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2019 Nissan Altima Prototype first drive review: A promising powertrain preview

Nissan’s VC-Turbo engine feels right at home in the 2019 Altima, and the base 2.5-liter I4 is pretty darn good, too.

Nissan

The redesigned 2019 Nissan Altima will hit US showrooms in just a few months. It doesn't drastically shake up the automaker's midsize sedan formula, but there are a number of huge improvements to talk about, and arguably the biggest step forward is found under the hood.

That's why I recently found myself at Nissan's Arizona Technical Center just outside of Phoenix, on an absolute scorcher of a summer day. Ahead of the official first test drive later this year, I had the chance to sample the Altima's updated engine range from behind the wheel of a trio of almost-done prototypes.

Now, because Nissan doesn't want to show its whole hand just yet, know that while I did drive three versions of the 2019 Altima out in Arizona, I'm only currently allowed to talk about the powertrains. If you're looking for words on ride and handling, interior comfort or onboard tech, you'll have to stay tuned. In the meantime, this powertrain preview provides a solid first impression of Nissan's next midsizer.

Top-notch turbo

Nissan's 2.0-liter KR20DETT VC-Turbo is a new engine, but this isn't the first time we've seen it. Sister brand Infiniti already employs this powertrain in the QX50 crossover, and in that application, it's pretty great.

The "VC" stands for variable compression. Rather than a fixed compression ratio, the VC-Turbo engine uses a multi-link crankshaft design that can adjust the pistons' stroke based on throttle input, resulting in various compression levels ranging from 8.0:1 to 14.0:1. A low compression ratio is better for power delivery, while a high ratio improves overall efficiency. For the drive, this means on-demand power when you need it, but far better fuel economy while cruising.

The VC-Turbo engine produces 248 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque.

Nissan

In the 2019 Altima, the VC-Turbo engine produces 248 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque when running on premium fuel. (You can run 87-octane gas in this engine for a small performance penalty.) That's 22 fewer horsepower than the 2018 Altima's naturally aspirated 3.5-liter V6, but an increase of 22 pound-feet. Meanwhile, under the hood of the Infiniti QX50, the VC-Turbo engine is rated at 268 horsepower and 280 pound-feet.

The full 273 pound-feet of torque is delivered as low as 1,600 rpm, and remains strong all the way up to 4,800 rpm. This is a huge improvement over the V6, which had a linear torque build-up until its max delivery point of about 4,400 rpm. The result is quicker, smoother acceleration, the VC-Turbo engine running its 8.0:1 compression ratio under full throttle.

But when you lift off and coast, or cruise under light, steady throttle application, the VC-Turbo engine increases its compression ratio. This means that, while output is pretty much a wash between the new 2.0T and the 3.5-liter V6, the 2019 Altima should boast at least 25-percent better fuel economy. That's a big win.

The Altima SR's continuously variable transmission can be controlled by a set of steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

Nissan

The turbo engine has an impressive amount of mid-range punch. Flooring the throttle from 40, 60 or 80 miles per hour results in instant acceleration, the continuously variable transmission smoothly kicking down to keep the tach needle planted in the heart of the power band. During light or heavy acceleration loads, the engine delivers a smooth application of power with an appropriate sound quality -- not too loud, and certainly not 'enhanced'. There's no lag off the line, and no weird, peaky "turbo moments" throughout the rev range.

A lot of that is thanks to the refined continuously variable transmission. There are built in "steps" to mimic the feel of a traditional automatic, and certain Altima models will have steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters for those who want to shift the fake gears themselves. Left to its own devices, I'm happy to report Nissan's latest CVT doesn't have that classic high-rev drone. In general, overall levels of powertrain noise, vibration and harshness are vastly improved over the current, V6-powered Altima.

The Altima's base 2.5-liter engine should do about 1 mpg better in the combined EPA test cycle.

Nissan

Don't write off the base engine

Though it's technically a carryover engine, the naturally aspirated 2.5-liter PR25DD inline-4 boasts a number of thoughtful improvements. In fact, some 95 percent of the 2.5-liter engine's parts are new. Nissan engineers say their key objectives were to smooth out the operation of this powerplant, refining many of its internals to allow for improved performance and fuel economy.

The result is an engine that produces 188 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque -- gains of 9 and 3, respectively, over the 2018 Altima's 2.5-liter mill. Official fuel economy figures aren't available just yet, but Nissan says the powertrain's refinements should net a 1-mpg improvement in the combined fuel economy cycle. Not a huge step forward, but certainly an achievement.

Some 95 percent of the 2.5-liter engine's parts have been revised for its application in the 2019 Altima.

Nissan

The big news for Altima 2.5 buyers is the availability of all-wheel drive. It's the same AWD system found in the Rogue and other Nissan vehicles, with an electromechanical clutch that disengages the rear axle unless it's needed. The Altima will essentially run as a front-wheel-drive car most of the time. Nissan only intends to mate all-wheel drive with the 2.5-liter engine for now, but the automaker is studying the business case for offering this with the VC-Turbo powertrain. It's obviously doable -- as evidenced in the QX50 -- but isn't currently planned at this time, since Nissan believes AWD will be most beneficial on the more value-oriented Altima trims.

Under the hood of a most base-spec Altima, the 2.5-liter engine's added refinement is immediately noticeable. It never sounds buzzy, harsh or coarse; its continuously variable transmission devoid of aurally displeasing characteristics. There's more than enough power to get the Altima up and moving with respectable pace. Several stints of slowing down and speeding back up reveal ample mid-range thrust, and the ease of accelerating from 40 to 80 mph feels appropriate for a midsize sedan like the Altima -- merging onto the highway won't be a struggle.

The VC-Turbo engine may be the most technologically advanced powertrain in the Altima lineup, but the truth is, the majority of vehicles sold will use the 2.5-liter engine. That said, while it's not a brand-new powertrain, its improvements result in a more refined demeanor -- something customers at entry-level price points will surely appreciate.

Everything else we know

The 2019 Altima will arrive in the third quarter of this year; stay tuned for a full first drive review sometime around October. Nissan will offer the sedan in S, SR, SV, SL and Platinum trims, and there's even a fancy Edition One. All Altima models will come with an eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system with the latest NissanConnect software, and both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto will be standard. Higher-end SV, SL and Platinum trims will also come with Nissan's ProPilot Assist system, which can hold the car in a single highway lane, working together with adaptive cruise control.

If the rest of the 2019 Altima package is as nicely executed as its powertrains, expect yet another fiercely competitive offering from Nissan in the midsize sedan space.


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