Cars

The wow factor: Nissan’s new Altima

Wieck

Sometimes items that look really nice in a showroom—that fuchsia iPad cover or those snakeskin western boots—aren’t quite as appealing when you get them home. Those are items you consign to the back of a closet.

The reverse can be true, too.

We first saw a fleet of the fifth-generation 2013 Nissan Altimas— today’s test vehicle—this spring in Nashville. They all looked really nice as a group, but they weren’t head-spinning. Take one of these midsized sedans home and park it in the driveway, however, and suddenly you have the big fish in the small pond scenario. Call it a Wow Factor. That’s a good thing in this case. Imagine if you didn’t like it: How does the average buyer consign a car to the back of the garage?

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Our long weekend with the 2013 Altima 2.5 SL was rewarding enough to make me go back and read my own words from the spring (now THAT’s torture) to see how those first impressions compared with Round 2.

First impression: The 2013 model still is an Altima fan’s beloved car, just noticeably improved.

Round 2: True. That applies to the engine, transmission, suspension and handling, interior appointments, and exterior styling. It looks like an evolved Altima and acts like a significantly evolved vehicle.

First impression: We’ll hear a lot about Altima’s segment-leading 38 miles per gallon highway mileage rating.

Round 2: After nearly 500 miles of driving, the onboard computer was saying we’d achieved 34.8 mpg and the fuel gauge was still above ¼ full. The four-cylinder is a fuel sipper while providing acceleration equal to the V-6 engines of recent years.

First impression: Nissan’s second-generation CVT (continuously variable transmission) was the equivalent of an eight-speed conventional automatic.

Round 2: True. It’s amazing how engineers can improve on a component, making it lighter, more refined, and fuel efficient.

First impression: The aerodynamic look would set Altima apart.

Round 2: While others have gone that route, using similar deep-stamping techniques, Altima has done it so adroitly that it looks evolutionary.

First impression: Active Understeer Control is an effective silent partner that we didn’t dare try on the unfamiliar highways around Nashville, not wanting to wind up in an emergency room near the Grand Ol’ Opry.

Round 2: Intentionally doing something many drivers do unintentionally— almost missing a Rte. 95 exit, then taking it too fast—the Altima forgave us. I take that to mean the system worked in our favor.

First impression: A refined suspension. (Don’t ask me to explain independent struts, equal-length half-shafts, and advances in rear multilink designs).

Round 2: On the road, the Altima SL is very close to handling like a European sports sedan. With my prior torture tracks having been repaved this summer, I’m not telling the local DPW my new route, but the Altima handled it exactly the way I’d like a sports sedan to get the job done.

We could go on, talking about the NASA-inspired seat design, Pandora radio compatibility, and other high-tech advances, but it’s time to talk a bit about our test ride’s specifics.

For starters, you can buy the Altima with either the 2.5-liter four-cylinder or the 3.5-liter V-6. Nissan expects 90 percent of buyers to opt for the four, and the feeling here is that this is the correct choice, even though my son respectfully disagrees.

We’ve introduced Mrs. G and our twin daughters previously in this space, but never Son G. He drives an aging (2001) Maxima and is in the market for a new car (Nissan is pretty much his only choice). He also was eager to see the new Altima, a vehicle that amazed him with its new technologies.

Our test vehicle was the SL, the top of the four-cylinder lineup that ramps up from base 2.5 to 2.5 S, 2.5 SV, and 2.5 SL. The base 2.5 starts at $21,500 plus $780 destination. Our SL had an MSRP of $28,050 plus $185 for floor and trunk mats and the $780 destination. Bottom line: $29,015. And that didn’t include the $1,090 technology package that’s available now and surely will be standard in future years.

That Tech package is tied to the 7-inch navigation screen and nav system with steering wheel controls. However, it also adds desirable features such as Blind Spot Warning, Moving Obstacle Detection, and Lane Departure Warning.

First impression: After my first drives of the Altima in Nashville where Nissan also supplied its Toyota, Hyundai, and Volkswagen competitors for comparison drives, I ranked the Altima a close second to the Camry, which I felt was more refined.

Round 2: I still feel the Camry is more refined, but the Altima definitely has a sportier “driver’s car” feel that I didn’t appreciate enough on the first go-around. If you want to further confuse the options, Kia’s Optima is an interesting choice, too, with other midsized competition coming from VW’s Passat, Hyundai’s well-received Sonata, Honda’s just-introduced Accord, and the coming Mazda6 and Ford Fusion.

Altima, which represents 30 percent of Nissan sales, is an important car in the company’s 5-cars-in-15-months rollout. The others are the Pathfinder, Sentra, Versa hatchback, and Rogue. Those cars represent 70 to 75 percent of Nissan sales and will be vital as the company tries to overtake Honda to become No. 2 (behind Toyota) in US car sales.

The best part of this market competition is that you, the consumer, will pick the winners with your research and decisions.

It’s going to be fun to watch because all the ones already in the market are good choices.

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