It would be easy to dismiss the Nissan Altima as just another wannabe Toyota Camry. Choosing Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system for the Hybrid version didn't help that perception. But although the broad strokes are similar (the same could be said for any of the 10 or so vehicles in the Altima's class), the devil's in the details.
However, since our Altima 2.5 S review vehicle arrived in the CNET garage nearly devoid of cabin tech options, we were left to discern those details based almost solely on the power train. That may not have been such a bad thing, because although the concept of a midsize sedan packing a 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter engine doesn't exactly get the blood flowing, there may be more to this car than the numbers imply.
The Altima's 2.5-liter engine doesn't exactly impress on paper, but there is some interesting technology powering this lump of aluminum, including direct injection and Nissan's brand of variable valve timing, CVTCS. California air and fuel go in one end and 170 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque come out of another before being fed to the front wheels via a continuously variable transmission (CVT). States that don't bow to California's LEV2-SULEV emissions standards get a version of the Altima 2.5 S that outputs 175 ponies and 180 pound-feet of torque. Regular gasoline is consumed at EPA-estimated rates of 23 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway, which combine to about 27 mpg. We managed to round out the week just above that combined estimate at around 29 mpg with a test cycle that skewed heavily toward highway driving.
No, the numbers surrounding the Altima's power train aren't very impressive, but the performance is certainly adequate. The four-cylinder engine features good tip-in and pulls away from the line confidently and steadily. And while we're typically not fans of CVTs, Nissan seems to have sorted the transmission technology out quite well. The gearbox doesn't get in the engine's way, spend too much time hunting for ratios, or hold the revs at an obnoxious speed. It simply figures out what you want to do and does it.
Handling is somewhat confusing. The steering isn't what you'd call communicative, and a noticeable dead spot at top center means that you can saw the wheel a few degrees back and forth without really upsetting the chassis or producing any noticeable steering. However, this sort of steering fuzziness has the benefit of allowing Nissan (and, to be fair, every other midsize-sedan manufacturer) to boost the power steering rate, making the vehicle easy to pilot one-handed at low speeds without feeling too darty on the highway. Flicking the sedan through a corner under power produces large amounts of roll as the tires dig in for the turn, but the chassis somehow gets left just a fraction of a second behind. We don't want to imply that the Altima handles like a boat, because it doesn't. The sedan is able to tackle corners without drama, but let's just say the S in Altima 2.5 S doesn't stand for "sporty."
About the best thing we can say about the Altima's handling is that it is stable, forgiving, and predictable--the term "Camry-like" was used more than once. For point-Alpha-to-Bravo transportation with kids in the back and a trunk full of groceries, we'd wager that's a good thing and is exactly what the average prospective Altima driver wants. Never were the sedan's handling limits called into question and not once did we feel out of control. Then again, nothing about the Altima's performance encourages driving enjoyment.