The Altima is charged with delivering a more sophisticated edge within medium four-cylinder ranks. How well does it do?
Pros: Attractive and spacious cabin, comfortable seats, improved CVT behaviour.
Cons: No strong dynamic sparkle, irksome trip computer functionality, no active cruise control, bland metalwork.
Such a huge gap between road-going reality and race-bred fantasy: Nissan’s medium sedan contests the Australian V8 Supercar Championship because that’s a brilliant billboard and image-lifter.
No doubt to the disappointment of some fans, the V8 Altima race car and its engine and, indeed rear-drive application is motorsport fantasy.
The road car plays perfectly straight-laced. It’s a front drive, four-cylinder medium sedan contesting a sector that is diminishing in size.
It’s not a replacement for the Maxima, though it could be … at least in terms of physical size, being a full 4.8 metres stem to stern, and general look.
Design and engineering
No-one will surely be surprised to learn that while the NZ market cars are built in Thailand, the Altima was shaped to appeal to North America, because that’s the primary market.
The front is dominated by a heavily chromed and toothy Nissan grille; doubtless its dimension and presentation is utterly normal in the US. But here it does seem a touch too aggressive and ‘glam’.
In overall stance and profile, this big brother to the Nissan Pulsar actually looks like … well, more like a twin, only to a larger scale. It’s profile is highlighted by a tapered roofline and sweeping accent line on the body, these being key contributors to a slick drag co-efficient.
Powertrain and performance:
NZ gets two models sporting the same engine choice: A 127kW/230Nm direct-injection four placed. You can buy it an entry $43,990 ST or the $53,290 Ti on test. Not having the V6 (as offered in Australia) is understandable; the four-cylinder is no substitute for muscularity but it is smooth, obedient and has reasonable economy (7.5L/100km claimed, 8.6L/100km achieved).
That V8ST hoop-la is great to have on the Altima’s CV, but the road car doesn’t show up any particular sporting pretensions. Nissan is claiming a dynamic edge with its Active Understeer Control, which uses inside-wheel braking to counter understeer, in interaction with a dynamic and traction controls, but it doesn’t seem up to much.
While the open road is where the Altima will likely feel most at home, it nevertheless presents a pleasant surprise with the steering, not too light yet neither wrist-achingly heavy, pleasantly linear and not wholly devoid of feedback. Altima also scores strongly for refinement. When driving at open road speed road, wind and tyre noise is suitably hushed, and long journeys certainly go by quickly.
Nissan has been a pioneer of CVT and that experience shows with the X-Tronic system; it is significantly better tuned than some earlier offerings. The operation is relatively smooth and generally civil, with little evidence of whininess or indecision. According to Nissan, 70 percent of the components have been redesigned from the previous Altima gearbox, resulting in an expanded ratio range, 40 percent less friction and improved control logic.
So 100 percent better? I’m still no great fan of CVT, but would agree that this one does seems to allow for especially fluid and fuss-free engine behaviour. Whether it provides the best, or at least most direct, route to the torque base is questionable, however. While this car rolls along very pleasantly, there are still moments under acceleration, both from a standstill and when brisk overtaking is required, when it just doesn’t react with immediacy.
Ride, refinement and quality:
The suspension seems set to the crisp side of comfortable and so avoids US-typical softness, but in reality the ride/handling compromise is too middle of the road and laidback for it to it to lay claim to becoming the class’s new barometer for dynamic leadership. There’s a curious effect on the turn-in; half through some movements the car felt as though it was momentarily taking stock, then resetting its ambitions.
Practicality and packaging:
There’s an especially nicely laid out cabin with numerous luxury touches – Nissan’s pseudo leather is especially good – and the seats are enhanced by heaters up front, not a common feature in this price grade.
The front chairs are also touted as ‘zero gravity’ types because there is actual NASA-related reality going on here. You’re not actually floating, but the chairs were engineered incorporating the same basic principles NASA used in designing its seats for the space shuttle. According to Nissan, the Altima’s increase blood flow, decrease muscular load and lower fatigue when compared to conventional seats. Not sure about that, but there were no complaints about discomfort.
There’s a lot more icing on this cake. Even the entry car has Bluetooth, cruise-control, dual-zone air-conditioning, keyless entry/start, automatic headlights and electric folding door-mirrors. The Ti steps up to 18-inch alloys and takes a bigger monitor which features satellite navigation and rear-view camera, memory driver’s seat and mirrors, blind-spot/lane departure warning, moving object detection, xenon headlights, rear privacy-glass and a power rear sunshade.
There’s also the ‘Advanced Driver Assist Display’, which displays vehicle data on a four-inch screen situated between the speedometer and tachometer. Information such as outside temperature, fuel economy, remaining fuel mileage, elapsed time and average speed can be scrolled though using a steering-wheel mounted button. The Ti also has blind spot monitoring and lane departure warning; both are useful features but unfortunately the first does not display especially coherently.
Altima is slightly wider than Maxima and so offers a three-adult rear seat, but head and leg room all round is pretty generous. It also offers a big boot that is easily accessible thanks to a wide opening.
A foot-operated parking brake is a jarring feature in this setting: there’s so much else that’s techy about this car that you’d think they’d have taken the plunge and incorporated an electronically-activated brake. A lack of paddle shifts for the Geartronic CVT is also unfortunate; only the V6 gets these.
How it compares:
The Altima doesn’t set the world alight for driving but it’s a big, well-furnished, premium-feel car – and that’ll be enough to attract interest.