warranty, doors that sound cheap and flimsy when they’re slammed, and a missing close assist grip for the inside of the trunk lid, it’s this lack of increasingly common technology.
SPEEDY DADDY SAYS…
Though we think Nissan needs to do a better job in terms of making modern safety features more accessible on the Altima, and while there are a few details that require additional consideration, there’s no question that the new 2013 Altima is a stylish family sedan that’s comfortable, fun to drive, and fuel efficient.
– Christian Wardlaw