Nissan Altima Vs. Volkswagen PassatEnlarge Photo
Family-sedan shoppers no longer have just a few choices; these days it's not just a Camry-versus-Accord world. Look to the latest Sonata, Optima, Fusion, Malibu, Legacy, and 6, and you'll see a full slate of serious contenders, all with slightly different personalities.
Two of the newest mid-size sedans, the Nissan Altima and Volkswagen Passat, promise excellent fuel economy to go with completely revamped style and features. How do they stack up?
The answer is that it's a close race, and depending on how highly you value miles per gallon and spare design, it could go the other way. By our numeric ratings, the Altima ekes out a win--narrowly--thanks to its superior base drivetrain and more widespread luxury features, though the Passat's optional diesel, its immense back seat, and its excellent safety scores bring it within a few tenths of its Tennessee-built neighbor.
The Altima's sleek looks mimic those of the more expensive Infiniti range, and the interior's never looked so refined, or been so quiet. The Passat? It's very spare and neatly organized, if a little plain to some. It promises a timeless appeal, and it leaves unnecessary detail off its fenders and its dash to that end.
Nissan's four-cylinder engine is smooth and powerful enough in the new Altima, and though the continuously variable transmission isn't a favorite, it's been thoroughly re-engineered. It doesn't seem sluggish to respond any more--and that helps the base Altima deliver an EPA-rated 38 mpg highway with reasonably spirited performance. The Passat's standard five-cylinder engine is adequate for acceleration, more rumbly and less refined than a four-cylinder like the one in the Altima, so we recommend a step up to the turbodiesel Passat TDI, which carries a significant price premium over the base car. You'll spend a few thousand more for the excellent powertrain, but you'll be rewarded with 43-mpg highway economy. Both the Altima and Passat offer an optional V-6 that many mainstream shoppers will pass on, since the high-economy models are so good.
Both the Altima and Passat have good handling for the class. The Passat's much more firm in steering feel and ride damping; the Altima's softened up a lot with this redesign, but it's still one of the more precise-handling sedans in the segment.
Comfort and quality in either four-door are excellent. The Passat's firm seats come in synthetic leather or cloth, and interior room is vast, in front or back, with or without the available sunroof. The Altima's a bit smaller but still quite spacious; its front seats are the best we've tried in family cars, and the rear bench has good support, too. The high quality of materials in the Altima gets our nod over the nicely fitted Passat, primarily because the extra sound damping in the Nissan makes it much quieter at speed.
Both models get Top Safety Pick+ status—ranking them in the top tier from the IIHS and achieving top 'good' scores in all area, except the new small overlap frontal impact test, where they both are rated 'acceptable.'
The Altima outranks the Passat for convenience and luxury features, too. Bluetooth is standard, with audio streaming and voice-to-text translation. A USB port and satellite radio are available, and so is a new navigation system with a larger LCD touchscreen. The Passat offers many of those features, but is packaged in such a way that some buyers may feel underserved. Want a base Passat TDI with cloth seats, satellite radio and a USB port? It doesn't exist.