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PERFORMANCE | 8 out of 10
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The 2013 Nissan Altima stands behind its tradition of four- and six-cylinder engines. But while other family four-doors are dropping the sixes from their lineups, Nissan's doing something a little different, of course, by shedding all the transmissions save for their unique, unconventional CVT.
The frugal-minded will love the Altima's base powertrain. A 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 182 horsepower teams up with a heavily reworked, continuously variable transmission (CVT) for acceleration to 60 mph in the sub-8-second range. The time and money spent on the CVT has helped its responsiveness; especially in sport-shift mode, it's quicker to move around the rev range, making the most of the four's power (and the Altima's light curb weight of 3,100 to 3,400 pounds, among the lightest in the class). The four-cylinder's grown louder than ever, and the volume of engine noise can discourage running it near its power peak, though it's actually smooth up there, for a large-displacement four.
The swift Altima is the 270-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 model. It's fitted with a CVT too, but to go with its manual-shift mode, it also gets paddle shifters and simulated gear ratios that click the engine down a few hundred rpm once it flies too close to the redline. It's effortlessly smooth compared to the four, very fast (60 mph in about 7.1 seconds), and not too thirsty, at 22/30 mpg, estimated.
All versions of the Altima ride on an independent suspension, now upgraded to Sachs shocks for better ride control. The rear suspension eliminates one of its lateral links, incorporating it into a structural brace that creates a wider, stiffer axis for better wheel control. A new Active Understeer Control applies braking to inside front wheels to tighten cornering lines. Sixteen-inch wheels are now standard on the Altima; 17- and 18-inch wheels and tires are available.
Along with a change from hydraulic to electrohydraulic steering--now the norm on all Altimas--the suspension changes have tipped the balance away from athletic response to a very well-controlled ride. Nissan says it's gone after a luxury-car level of shock performance and a plush ride--and they've achieved those goals. But the last two generations of Altima sedans have had an immediacy of steering feel and a more tightly damped ride, that made them feel like the sports coupes of the class. Like the Ford Fusion, the Altima was the "other" choice in a class full of softly sprung four-doors. Now it's the VW Passat that has the old Altima's resolutely firm, taut ride, while the Nissan has moved into the Accord realm. It's demonstrably better in some important ways, and still a few big steps ahead of most other family sedans in handling talents--but it's less enthusiastic about its own talent this time around.
The manual transmission is gone, and so is the suspension's old athletic feel--but both drivetrains go a long way to changing the CVT's rubberband reputation.