2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL: Driven

May 22, 2013
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.

We appreciated a number of thoughtful details and features here--like how when parallel-parking in a hilly area the brakes would momentarily prevent us from drifting downhill, no matter which gear and whether facing uphill or down. Our Altima also had the Technology Package, which included Lane Departure Warning, Blind Spot Warning, and Moving Object Detection. The lane departure system has a very high threshold before scolding, so this is a system you'll simply drive with—and not look for the disable button.

Nav, Bluetooth, audio all work well, and intuitively

The Bluetooth system in the Altima seemed to have an excellent microphone; a friend on the receiving end commented on how clear I sounded—a rarity for hands-free systems, it seems. And the navigation system's menus, clear maps, live-traffic features, and general responsiveness never let us down.

On the down side, while we saw a lot of value in the interior trims and materials for the simply equipped four-cylinder model we drove late last year, we find it harder to justify some of the hollow-feeling materials around the center console; considering our Altima's $32,135 bottom-line price, they're questionable—a step below the trims and switchgear we found in the Accord V-6 we'd driven a few weeks earlier. And we've pointed to the Altima's seats as great for longer trips, but we noted that the seats included in our SL were a bit slippery and simply didn't have the level of side support they looked like they'd have for twisty two-laners.

After spending more time with the Altima V-6 and putting it through the paces of a weekend trip, we understand what Nissan is thinking in how the 2013 model is tuned. The new Altima V-6 still offers the handling capability—and sportiness—of the previous-generation Altima. You just have to dig a little deeper for it. And most buyers, who will appreciate the new car's added comfort and refinement day in and day out, yet still have the reserve of power from the V-6, will prefer that.

See our full review of the 2013 Nissan Altima for more on interior accommodations, safety, features, and details on the four-cylinder model.


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