It is perhaps surprising that, in a declining sales segment, Japan-based automakers have slowly and steadily elevated the mid-size sedan to a high art. The Camry and Accord are shining examples of this relentless path of incremental improvement.
And now, the sixth-generation Nissan Altima puts a third solid option into centre ring.
Stylish, comfortable and – in its basic configuration – thrifty, the Altima is lower, longer and more aerodynamic than its predecessor. Once the wallflower, the latest Altima no longer looks like an appliance whose sole purpose is to get you to and from the office. You can even throw on a jacket and tie and take it out to dinner at a fine-diner such as Toronto’s Scaramouche without having to worry about smirks from the valet.
“We wanted to satisfy the young professional who wants something sleek and stylish,” said Ken Lee, who led a design process that involved a global competition within the company.
Nissan says it took design cues from the V-motion concept car it unveiled at the 2017 Detroit auto show. Sharp lines are underlined with subtle details, such as a hood whose edge overlaps the front fenders by a few millimetres. The standard rims are 16-inch steel, but higher trim levels offer 17-inch alloy, or even – in the top end Platinum edition – handsome 19-inch wheels. The redesigned 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine is slightly tilted to make the front profile lower and sleeker.
The deep-V front grill provides a bossier look that signals a new styling direction for the company. While it looks great, the Altima has joined the ranks of automobiles whose front ends look as if they wouldn’t survive even a minor scrape with a shopping cart.
The real beauty in this all-new sedan lies in the inspired decision to offer Canadian customers intelligent all-wheel drive even in the most basic S trim level. For well less than $30,000, you get a sedan with an AWD system that automatically adjusts to road conditions.
The AWD play is a result of market research that found a lot of SUV and CUV buyers would actually prefer to drive a roomy sedan that can handle the snow. Nissan says Gen Z buyers, those who have reached early 20s, prefer sedans over SUVs by a ratio of two to one. The company expects the feature to help grow a product that already sells well in the United States (with nearly 10 per cent market share in the category), and help it gain ground in Canada, where half as many per capita are sold.
“We believe we have a huge opportunity to grow,” Lee said.
The redesign starts with the platform, which uses high strength steel to trim 18 kilograms while adding the structural stiffness needed to improve handling. With the addition of monotube rear shocks and rack-mounted electric power steering, this Altima feels more sure-footed and the steering light and progressive through tight turns.
Aggressive hill driving at the car’s unveiling in Santa Barbara, Calif., affirmed that the standard 2.5-litre engine puts the emphasis on economy (an impressive 6.5 litres/100 kilometres on the highway) rather than road-racing. Sadly, the much more robust 2.0-litre variable compression turbo model available in the United States is not being offered in Canada. That extra 60 horsepower is sorely missed.
Yet, Nissan has done wonders with the dreaded CVT, or continuously variable transmission. CVTs are known for demanding excessively high engine revs during acceleration while delivering mediocre performance. Not this one. Response to throttle inputs is instantaneous; the transmission lets the engine rev freely when passing power is needed, but settles quickly to a fuel-saving 1,500 RPM or less for loafing along the highway. It is the first CVT that works the way you want it to.
The “zero gravity” front seats hug the driver and passenger and seem well suited to long trips. The dash layout is simple, and the 20 centimetre mid-dash display screen is a breeze to figure out, partly because Nissan has kept familiar controls, such as a volume knob (thank you!).
The formerly beige interior has given way to more modern grey tones, and the cabin over all has clean lines that make it feel extra spacious, especially in the back seat where passengers will find generous leg room.
The Altima is very much a North American car. Its design was finessed in the Nissan’s San Diego studio and it is being built in Smyrna, Tenn., and Canton, Miss. It also signals that, despite the popularity of its Rogue and Qashqai SUVs, Nissan believes sedans are poised for a comeback. After all, according to Scott Park, senior manager of product planning for Nissan Canada, mid-sized sedans comprise one-third of the six million cars sold in the United States each year.
“This is Nissan’s commitment that we’re not walking away from sedans.”
Despite Ford’s recent exit from the category with the withdrawal of the Fusion, there are a broad range of mid-size sedans to choose from. They include the Optima, Sonata, Legacy, Mazda 6, Passat and the only U.S.-brand still in the game: the Chevrolet Malibu. Of that bunch, only the Subaru Legacy offers AWD on all models. The Altima’s relatively bargain-priced AWD entry point makes it a worthy contender.
- Base price/as tested: $27,998/$34,998
- Engine: 2.5-litre four-cylinder, naturally aspirated
- Transmission/drive: Xtronic CVT/all-wheel
- Fuel economy: (litres/100km): 9.2 city/6.5 highway
- Alternatives: Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Kia Optima, Hyundai Sonata, Mazda 6, Subaru Legacy
The lowered hood and sharply defined lines give this car a more naturally sporty look, without the need for gimmicky ground effects and spoilers. It is perhaps faint praise to say it is the best-looking Altima yet.
The front seats hug your hips and provide plenty lumbar support. The rear seat is surprisingly roomy, and the dash is clean and uncomplicated. Thank you, Nissan, for keeping the volume knob rather than going to on-screen controls alone.
The 2.5-litre engine – the only choice in Canada – is certainly more than adequate, with its 188 horsepower and 180 lb.-ft. of torque. A stiffened and lighter platform combined with monotube rear shocks and suspension reinforcements keep this car composed and level through moderate cornering.
The optional ProPilot semi-autonomous system available on the Platinum trim level is as good as any system in the industry, and even reads posted traffic signs – not just what’s in the database. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard. The optional responsive cruise control keeps a safe distance behind the car in front of you.
The roomy 436-litre trunk and flip-down seats make this one of the more spacious mid-sized sedans. You can carry as much as in a CUV.
The verdict: 8
The sixth-generation Altima is a thoughtful and finely executed complete remake, from the platform up. The standard AWD sets it apart from most of its peers, adding value at a competitive price.
The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.