2013 Nissan Altima: First Drive

May 25, 2012

It's been twenty years since Nissan decided the old Stanza nameplate had had enough, and brought out the Altima as its new standard-bearer in the mid-size family-sedan segment. What a difference those decades make: not only has the Altima swelled in size along with the other four-doors in its class, it's completely sidelined the Maxima as the most important car in the Nissan lineup.

Last year, the Altima was the second-best-selling mid-size sedan in America, nudging ahead of the Honda Accord and Hyundai Sonata, and gaining on the longtime leader, the Toyota Camry. It accomplished that feat in the last year of a model cycle, too. Now it's ready for a fifth generation, with updated powertrains, a good-looking new body and interior, more safety and infotainment features.

We drove the new Altima last week from Nashville to Lynchburg, Tennessee, and back--mostly because the home of Jack Daniels' distillery sits in a dry county, and though they're lovely people, a dry county can only get you so far, tourism-wise. Over the mix of country roads and ever-expanding interstate highways, the Altima showed off the progress it's made in gaining refinement and gas mileage, two areas it's lagged in behind its rivals--Optima and Sonata, Accord and Camry, Fusion and Passat.

There's much to recommend in the 2013 Altima. It's now rated at 8 out of 10 on our numeric scale, up from last year's 7.6--though the coupe's carryover scores are muddled in there. The sedan's much more attractive to our eyes now, with so many Infiniti cues embedded in its grille and taillights, we assume the M37 refresh is already steering in a new direction. What's left for the Maxima, too, now that the Altima's even more aggressively sleek? Climb inside, and the Altima's more businesslike, with a substantial-looking dash, mostly covered in high-quality, soft-touch materials, save for a piece of hard plastic or two.

Of the two powertrains, we're leaning toward recommending the base setup. The 182-horsepower, 2.5-liter four teams with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) for all the commuting strength most Altima drivers will need. The CVT's been heavily reworked for more responsiveness and better efficiency, and if the estimates hold true, a 38-mpg highway rating is coming from the EPA. That's 3 mpg higher than the Korean sedans that lead the segment now, even before a hybrid model emerges. The 270-hp V-6 version's an easier choice if you're spending more: also a CVT-equipped sedan, it's much quieter and smoother and quicker than the four, and elbows deeply into near-luxury territory we used to think was reserved for the Maxima.

We think a little differently than some other reviewers on the Altima's handling. It's true that the Altima still sits head and shoulders above most family sedans for steering feel and ride control. Instead of comparing it to Accords and Camrys, we're looking back at the last two generations of Nissans. This one's more isolated, much more controlled in its ride quality, and with electrohydraulic steering, a touch less directly connected to the road, at least on the four-cylinder model we drove extensively on back roads. The athletic feel has been muted by all the improvements in ride, steering efficiency, and noise and vibration--and we miss the tauter, more direct responses of the last-gen Altima, just a little.

Kudos go out to the Altima's excellent front seats--cloth, not "leatherette"--and its plus-size interior room. Safety features now include options for blind-spot monitors, a rearview camera that cleans its own lens when needed, and tire pressure monitors that help you air up tires without a gauge. The Altima's also far more competitive when it comes to infotainment features, now offering standard Bluetooth with audio streaming on all seven trim levels, with navigation, leather, a sunroof, and text-to-voice messaging available on selected versions.

The Altima goes sale later this year, with the base price of the $21,500 Altima 2.5 moving up to just over $30,000 on the Altima 3.5 SL. Now in the thick of the family-sedan sales race, the Altima's come a long way since its scrappy also-ran days. Maturity has its upsides, no doubt--but we'll sure miss the frisky old feel.

For all the details on this new family four-door sedan, see our full review of the 2013 Nissan Altima.

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