2012 Nissan Altima Review

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Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
August 12, 2011

The 2012 Nissan Altima isn't as roomy as the newest mid-offerings, but as a coupe or as a sedan, it's one of the best-looking and most sporty mid-sizers.

Over the past decade, the Nissan Altima has found a niche for itself as one of the better-selling mid-size family cars. It's not quite the sales titan that is the Toyota Camry, or the Honda Accord, but like the Ford Fusion, the Altima is a steady, strong seller in a field overcrowded with great sedans and coupes, a new one taking aim on the segment every year.

The Altima cuts a distinct profile, one of the assets it has in the win column as it reaches the midpoint of its life cycle. The four-door sedan and two-door coupe strike us as two of the better-looking mid-sizers. There's a simplicity to its profile, and just a few well-rendered details to highlight its athletic stance. The two-door's as close as you can get to a mock Infiniti G37, with some of the same proportions and guidelines. Both versions have an uncluttered cabin that's easy to read and helm, even if some of the plastics look a little more drab than the ones in the Accord or the Sonata.

The Altima's four-cylinder engines are fine, competitive starting points for acceleration and fuel economy, and Nissan still offers a manual transmission for the shrinking set of buyers who want to shift it themselves in this class. Normally we'd prefer the automatic for cars such as these, but instead of a stepped-gear transmission, the Altima has a CVT. It's more responsive than the ones in Nissan's past, and the ones we've sampled from other brands, but the CVT tends to amplify the engine noise from both the four-cylinder and the very powerful, 270-hp V-6, while it doesn't quite zip with the ratio-to-ratio changes of a good automatic. Still, the Altima with a V-6 is strikingly fast, and its handling is a cut above most of its competitors, with the ride going a little pitchy in the shorter-wheelbase coupe.

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A gimmick-free interior keeps the Altima looking fresh inside. In terms of raw available space, it's somewhere between the vastness of the current Accord and the new VW Passat, but larger than the Fusion. Rear headroom can be an issue in the sedan, and space is cramped in the two-door in most directions; tall drivers will have to adopt a lean-back driving position if they opt for the sunroof.

Every Altima comes with pushbutton start--whether you want it or not--and air conditioning, power windows/locks/mirrors, and intermittent wipers. On SR models, a power driver seat and woodgrain trim are standard. Options range from a moonroof, a navigation system, Bluetooth, satellite radio, and leather seating. Those features pile on Infiniti-like luxury in the more mainstream Altima, and can drive its sticker price to more than $32,000. Our advice: stick with the cleanly styled, swell-handling versions with fewer luxury features for maximum value.

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2012 Nissan Altima

Styling

The 2012 Nissan Altima still is quite handsome, years after its introduction; the Altima Coupe can pass as a sports coupe in some crowds, but it's still fairly tame in detail.

Today's Altima isn't the freshest mid-size sedan for styling, but after three years on the market, it still has an athletic, purposeful look that's relatively uncluttered, too.

Most of the Altima's competition--the Chevy Malibu, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, and Kia Optima—have gone through major model changes since the Altima was new in the 2008 model year. But the Nissan sedan still looks good in comparison. There's a simplicity to its racy profile that's given it longevity. Unlike some competitors, the Altima doesn't strike us as overwrought, though it's more engaging and interesting to look at than, say, the 2012 Volkswagen Passat.

We'd say the same of the interior. The Altima's dash and instrument panel lines are simple and straightforward, yet sophisticated and a little sporty. In some of the interior colors offered, it can come across as a bit drab, and black in particular picks up the differences among the types of plastic used on the dash cap, door panels and console trim. Bright trim on the dash and bezels on the instruments spice it up somewhat, though.

The two-door coupe still has a narrower appeal to us. When it first bowed, we noted how some of its styling cues--especially from the rear quarters--picked up hints of the old Chevy Monte Carlo. It's not quite so awkward, but it's also not as sleek as Nissan's own 370Z and Infiniti G37 coupes, admittedly some of the best-looking two-doors in the nearby price strata. There's nothing wrong with the Altima coupe, in the same way there's nothing wrong with the looks of the Honda Accord two-door or the old Toyota Camry Solara--and there's also nothing quite exceptional.

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2012 Nissan Altima

Performance

Whether a coupe or a sedan, four- or six-cylinder, the 2012 Nissan Altima should satisfy most performance needs with affordability and efficiency.

Across the Altima lineup of two- and four-doors, Nissan ponies up a choice of a four-cylinder or V-6 engine. Most commuters will be well served by the frugal four, but if you just can't tame your enthusiast streak, the available six-cylinder beats some luxury cars in the 0-60 mph game.

The base 2.5-liter four turns out 175 horsepower, and is a competent performer with either the six-speed manual transmission--a combo offered only in the coupe--or with the continuously variable transmission. The four-cylinder won't let you down in passing response or pulling away from stoplights, though it runs out of motivation once you're cruising near legal speed limits. 

With the 3.5-liter V-6, it's another personality entirely. The strong pulling power of the 270-hp six makes for an engaging ride. The well-regarded engine feels refined and strong, in both coupe and sedan bodies, with maybe a little too much torque to launch the car smoothly. We've seen estimates of less than 6.0 seconds in the 0-60 mph run, and it's quite believable, especially in the V-6 coupe.

The coupe offers the only manual-shift option, and it's strictly for diehards who'd really rather have a BMW 3-Series. The clutch action is tuned properly, but the shift lever throw is a bit long. Taller drivers that have to lean back to even fit in the coupe will find the lever action means a fully extended arm.

The CVT is far more common, and it's one of the better executions we've driven. CVTs use belts and pulleys to provide near-infinite drive ratios, instead of the fixed gear ratios of a conventional automatic. They tend to exacerbate engine noise, since they reach and hold certain engine speeds where automatics will upshift or downshift, and can have a rubbery, laggy feel. Nissan's unit responds more quickly, and doesn't have too much of the rubber-band feel we've experienced in other CVTs. It dulls the V-6's brilliant power, while it tends to amplify its substantial noise and vibration.

Nissan has a winner in the Altima's handling. It still relies on a conventional hydraulic steering system, a good thing if you're not VW or Ford. The natural feedback from the rack and its slight heft match up well with the Altima's tauter ride quality. There's more driving feedback here than in almost anything else in the class save for the Ford Fusion.

Through last model year, Nissan offered an Altima Hybrid, with gas-electric technology licensed from Toyota. The Hybrid model did not return for the 2012 model year, as Nissan focuses its energy on its all-electric Leaf hatchback.
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2012 Nissan Altima

Comfort & Quality

Rear-seat head room isn't excessive, but the 2012 Nissan Altima has an appealingly straightforward cabin and trunk.

While it's not the largest of the mid-size sedans--or as big as the Honda Accord, which is EPA-classified as a large car--the 2012 Nissan Altima has a functionally fine cabin and competitive trunk space, at least in sedan form.

The gimmick-free Altima interior is a little drab, what with the mix of plastics across the dash, the center stack and the door panels. But the front passengers should find enough head and leg room in the sedan, at least. The coupe version cuts down on those measurements significantly; opt for a sunroof in the two-door, and taller drivers will struggle to sit upright and still clear the headliner.

Even as a sedan, the Altima could prove tight for taller adults in the back seat, though leg and shoulder room are competitive. Trunk space is plentiful, too, with split-folding rear seats that don't fold quite flat, but make more space available for cargo. Coupes, as you can expect, give up lots of useful space for that distinctive look, and head room is scarce in back. So are entry and exit.

In-car storage is fine--the glovebox is huge, and the center console is usefully deep. On either the sedan or coupe, the Altima has nicely laid out controls with a bit of sportscar dash in their look, with just a bit of inexpensive feel to them and to the plastic trim.

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2012 Nissan Altima

Safety

The 2012 Nissan Altima falls short on roof-crush strength, but safety features and other scores are competitive.

The 2012 Nissan Altima falls a bit short in safety scores in a class of overachievers. By the official numbers, there are better choices for shoppers especially concerned with safety in their mid-size sedan.

Both the Altima sedan and coupe earn "good" ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) in front- and side-impact crash tests, but they rate only "acceptable" for rear impacts and for roof strength.

In the newly revised testing performed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), introduced for 2011, the Altima sedan earns four stars overall, including four stars in frontal impact and five stars for side protection. The coupe has not yet been rated.

Front, side, and curtain airbags are all standard across the Altima lineup. So are electronic stability control and anti-lock brakes, along with active head restraints that should help reduce the chance of whiplash. A rearview camera is available, but its vision of the world behind you is displayed on a smaller 4.3-inch LCD screen, versus the larger screens you'd find on vehicles like the Fusion, Optima and Sonata. Blind-spot warning systems are not available on the Altima.

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2012 Nissan Altima

Features

It's easy to load up a 2012 Nissan Altima to more than $30,000, but value-priced versions have good standard features.

Even in base Altima S form, Nissan's mid-size sedan comes with more features than you might expect--and with the SR badge on pricey versions, you'll get even more equipment that wouldn't seem shy on some Infinitis.

Every Altima includes pushbutton start; a CD player with six speakers; power locks, windows and mirrors; and cruise control. Moving up to the Altima SR coupe or sedan, you'll add on Bluetooth, woodgrain trim and a power driver seat.

Option packages can drive the Altima's price past $32,000. The Sport Package adds on a moonroof; a rear spoiler; and high-intensity discharge headlamps. The Technology package bundles a navigation system teamed with a music-and-data hard drive; Bluetooth with streaming audio; a rearview camera; and real-time weather and traffic. Lastly there's a Premium package with leather seats with heating; ambient lighting; and a garage door opener.

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2012 Nissan Altima

Fuel Economy

The 2012 Nissan Altima can't depend on the Hybrid anymore to lift its average fuel economy.

Now that the Nissan Altima has lost its Hybrid model, its fuel economy is just average for the class--despite its use of continuously variable transmissions.

Four-cylinder versions are the most efficient. In either coupe or sedan form, the Altima with the smaller engine and the CVT earns an EPA-rated 23/32 mpg. In the coupe, the four-cylinder Altima with a six-speed manual transmission checks in at a slightly lower 23/31 mpg.

Moving up to the V-6 versions, the CVT-equipped Altimas also sip less fuel. Sedans and coupes with the CVT are rated at 20/27 mpg, while the Coupe with the six-speed manual checks in at 18/27 mpg.

In all, the Altima's fuel economy numbers are respectable for the class, but not quite on par with a number of mid-size models, such as the latest editions of the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima, which both get 35 mpg highway.

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