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car review

2013 Nissan Altima 2.5 SVBob English/The Globe and Mail

In Australia, they're using Nissan's new Altima for V-8 Supercar racing, and in New York as taxi cabs, but here in Canada no multi-tasking will be required.

Yes, there's a special V-8-engined race version down under that will run in a new Car of The Future Class in V-8 Supercar, a sort of Aussie-rules NASCAR played on road courses. And, on the possibly-even-more confrontational streets of the Big Apple, hybrid-electric Altimas already in service under the city's Taxi of Tomorrow regulations are being joined by conventional versions.

But in Canada, the fifth-generation Altima can concentrate on one challenge, maintaining the model's hard-won momentum as Nissan's entry in the competitive mid-size sedan segment, a role it shouldn't have any problem filling.

Some might recall the original Altima of a couple of decades ago was the odd-car-out in this category, about one-size too small to be a comfortable fit for most North American buyers. But that changed with the third generation in 2002, with a beltline let-out to a more suitable circumference. And with the fourth generation of 2007, it began to make a move from back of the store discount rack status to become a popular choice with buyers on both sides of the border.

With the 2013 model year remake, Nissan has upped the Altima's game once again in terms of style, features, performance and fuel economy, while maintaining pricing at competitive levels with mid-size rivals.

The Altima is available with either 2.5-litre four-cylinder power, or the classic Nissan 3.5-litre V-6, both with continuously variable transmissions only. The 2.5 range starts at $23,698 and moves up through the $24,898 S to the $26,998 SV and the $29,698 SL. The two V-6-engined models are the $29,698 SV and the $32,598 SL.

The car reviewed here is a 2.5 SV with optional ($1,035) navigation and an out-the-door price of $29,862.

With size no longer an issue, Nissan kept this good-looking new one's expansion to just 19 mm, making it a still handy fit between parking meters and resulting in the addition of a few litres of extra interior volume for an even roomier cabin. It also ups trunk space by 65 litres to a more family-friendly 436 litres.

And not only is there plenty of space inside, with lots of glass to let the light in and occupants see out, but a level of style, backed up by more premium level materials, that helps fade memories of some past Nissan interiors that weren't up to this level.

The two-tone interior, black over beige in the tester, sported a bright FineVision instrument package, and a silver-trimmed, piano-black centre stack and console. The stack locates the big nav/info screen a little lower than might be desired, while the console puts the cupholders, trimmed in chrome, within handy reach.

Zero Gravity seats (power on the driver's side) have soft-ish bolsters, but proved comfortable enough, and the wheel and shift knob are leather-wrapped. The audio system sounds fine and overall noise levels are low at speed, although the exhaust makes an odd breathy rattle sometimes when you accelerate at low speeds. This example also produced an audible shudder from the sunroof shade when you closed the driver's door a bit too firmly. But other than those niggles, honest praise for the interior designers' efforts.

Equipment includes heated seats, push-button ignition, intelligent key entry, remote starter, dual-zone climate control, speed-sensitive audio control and Bluetooth.

In addition to multiple airbags, the Altima's safety kit includes stability and traction control, a rear-view monitor and one remarkably clever feature, a low tire pressure warning system that also assists in maintaining proper pressures. When you are adding air from a garage compressor, the Altima honks once when you get close, and sounds three quick beeps when correct pressure is reached. Additional electronic driving aids are optional.

Helping to keep its tire pressures correct is just one way the Altima promotes fuel economy. The 2.5-litre four and continuously variable transmission are teamed to make sure you use less, too, a claimed 15 per cent less than the old generation. Its rating numbers are 7.4 litres/100 km city and 5.0 highway. My week with it resulted in an 8.4 litres/100 km average, and 7.1 litres/100 km on a partly hilly 200-km highway trip.

The motor makes 182 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque and the CVT "automatic" delivers it not only efficiently, but much less annoyingly than in the past. In fact, it's easily one of the best I've ever driven, more responsive and producing less of the unusual/unpleasant engine note these transmissions promote. With times of 8.6 seconds to 100 km/h and 5.7 seconds to get from 80 km/h to 120 km/h it, it was the quickest in its AJAC Canadian Car of The Year category.

This latest Altima is based on a new stiffer structure that's 32 kilograms lighter, with MacPherson struts up front and a new multi-link rear suspension and an electro-hydraulic power steering system. The latter produces a slightly odd on-off-centre sensation, but otherwise provides a firm-enough-feeling link to the P215/55R17 all-season front tires, which feed the car into turns fluidly. Body motion is well controlled and ride compliant.

Overall, it feels competent, predictable and safe rather than sporty, in terms of both power and handling, which will suit most buyers just fine. If you want more steam, opt for the quick, 270-hp V-6.

There are currently a bunch of new and good offerings in the mid-size category, and Nissan's new Altima can definitely be counted among them.

Tech specs

2013 Nissan Altima 2.5 SV

Type: Mid-size sedan

Base Price: $26,998; as tested, $29,862

Engine: 2.5-litre, DOHC, inline-four

Horsepower/torque: 182 hp/180 lb-ft

Drive: Front-wheel

Transmission: CVT

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.4 city/5.0 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, Mazda6, Honda Accord, Buick Regal, Chevrolet Malibu