2013 Nissan Altima

2013 Nissan Altima First Drive

We head to the land of Jack Daniels to sample the next Altima.

By: Tim Healey

Web2Carz Contributing Writer

Published: June 1st, 2012

Twenty years ago, the world was introduced to Wayne's World on the big screen, Bill Clinton was elected president, and the Nissan Altima debuted.

OK, in the pantheon of world events, the birth of the Altima probably flew under the radar. But for Nissan, the car's a big deal, since it's the company's mid-size entrant. And for its 20th birthday, it got a full redesign.

First unveiled at the 2012 New York International Auto Show, the 2013 Altima will likely retain its title as the best seller in Nissan's lineup. For 2013, the company promises better fuel economy--up to 38 mpg--and more attractive interior and exterior styling.

We'll be the judge of that. First, some basics.

  • The Basics

    The biggest news here is the redone styling and the addition of some new tech. The 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine gets seven more horsepower, up to an estimated 182, and the 3.5-liter V-6 carries over with 270 estimated ponies. Nissan has redesigned 70 percent of the components in its continuously-variable automatic transmission (CVT) with the aim of improved fuel economy and acceleration.

    Given that the mid-size segment has become focused on fuel economy, Nissan is touting its available 38 mpg highway number, which is no surprise, since that puts it above the 35 mpg promised by non-hybrid versions of the Hyundai Sonata, as just one example.

    One note: the Altima coupe carries over unchanged for now, and Nissan is tight-lipped about any future hybrid plans.

  • Features & Prices

    One piece of new tech is a heated steering wheel, which wasn't always available on the Altima. There's also: a rearview camera that cleans itself, an in-dash display the supplies the driver with important info, a lane-departure warning system, a hands-free text messaging assistant, Pandora radio streaming, and a Google point-of-interest search that users can send to the car.

    Blind-spot warning and moving-object detection systems are also available, as is a remote start and a navigation system. Other available features include: heated outside mirrors, a moonroof, cruise control, satellite radio, iPod connectivity, and heated seats.

    For 2.5-liter cars, there are three available trims (base, S, and SV) and three major option packages: a Convenience Package (leather seats, premium audio, etc.), a Navigation Package (navigation, heated steering wheel, moonroof, etc.), and a Technology Package (navigation, blind-spot warning, lane-departure warning, moving-object detection). A base S will set you back $21,500, while a SL starts at $28,050.

    Cars with the 3.5 V-6 are divided into S, SL, SV, and SL trims, with a S starting at $25,360 and a 3.5 SL starting at $30,080. There's only two major packages--Navigation ($590, includes navigation, heated steering wheel, Xenon headlights and more) and Technology ($1,090, includes navigation, blind-spot warning, lane-departure warning, and more). Smaller options can be added a la carte.

    We drove two cars: a 2.5 SL with splash guards ($145), rear spoiler ($395) and floor mats ($130), and a 3.5 SL with the Technology Package ($1,090) and the same options as the other car. Both cars had a $780 destination charge.

  • On The Road

    We found the Altima to be a pleasant driving companion on our charge across central Tennessee, with a bit of sporting flair. It's not as engaging to drive as a Honda Accord or the outgoing Ford Fusion, but the steering feel is firmer and sportier than that of the Sonata and more direct than that of the Kia Optima (the Sonata's platform-mate). We found the four's acceleration to be more than punchy enough around town, and when we swapped cars at lunch, the fuel gauge had barely left the full mark--guess you can have your cake and eat it, too.

    The CVT is an interesting piece of machinery--it's fairly seamless at lower RPMs, but the endless climb to redline is a bit unnerving if you aren't used to driving a CVT. The behavior is standard-issue for CVTs and only comes into play when the car is pushed, so most folks probably won't be too bothered by it.

    Ride strikes a nice balance between firm and comfortable, and the car feels composed at all times. It's quiet, too.

    The V-6 adds a lot more punch, although we suspect most buyers will find the more fuel-efficient four-banger to be more than adequate for almost all driving needs. Ride and handling stay about the same as with the four, but there's a lot more gusto from under the hood. This is the enthusiast's choice, if not the most practical one.

    Perhaps our biggest on-road annoyance was a slightly oversensitive lane-departure warning system that beeped at the slightest hint of provocation. We know it's better to be safe than sorry, but we also know it's not good to cry wolf.

  • Interior

    The cabin on the last Altima was getting dated, and Nissan knew it. The overall theme is now much improved, with a luxury look. There's a hint of Nissan's luxury brand, Infiniti, in the design, but only a hint. Some cheap-feeling plastic on top of the dash is a letdown, but it only feels cheap, it actually looks upscale. The available navigation system works well and looks neat, and there's plenty of legroom and headroom up front for taller drivers and passengers. The driver's information center is quite useful, too. For long hauls, the seats are all-day comfortable.

  • Exterior

    We have mixed feelings on the design--it looks better in person than it does in photos and its swoopier than the previous generation, but it doesn't turn our heads the way the Sonata and Optima do. The Altima is still a good-looking car, but for pure style in a Nissan product, we'd opt for a Maxima or take a look at an Infiniti showroom.

    The trunk is sizeable but the opening is a bit small. We were also shocked to see a $30K+ car using a prop rod under the hood.

  • Fuel Economy & Safety

    Nissan is estimating numbers of 27 mpg city/38 mpg highway for the 2.5 and 22/30 for the 3.5. In addition to safety features such as the blind-spot monitoring system and lane-departure warning system, the car sports the usual complement of airbags plus ABS, traction control, and an anti-skid system. An Active Understeer Control system helps mitigate understeer in everyday driving conditions.

  • Wrapping Up

    The new Altima is definitely an improvement over its predecessor. Its cabin is worlds better than the interior of the last car, the styling is easy enough to like, the V-6 packs a punch, and the four-cylinder can go a long way on a tank of gas. On top of that, the car is pleasant enough to drive, striking a near-perfect compromise between the more fun-to-drive mid-sizers and those that leave drivers cold.

    Yet, it's not as engaging as a few of its competitors, and the CVT will baffle some. Then again, those may not be big obstacles for Nissan to overcome, since according to the company, the car was the second-best seller in the U.S. in 2011. And there's no doubt that this Altima is one well-rounded machine. It scores points in nearly every category.

    We're curious to see how the Altima stacks up against Ford's upcoming Fusion, which we have yet to drive. For now, though, the Altima remains firmly near the top of the class. It doesn't have one standout attribute like the Sonata's styling or the Accord's ability to engage the driver, but in this class, being a jack of all trades is probably better than being the master of one.

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