Nissan's various models share little commonality. Among its wide range, you've got SUVs, crossovers, sports cars, sedans, and odd outliers such as the Juke, Cube, and Leaf, all bearing little resemblance to each other. There's not much of a corporate identity among these models.
However, that identity crisis seems on the verge of breaking with Nissan's latest models. Recent updates to the Versa, Sentra, and even Pathfinder show some common lines, a rounded front fender merging into a side contour line that dips at the front doors. The 2014 Nissan Altima carries this look as well, and as a mid-size sedan is one of the company's bread-and-butter vehicles.
The look of the Altima may not be as dramatic as the Ford Fusion or Mazda6, but it is certainly more stylish than the staid Chevy Malibu or Toyota Camry. The roofline trails back toward the trunk in an almost fastback line. Headlight and taillight casings show a little panache with hooks in their upper sidelines, pointing back and forward, respectively.
The Altima treads a line between stylish and bland that may be a sweet spot in the mid-size sedan segment.
Giving the Altima a big leg up in this competitive segment is its fuel economy, 27 mpg city and 38 mpg highway, made possible largely due to Nissan's excellent continuously variable transmission (CVT). As for connected tech, Nissan hadn't previously shown much innovation, but the new Altiima picks up a few tricks, like adding Google search to its navigation system.
Other automakers, and even Nissan's upscale Infiniti brand, have developed signature cabin tech, electronics unique to the brand. Take Chevy's MyLink or Ford's MyFord Touch as two examples. Nissan has not been quite as forward-thinking in this regard. The 2014 Altima shows off Nissan's latest tech features, but the head unit has an off-the-shelf look and feel.
The Technology package for the Altima brings in a navigation-enabled head unit with a touch screen and voice command. Nissan notes that the touch screen is 7 inches, yet it looked small to me. Lacking any sort of home screen paradigm, I had to use a set of plastic buttons to access the main functions. An Apps button hinted at connected features.
The navigation system's maps showed good resolution and updated quickly as I drove. The system never seemed to lose its GPS fix. I could view the maps in plan or perspective format, and live traffic, coming in through satellite radio, showed up on many surface streets as well as freeways. Under route guidance, the graphics for upcoming turns weren't very rich, although the system did show which lanes I should be in for freeway junctions. Voice prompts read out the street names, as well.
Among the typical destination options, this head unit included Google search. To enable it, I had to load the NissanConnect app on my phone and connect it to the car. With my iPhone, I had to use the cabled connection and prelaunch the app, but Android users can get away with a Bluetooth connection. My phone served as the data conduit to the car.
Unfortunately, the onscreen buttons to access Google search are not among the other destination options, but hidden away under the App section of the menu structure, and required more than a couple of screen taps to find.
Along with a freeform Google search field, the Altima's head unit also offered specific categories, such as restaurants, and a voice search option. To use voice search, I had to tap an onscreen microphone button, rather than using the steering wheel button that activates the car's embedded voice command.
The car's broader voice command let me enter addresses into the navigation system as a single string, rather than breaking it up into parts. I could also make calls by saying the names of people in my phone's contact list and request music from a USB drive or cabled iOS device by artist, song, or album name. Voice command did a good job of recognizing my requests, and never proved frustrating.
Music options included the aforementioned USB port, Bluetooth audio streaming, satellite radio, and iHeartRadio through the NissanConnect app. To use iHeartRadio, the app had to be installed on my iPhone rather than having its functionality bundled into the NissanConnect app, like Google search.
Audio from all these sources played through a nine-speaker Bose audio system, which comes standard with the Altima's SL trim. Along with matched door speakers, this system included a center channel speaker on the dashboard. I would have preferred a subwoofer over the center speaker, which would have supplied deeper tones to make the overall music experience richer.
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.
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.
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.
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|Model||2014 Nissan Altima|
|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|
|Price as tested||$30,625|