2014 Nissan Altima review: Nissan Altima finds its way with Google search

As configured, the Altima's Bose system did an excellent job on clarity, reproducing instruments and vocals distinctly. I heard a little fuzz on the edge of midrange frequencies on some tracks, but I could not honestly say if that was a problem with the source material. The system reached ear-splitting levels with the volume up high, but didn't seem to distort much. Bass, however, wasn't as satisfying as I would have liked.

Star of the show
At only 2.5-liters, the engine certainly didn't serve as a bass substitute. This four-cylinder mill is of a very typical size for this segment, although unlike offerings from Ford and Chevy, Nissan has not gone for direct injection, one of latest efficiency technologies finding widespread adoption by automakers. Direct injection tends to lead to a more complete burn of fuel in the cylinders.

However, Nissan still manages to pull 182 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque from its engine, not too much behind similarly-sized direct injection competitors. Nissan's continuous variable valve timing, optimizing valve openings depending on engine speed, deserves credit here.

2014 Nissan Altima
This 2.5-liter engine, combined with the CVT, makes usable power and good fuel economy in the Altima. Josh Miller/CNET

But what really contributes to the Altima's excellent fuel economy and general drivability is the continuously variable transmission (CVT), a signature piece of Nissan drivetrain tech. This CVT, lacking fixed gears and drive ratios, instead uses a system of belts and pulleys to constantly adjust the drive ratio depending on vehicle speed and driver input.

CVTs had a bad reputation as automakers struggled with the programming that would match engine speed to driver input, but Nissan has this problem licked. On the road, the Altima neatly lined up the power output with my accelerator input. The lack of big power dips from gear changes made the Altima feel more responsive. When I popped the gas pedal down, the CVT promptly adjusted the drive ratio for acceleration, letting the engine speed jump into the high revs.

The Altima's engine may have less power that the competition, but the CVT makes it more readily available.

The CVT also does wonders with fuel economy, helping the Altima achieve its 27 mpg city and 38 mpg highway figures. Better yet, I easily made an average of over 30 mpg in mixed driving, involving dense city traffic and some extended runs on mountain roads with the CVT in its Sport mode. A focus on economical driving should push that average up to the mid-30s.

Nissan also makes its 3.5-liter V-6 available for the Altima, but I would strongly recommend against it. The power gain isn't worth the fuel economy trade-off. The four-cylinder is adequate for this mid-size sedan. If you want a sports car, Nissan has the 370Z.

2014 Nissan Altima
The shifter includes a Sport position, but no low range or manual mode. Josh Miller/CNET

The Altima follows the mild-mannered formula required for its segment, with a reasonably comfortable ride supported by softly tuned dampers. As I found with the Nissan Sentra, the dampers caused the car to feel a little wobbly when pushed hard through a set of turns, such that I began to feel a bit queasy.

To counteract the understeer that would naturally result from a soft suspension, Nissan includes what it calls Active Understeer Control on the Altima. In reality, that amounts to what is generally called corner braking, where the car automatically employs light braking to the inside front wheel in a turn.

Nissan notes that its system works under normal driving situations, not just when you're thrashing the car through turns. Although a subtle influence, I could feel the system helping the Altima through turns when I had the car close to its limits. It is a big improvement in the Altima's handling, but I would expect increased brake wear.

For power steering, the Altima gets a hybrid electro-hydraulic system, using an electric pump rather than the engine to keep hydraulic pressure up. Maybe I've been driving too many cars with direct electric power steering boost, but the Altiima's wheel action felt a little odd. The boost was fine, setting down to a nice, solid heft at speed, but the feedback felt something like a racing wheel for a video game.

A couple of features included with the Technology package are a blind spot monitor and lane departure warning. Blind spot monitoring told me when there was a car in either of the Altima's blind spots, however the alert light, on the A pillar, was too dim to be very effective. Lane departure sounded an alert whenever I drifted over a lane line, loud enough to make me take notice without becoming annoying.

A full field
It's a buyers' market for mid-size sedans, as there are many great options. That puts the 2014 Nissan Altima up against fierce competition, such as the Ford Fusion, Chevy Malibu, Toyota Camry, Mazda6, and Honda Accord. Worse news for the Altima, some of those models can be had with hybrid drivetrains putting average fuel economy in the 40s.

It's tough to gain an edge in this race.

Helping the Altima considerably is its CVT, which pulls optimal power from the engine while managing fuel economy. In normal situations its driving character comes across as easy, an essential quality for a mid-size sedan, and the CVT smoothes out acceleration.

Cabin electronics is one of the differentiating factors for this homogenous class of vehicle. The Altima's navigation head unit delivers a very useful set of features, and the addition of Google search and Internet radio station integration show some forward-thinking. However, the lack of any well-integrated interface suggests first-generation tech plunked down into the Altima's dashboard without a lot of thought for usability.

Tech specs
Model 2014 Nissan Altima
Trim SL
Powertrain 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, continuously variable transmission
EPA fuel economy 27 mpg city/38 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy 30.4 mpg
Navigation Optional flash memory-based system with live traffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Digital audio sources Internet streaming, Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, USB drive, satellite radio
Audio system Bose nine-speaker system
Driver aids Blind spot warning, lane departure warning, rearview camera
Base price $22,110
Price as tested $30,625

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