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If the 2013 Nissan Altima sets a new standard for the midsize sedan, a full-size sedan must now be the length of a stretch limo. The new Altima is big, really big, almost an inch longer than the Nissan Maxima. Either those models are swapping places in the Nissan lineup, or the next Maxima is going to be a boat.
I never liked the trend of subsequent generations of car models getting bigger and bigger. However, when comparison-shopping some buyers will appreciate that type of bang for the buck. Certainly the cabin offers a generous amount of space.
The new Altima comes in trims ranging from a base model to SL, and with a choice of two engine options, a 2.5-liter four-cylinder or a 3.5-liter V-6. CNET's car was the top-trim 3.5 SL. The car comes very well-equipped at this level, with only navigation remaining an option. Oddly, our SL was not optioned with the $1,090 navigation package.
I had a taste of this navigation option, a new system for Nissan, when driving the new Sentra earlier this year. With flash memory and traffic, the system seems to work well. And it also features a connected system that uses Google for points-of-interest searches. The navigation package includes useful features such as blind-spot detection. I hope to give this connected system a full test soon.
Even without navigation, the Altima SL still had a 5-inch LCD on the center dash, 2 inches smaller than it would be with the navigation option. This LCD displays audio information, and also has a noninteractive screen for the voice command-operated Bluetooth hands-free phone system.
The interface for the stereo works easily, with a button to activate the iPod menu and the tuning dial to scroll through lists of artists, albums, or tracks. The LCD even shows album art for the current track when available. Conveniently, the Altima's USB port sits at the base of the center dashboard, in front of the shifter. The stereo also features Bluetooth audio streaming, with full track information on the LCD, at least when using an iPhone.
Without the navigation option, the Altima's voice command is very limited, merely controlling the hands-free phone system. However, it does offer full contact list integration, meaning I could say the names of contacts stored in my phone to place a call.
A nice standard feature of the SL-trim Altima is a nine-speaker Bose audio system. It delivers very rich, powerful sound, although the clarity could be better. When listening to David Bowie, I appreciated the system's strong vocal reproduction. Bass did not sound very strong with the default settings, but turning it up produced frequencies I could feel. For heavily layered electronic music, I found some of the tracks got buried, hiding some of the softer or more delicate sounds.
The steering-wheel spokes host a variety of buttons and switches for controlling the stereo and activating voice command, while a nicely detailed LCD on the instrument cluster shows the currently playing track or trip information, depending on what the driver selects.
Behind the steering wheel are shift paddles for the Altima's continuously variable transmission (CVT). And I'm not talking about flimsy little pieces of plastic tacked to the back of the spokes, but wide, magnesium F1-style paddles anchored to the steering column. The paddles are a strange complement to the CVT's seven virtual shift points, and an unlikely find on any midsize sedan.
But there's something else about this Altima that suggests the paddles are not wholly out of place. The ride quality is surprisingly supple, as if the Altima were sprung to carry a ton or two in cargo. This suspension leads to a strong feeling of quality as the Altima barrels down the freeway, making quick work out of the bumps and expansion joints. The Altima's rigid suspension tuning resists body roll in the corners very well.
For further driving-quality engineering, Nissan opts for a hydraulic-electric hybrid power-steering system, rather than the pure electric power-steering systems becoming so common. The latter type of system boosts steering input through an electric motor, entirely doing away with the older pure-hydraulic systems that sap power from the engine to maintain pressure. The hybrid system used by Nissan boosts steering input with hydraulics, but maintains pressure using an electric pump, thereby avoiding sucking power from the engine.
The result of this power-steering system is to give the Altima an old-school steering feel. Instead of the numb, lifeless feel common with electric power-steering systems, the Altima's wheel shows familiar heft and communicates road feel to the driver. I found steering the Altima almost novel, as so many new cars that come through CNET use electric power-steering systems.
With the suspension and steering system, not to mention the big paddle shifters, I actually enjoyed running the Altima along one of my favorite twisting mountain roads. On the harder corners, some understeer became evident, but I was surprised how much the Altima felt almost like a rear-wheel-drive car. Nissan says it aimed for European handling with this new generation, and I think the company succeeded.
Powering the front wheels in this car was Nissan's 3.5-liter V-6, from its VQ series of engines. A V-6 in a midsize sedan seems overkill these days, when fuel economy is paramount. Nissan's V-6 makes 270 horsepower and 251 pound-feet of torque, while the 2.5-liter four-cylinder makes what should be an adequate 182 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque. The four-cylinder also gets about 6 mpg better than the V-6 in average fuel economy.
Neither of these engine choices really pushes the envelope of efficiency technology, relying instead on good, old variable valve timing. The CVT is the main reason why the Altima V-6 can achieve 22 mpg city and 31 mpg highway. At some point, Nissan will have to exploit the sort of direct-injection and turbocharging technologies used by other makers to reduce engine displacement, thereby boosting fuel economy. It is surprising that Nissan did not take the opportunity to upgrade its engine tech for this new Altima.
However, the CVT is better than ever. This transmission delivers smooth acceleration and keeps the engine running in its sweet spot for fuel economy. When I slammed the accelerator for some quick acceleration, the CVT readily changed ratios, pulling extra power from the engine. Nissan also gives it seven shift points, programmed fixed ratios you can select using those big magnesium paddles.
With the 2013 Altima, Nissan seems to have concentrated on ride quality as a core value, without pushing into new tech. In the drivetrain, the CVT stands out as the most advanced component, and Nissan applied solid engineering to the power-steering system in order to maintain a traditional feel while still gaining the efficiency of an electric system.
The available cabin electronics satisfy core features, with the added bonus of a connected search feature for the navigation system. Voice command, at least in a car without the navigation option, was very limited. It would be nice to see Nissan extend it to control the audio system. The navigation option, especially as it also brings in blind-spot detection and lane departure warning, looks like a good value, and it is disappointing this package was not included on CNET's review car.
|Model||2013 Nissan Altima|
|Power train||3.5-liter V-6 engine, CVT|
|EPA fuel economy||22 mpg city/31 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||26.1 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional flash memory-based with traffic integration|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard with contact list integration|
|Digital audio sources||Bluetooth streaming audio, iPod integration, USB drive, satellite radio|
|Audio system||Bose 9-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$31,045|