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2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL: Driven

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The last-generation (2007-2012) Nissan Altima, in V-6 form, was surprisingly sporty and satisfying to drive. But it tended to feel a bit too athletic—in the form of a very firm ride, and a little more cabin noise and harshness than most buyers probably wanted.

In its latest version, which was introduced this past year, the 2013 Altima got a bit of a personality change. It's noticeably more mellow and settled than its predecessor. But while this transformation works well for the four-cylinder models, we wondered whether in top V-6 form it would still be the delight that the previous version was.

The V-6 you get is a strong, smooth variation of the familiar Nissan VQ engine, displacing 3.5 liters here and developing 270 horsepower and 251 pound-feet of torque. And it's mated to the latest wide-ratio-spread version of Nissan's continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). Both the horsepower and torque peaks are in the upper reaches (6,000 rpm and 4,400 rpm, respectively), so it helps that this combination quickly reacts to your right foot, bringing up revs only when they're needed and keeping them low for fuel economy and quiet when they're not.

An easygoing powertrain that's also very quick

And it really is a quick, easygoing powertrain; even in what I would consider to be quite rapid acceleration (say taking about ten seconds to 60 mph) you can keep the revs around the 3,000-rpm mark. Keep your right foot buried and the Altima V-6 can get to 60 in about six seconds.

The Altima has a great, compliant ride, and steering that can feel almost disconcertingly light at first. But take the V-6 model out for a workout and you'll find that it's not entirely a softy. There's not much feel of the road, and the steering gains weighting in seemingly sudden increments (odd for an electrohydraulic setup, which Mazda does so well), but given that it's all you need, precise on high-speed sweepers or predictable and reassuring on low-speed hairpins. Yes, there's more give and compliance in the suspension—with more body motion and 'roll' in general in back-and-forth corners—but the Sachs twin-tube dampers that have been subbed in with the new setup have a role in giving a surprising level of reassurance as you push harder.

One of the issues we found with the CVT is that, in Drive, it offers virtually no engine braking. Lift off the gas on a highway downgrade, and the Altima is likely to maintain its current speed or even increase it. In fact, we were surprised to see that the cruise control in the Altima won't command a lower ratio from the transmission to help moderate downhill speed, as in many other vehicle. Clicking the shift lever back to D Sport doesn't help much—until you click the left shift paddle and select '4' or '5'.

That conservative tuning to the transmission pays off in mileage that's top-notch for a V-6—and honestly better than we'd see in similar driving than some competing models with turbo fours. Over 320 miles of driving, with all but about 40 of it on the highway, in a mix of cruising on the Interstate with the cruise control and being a little more spirited on hilly two-laners, we saw nearly 31 mpg overall—meeting the EPA highway rating.


 
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