Model year 2017 changes:
Editors' note, December 23, 2016: This review was written based on an evaluation of the 2016 Nissan Altima. See the changes (or complete lack thereof) for the 2017 model year above.
Roadshow's spent some time in the past few weeks with midsizers both sporty and soft, but after a week behind the wheel of Nissan's refreshed Altima, I've come to find that the Altima strikes a good balance between those two extremes.
It's not too soft, and it's not too harsh. It's not too racy, and it's not a complete snooze fest. I'll spare you the full Goldilocks analogy. I'm sure you get where this is headed.
Nissan threw everything but the kitchen sink at its venerable middle grounder as part of a midcycle refresh for the 2016 model year. While the rear end has been sharpened a bit, most of the action is in front of the A-pillars, where the Altima's countenance is reminiscent of the new Maxima.
Personally, I think the coalescing of styles under Maxima is a very good thing. The "V Motion" grille gives the front end a nice shape, and the contours on both the headlights and front fenders give the car a much stronger look than before. In a segment rich with competition, not all of which possesses style points, Nissan's done a good job here giving the Altima a beefier look that puts it close to other sportier-looking cars, such as the Mazda6.
There have been far fewer updates to the interior than I've seen on the exterior, but that's because it didn't need much. It's a straightforward affair, with just a bit of dashboard layering to give it a premium sheen. The plastics are all on the harder side, and if you order the entire interior in black, as in my test car, it's going to be a bit drab and cavernous.
That said, the cloth seats are comfortable -- not too hard, not too firm -- and they heat up quickly in conjunction with the SV trim's optional front heated seats. Storage is ample, too, with a small-purse-sized center console cubby and another one under the center stack. The interior is just a bit more boring than the exterior would have you expect.
Whether you prefer to access in-car tech through the infotainment system or your smartphone, there's plenty to dig on the Altima, even if you're not vying for the top trim with all the options possible.
There's one USB port and two 12-volt outlets up front, but nothing for rear-seat occupants. Plug your phone in with the USB connection, and it will start charging even before the car is turned on. That's a nice little touch.
Speaking of touch, the touchscreen infotainment system is quick to respond to both button and finger presses. I tested the optional 7-inch screen, but 5 inches is standard. Switching between functions is easy, thanks to the physical navigation buttons flanking the screen. Bluetooth phone pairing is initiated through the screen and it takes about 30 seconds to complete.
The infotainment system has a wealth of onboard apps that rely on the satellite-radio antenna. These include traffic and weather alerts, sports scores and movie-ticket information. Using your phone's connection, you can also access Google search, Pandora and TripAdvisor.
You can also connect the car with your phone thanks to the NissanConnect app. That gives you access to the car's functions (locking, unlocking, starting) and information. It also allows you to manage in-vehicle destinations and reassures overprotective owners with warnings such as the speed alert and a valet alert, which notifies you if the car travels more than 0.2 mile away. It's not the flashiest app, but it's effective.
Finally, there's an information display nestled between the gauges that delivers loads of information. Using the steering wheel controls, you can access tire pressures, fuel economy readouts, navigation directions, audio information, vehicle warnings and settings. It's big, colorful and easy to read.
The Altima uses a continuously variable transmission, which some have complained is boring and has a "rubber band" feeling. The fact is, Nissan has one of the smoothest, best-developed CVTs on the market. It's smooth, unobtrusive and capable of achieving wonderful fuel economy figures.
Mated to the smaller of two engines on offer, a 2.5-liter four-cylinder, the Altima's CVT will help buyers nail 40+ mpg on the highway under 80 mph. With a light foot, it's easy to go over the EPA fuel economy estimates in both city (27 mpg) and highway (39 mpg) driving. My average over about 200 miles of mixed driving was around 34 mpg. That's not too shabby on its own -- and it's ahead of competitors such as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
The 2.5-liter engine doesn't make the prettiest sound when it's sitting at higher revs, but the CVT is built to emulate some shifting, especially when you move the shift lever from D to Ds. In Ds mode, the engine revs higher and accelerates more aggressively, but it will still settle down at highway speeds.
The suspension feeling is slightly louder and firmer than the softest car in the segment, the Camry, but it's not as harsh as I've felt on the Accord or Mazda6. Steering, on the other hand, is utterly, utterly numb. But it's not sloppy -- rather, there's nearly no on-center "dead zone." Instead, the car reacts quickly to steering inputs. It's a strange mix of immediacy and lack of sensation.
As mainstream as the Nissan feels, it's got some weird quirks. Some it shares with other cars, others are unique to the Altima -- or at least unique to Nissan. For example, most vehicles traditionally beep or honk once for lock, and twice for unlock. Here, if you use the keyless entry it's the opposite, which may cause some double-takes if you're used to it being the other way 'round.
Plug your phone into USB, and the infotainment system will immediately try and play your media files. Listening to a good song on the radio? Not anymore, you're not.
The rear windows don't have any auto-up or auto-down function. The former is forgivable, as it's not ubiquitous, but the latter smacks of cost cutting.
Perhaps the most annoying feature is the fact that the headlight stalk doesn't default to the auto position. It defaults to off, which only contributes to the recent epidemic of drivers rolling around at night with their lights off, using only running lights or ambient light to navigate. Make the stalk default to auto and you help eliminate that problem.
Midsize sedans are still some of the most popular vehicles on the road, despite crossover utility vehicles taking a big bite out of their sales figures. Three of the five best sellers in April 2016 were midsizers -- the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima.
The specific test car I drove, a 2016 Nissan Altima 2.5 SV, starts at $25,460. Its out-the-door price is $28,935, including $835 for destination.
This one came with a $1,350 convenience package (moonroof, auto up/down passenger window, rear HVAC vents, auto-dimming mirror), a $580 navigation package that includes the aforementioned 7-inch screen, a $500 cold weather package (heated front seats, steering wheel and mirrors) and a $210 set of carpeted floor and trunk mats.
The Altima's base price is just below that of a similarly equipped Honda Accord EX, it slots in between Camry SE and XLE trims and it just about splits the difference between various Hyundai Sonata and Mazda6 trims. That said, it trounces all those cars in terms of fuel economy, and its acceleration figures are about mid-pack.
When it comes to ride quality, again, the Altima exists as a middle ground between sporty driving characteristics and an overly soft, compliant ride. The CVT can be sporty or nearly invisible, depending on your mood. Save for some weird quirks, I found the car enjoyable and efficient. This porridge is just right.