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.
Bragging about the Nissan Altima's 170-hp engine won't impress anyone at the watercooler, but its good low-end torque produces satisfactory acceleration.
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.
Tech and options
Nothing about the Altima's cabin encouraged driving enjoyment either--at least not in our low-trim tester. The Intelligent Key transponder push-button entry and start is probably the most gee-whiz tech feature on the standard 2.5 S. Other standard cabin tech niceties include a single-slot CD player with AM/FM tuning and an analog auxiliary input. Audio is piped in through a six-speaker stereo system that is mostly inoffensive and neutral in its reproduction of music, but gets oddly and unpleasantly boomy when asked to reproduce certain lower frequencies at moderate volumes, despite its lacking a subwoofer.
Our tester was equipped with a $1,350 Convenience package that adds an eight-way power-adjustable driver's seat, but it doesn't have memory for its positions. With this package you also get automatic on/off headlamps, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, and Bluetooth hands-free calling. A set of 16-inch alloy wheels with matching tires is also included in the Convenience package, but we're not sure what's so convenient about them.
On top of that, we were also treated to a $1,150 Convenience Plus package that adds a power sliding moonroof, dual-zone automated climate controls, and turn signals in the side mirrors. Toss in $140 splash guards, $180 floor and trunk mats, $170 aluminum kick plates, and a $760 destination fee to reach our as-tested price of $26,320.
The standard audio rig just doesn't cut it by CNET's standards; you'll want to step up to the optional premium audio system or the navigation package.
That's where whoever spec'd our Altima 2.5 S stopped, but you can continue to layer on the gadgets with a $990 Bose premium audio system with nine speakers, USB/iPod connectivity, and XM Satellite Radio. The system also features a 4.3-inch color screen that doubles as a display for the rearview camera added in this package. $1,540 more bumps you to the 2.5 SL trim level where, among other things, the seats are swathed in leather, your bottom is warmed by heating elements, and your feet are bathed in ambient mood lighting. There are also a decklid spoiler and fog lights available for $370 and $310, respectively, before you get to the $1,780 technology package where you finally get a 6.5-inch touch-screen navigation system with XM NavTraffic and weather, Bluetooth audio streaming, and in-dash DVD video playback.
Of course, because of the way Nissan has organized its packaging, you have to add all of these packages in the order that I've described them. So if you just want navigation, you'll have to first add the Convenience, Convenience Plus, Premium Audio, and SL packages, as well as the spoiler and fog lights, which brings you to a CNET-style price tag of $31,310.
Now, $31,310 is no small chunk of change. For that price, you could load up a more powerful and equally fuel-efficient Honda Accord EX-L with Navigation. You could even upgrade to the EX-L V-6 model if you decided to save a few hundred bucks and skip the fog lamps, mood lighting, spoiler, and metal kick plates. Of course, you'd have to deal with Honda's ancient navigation system. Additionally, a 2012 Toyota Camry should also find itself within slapping range of the Altima's price point, but details on that vehicle are still being sorted out.
Fully loaded, an Altima 2.5 SL would be as expensive as a similarly equipped Honda Accord V-6.
Competing models aside, the 2012 Nissan Altima is a decent ride for the dough. Its 2.5-liter QR-series engine is about 10 years old, but it has been updated constantly over that period with modern tech. So although it and the Altima platform are starting to show their age, the vehicle as a whole still feels relatively fresh. Likewise, if you've any interest at all in feeling what a properly set-up CVT feels like, you'll want to take a spin in the Altima, because that's one of this vehicle's strongest points. Nissan has done a great job of setting up the ratios and programming the logic into this transmission to make acceleration smooth and seamless.
|Model||2012 Nissan Altima|
|Power train||2.5-liter, CVT, FWD|
|EPA fuel economy||23 city, 32 highway mpg|
|Observed fuel economy||29.1 mpg|
|Navigation||available HDD-based navigation with XM traffic and weather|
|Bluetooth phone support||basic voice command, phone book sync, audio streaming available|
|Disc player||single-slot CD|
|MP3 player support||analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, optional USB/iPod connection|
|Other digital audio||optional XM Satellite Radio|
|Audio system||6-speaker basic, optional 9-speaker Bose|
|Driver aids||none, optional rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$26,320|