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Nissan: No longer content being the 'other' car maker

It has been 20 years since the first Nissan Altima rolled off the line in Smyrna. Today, more than 4.4 million Altimas later, Nissan celebrates another milestone: production of the top-selling vehicle's fifth generation.


Here at company headquarters a half-hour's drive from Music City, USA, the Nissan brain trust behind the reinvented 2013 Altima is, of course, making a compelling case for their new mid-size sedan. They think they've nailed it and that's to be expected. If they're right, 20,000-plus Canadian buyers a year will be cheering, while competitors will be jeering – in vain – the new, No. 1 selling mid-size sedan in Canada.

But then, it's hard to imagine attending one of these product presentations – and I go to 25 or 30 a year – in which the designers, planners, engineers and marketers drop to their knees to confess that they messed things up, that the updated model is a collection of misadventures and mistakes, that's it's not very pretty and that they have no idea how to convince a single customer to plonk down thousands of dollars for a car gone wrong from start to finish. I would like to see that before I die, or retire. But it does not happen, even though it has the makings of a Ben Stiller comedy: Meet the Foul-ups.

The thing is, the latest, fifth-generation Altima ($23,698-$29,598) does seem well-conceived.

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Moreover, the Altima has a good track record dating back to the 1992 launch of the original, a car Jerry Hershberg, then Nissan's top designer, called a modest little car that surprised everyone by taking the market by storm. Twenty years later, Nissan has sold more than 4.4 million Altimas. It has been, arguably, Nissan's best and most consistent model for a long time: reliable, affordable and boasting an excellent resale value.

Even at that, Canadian product planning chief Tim Franklin says he and his confreres expect the 2013 Altima to "overachieve." Why? Let him count the ways.

First, the 2013 base model with the automatic CVT (continuously variable transmission) will arrive in late July/early August with a sticker price $1,600 below the outgoing 2012 model. Of course, to clear out remaining Altimas on dealer lots today, Nissan Canada is in the midst of an aggressive sales event. It's an employee pricing promotion which, when packaged with other discounts, would slice the transaction price by several thousand for the savvy and determined buyer. Just so you know.

Second, Franklin and his confreres believe they have a way better car than not just the outgoing Altima, but also all the main competitors – Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, Kia Optima, Chevrolet Malibu, Toyota Camry, Dodge Avenger/Chrysler Sebring, Volkswagen Passat, Mazda6 and Hyundai Sonata. Franklin, an earnest engineer who did his graduate school work at nearby Vanderbilt University – the Harvard of the south – calmly ticks of a list of improvements and innovations, one by one:

  • “Provocative, emotional” styling inside and out, projector headlights, LED taillights, a rich cabin and “zero gravity” seats inspired by the U.S. space program.
  • A driving experience second to none. Credit the new rear suspension, an updated CVT, a weight-loss program (32 kilograms less despite the weighty burden of adding more features and meeting tougher government rules). Add in a more rigid body structure – one that will help the Altima meet the roof crush standard that has prevented the 2012 Altima from earning a Top Safety Pick from the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
  • Then turn your attention to a smart braking feature aimed at managing understeer, or the tendency to plow through corners so commonplace with front-drive cars like the Altima and its rivals. The idea behind all of this is to deliver the kind of road manners you might actually enjoy.
  • And more technology than anyone else. He points to a nifty little “Drive Assist Display” in the instrument cluster that reads out all sorts of information, including ongoing fuel economy. And the car has blind spot detection and lane departure warning and a way to easily integrate your smartphone, and on and on.

The technology piece really is at the heart of the Altima story. No, it's more than that. Nissan wants you to get its "innovation" message and embrace it. Let's be honest here: the Nissan brand is a little fuzzy, somewhat ill-defined and anonymous. Nissan has always been that "other" big Japanese brand, the poor cousin to Toyota and Honda. This has become more than a little irksome for the likes of Franklin, not to mention company CEO Carlos Ghosn.

So Nissan is throwing its energies into in-car systems, gadgets and gizmos. Take the Drive-Assist Display in the '13 Altima, a four-inch colour display in the instrument cluster that reads out blind spot warnings, tire pressure numbers, lane departure warnings and more.

You can also use voice commands to pair up your smartphone, a remote start function for those cold mornings in January, fuel economy that leads everyone – 38 mpg on the highway (in the U.S.) versus 37 for the Fusion and Chevy Malibu ECO, 35 for the Sonata and Camry, 34 for the Accord and 31 for the Passat. (Canadian fuel economy numbers are a couple of weeks off.)

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However, let's not overlook what's going on in the mid-size car class. Nissan is coming out of the gate first for 2013 with its reinvented sedan, but that's not the end of the story. A new Fusion is coming for 2013 in the fall and it will have better fuel economy than the outgoing model. Chevy plans to launch a new 2013 Malibu in Canada this fall, too. Ditto the Honda Accord. You can also get a Passat with a diesel engine that delivers sparkling fuel economy.

The Altima? No diesel, but you do have a choice of two other engines: a 2.5-litre four-cylinder (182 horsepower) and a 3.5-litre V-6 (270 hp). But Nissan hasn't made leaping improvements in power here; the 2012 four is rated at 175 hp and the V-6 is unchanged at 270.

The big powertrain upgrade is in the CVT, which is your only transmission choice (a six-speed manual is still available on the 2012). Nissan's argument is that its CVT is smoother, smarter and, in the race for fuel economy gains, it accounts for as much as a 10 per cent bump. The fuel economy piece is true, but many critics love to jump on the disconnected feel of a CVT, any CVT.

The question is, though, will all this add up to an Altima that trumps the competition and sets Nissan down a new course of world or at least market domination? It's early days, but we know this: the Altima is the first of five new models from Nissan due in the next 15 months, including new Pathfinder and Rogue SUVS. Thus, the Altima is a harbinger of things to come from Nissan and central to Ghosn's latest Power 88 business plan – the 88 representing the five-year goal of an overall 8 per cent profit margin and 8 per cent global market share.

Nissan no longer wants to be that "other" Japanese car company and the new Altima speaks volumes about how the company plans to kick sand in the face of its competition.

Click here for Jeremy Cato's review: 2013 Altima: Priced right, without sacrifice

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