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The Nissan Altima already fronts the V8 Supercars program for its marque, but this markedly different production version won’t go on sale in Australia for another few months.
Following the New York auto show, however, CarAdvice sampled the car that us locals will soon be able to buy, a mid-level 2.5-litre four cylinder front-wheel-drive model with an automatic, continuously variable transmission (CVT).
While it’s important to recognise that the Altima that will race around Bathurst this year is nothing like this production car, the same can be said for the Ford Falcon and Holden Commodore. Yes, the Ford and Holden offer V8 engines and rear-wheel drive, but they are only philosophical similarities – the hardware is entirely different.
More crucially for buyers shopping in the mid-sized sedan segment, the 2013 Nissan Altima is in the US-spec tested an excellent car.
When it arrives in June the four cylinder Nissan Altima will rival the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Mazda 6 and Ford Mondeo, while the optional 3.5-litre V6 will take on the Falcon, Commodore and Aurion.
Compared with the current Camry, the all-new Accord soon to launch in Australia, and others, the Altima is the only car to utilise aluminium body panels – for the boot lid, bonnet and roof. The Holden VF Commodore will use weight-saving, high-strength aluminum for its bonnet and boot lid, but not its roof.
For the customer, that means terrific weight savings and, by extension, economy and performance improvements.
The US-spec Altima S tested here (SL model pictured) weighs 1412kg. Every one of its competitor tip the scales further, including Camry (1460kg), Mazda 6 (1462kg), and Mondeo (1532kg).
The relative lack of weight enlivens the 2.5-litre four cylinder engine, which produces a class-average 136kW of power at 6000rpm and 244Nm of torque at 4000rpm.
The Nissan Altima engine is also teamed to one of the best transmissions available. The X-Tronic CVT works like an abacus – rather than shifting between six or seven set gears, it works like a slider that quietly moves up and down to hold maximum revs when full throttle is applied, then gently find a quiet low-rev atmosphere when cruising.
It is literally infinite in its movement; not fixed like a regular automatic. The trouble with continuously variable transmissions is that they often feel like a rubber band when the throttle is used, taking a while to wind up and then surging forward when the throttle is released.
The Nissan CVT is refined, subtle and intuitive. On freeways, for example, it allows the engine to rev at just 1800rpm at 110km/h, yet quietly creeps up the rev range on hills when more torque – or pulling power – is required. Alternatively, a Sport mode creates the sensation of ‘gears’ but really they’re computer presets that holds revs when accelerating, to ensure maximum power, or lifts revs when hitting the brake pedal, to provide engine braking.
Its CVT automatic isn’t the only area where the Nissan Altima transcends the four cylinder mid-sized class, feeling more like the big Aussie six for which our country has known for decades.
The Altima is a supremely comfortable and quiet sedan. Its interior finish is excellent, with soft-touch door trims, proper door grab handles, a colour display between the speedometer and tachometer, and comfy velour trim on this S spec.
The driving position is spot-on, with eight-way power adjustment for the driver’s seat complementing its soft yet supportive padding.
In fact, the Altima’s lack of wind and road noise, and wonderfully comfortable yet controlled suspension, are more reminiscent of a Mercedes-Benz C-Class than a Camry or Accord. The new Nissan should feel right at home on Australia’s wrinkled tarmac.
The way the car ignores small pot holes, yet deftly reigns in body movement over big undulations at freeway speed is decidedly impressive and feels very ‘premium’. A caveat here is that the 205mm-wide, 60-aspect 16-inch tyres fitted to our test car sometimes play a role in assisting comfort levels, where bigger rims – such as the 17-inch wheels on the SL model pictured – can potentially affect comfort levels.
There are a few interior niggles – the dash top plastics are hard and mismatched, there are no rear seat air vents, and the audio system on our US-spec car is basic. In the US, the higher-spec Altima (pictured below) gets rear vents and touchscreen audio, so no doubt some models here will, too.
The boot is generally large, easily swallowing five suitcases, but the ‘gooseneck’ bootlid hinges crush bags with impunity and reduce the effectiveness of the space. There’s also less rear legroom than in Camry, Accord and Mondeo, but marginally more than that offered by the Mazda 6.
The Nissan Altima measures 4.86 metres long – 71mm longer than a Camry – and an almost identical-to-Camry 1.83m wide, but its cabin doesn’t really deliver on that advantage.
Where the Altima delivers its king-hit is with driving dynamics. Its steering isn’t to Mondeo standards, lacking immediacy on the centre position yet also feeling quite direct either side of it. Nor can the Nissan match a Mazda 6 for dynamic verve, running into understeer early.
It does, however, deliver more driving enjoyment than that provided by a Camry and Accord.
The Altima feels nicely balanced, has an effective but unobtustive stability control system, and even likes to play with its driver – if it starts to push the front end wide, lift the throttle, and the car subtly pivots between its axles to continue tracking true.
This isn’t a mid-sized car for enthusiastic drivers, but as with a Volkswagen Golf, the Nissan Altima rewards with its all-round ability and class.
We don’t yet know how the Nissan Altima will be specified for Australia. According to US-spec cliche, the car we tested should have been overly soft and mushy, but it wasn’t – it felt disciplined and sophisticated.
Equally, with class-best weight-saving measures, impressive noise insulation, and very good economy – we averaged 7L/100km, freeway driving, over a 700km tank of unleaded – the Altima should be at the pointy end of the mid-sized class.
With the Toyota Camry less than a year old, the new Mazda 6 having just arrived, and the all-new Honda Accord, Ford Mondeo and Holden Malibu coming this year, the Altima will have a fight on its hands.
On first impressions, though, the Nissan Altima has the mettle to lunge towards the pointy end of the class.