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.