Nissan finally launches into Australia's medium segment with its sights firmly set on stealing Camry sales.
The Nissan Altima is not a replacement for the Maxima, despite the former arriving as the latter departs.
Nissan speaks openly about its determination to avoid the Altima being dumped into the declining large-car segment, so strong now is the negative perception of what was for decades Australia’s most popular class.
Regardless, the Thai-built Nissan Altima is still a family car of the traditional kind, offering loads of rear legroom and interior storage space, an effortlessly comfortable highway ride, and a sweet six-cylinder-petrol engine.
The majority of sales – Nissan predicts at least 60 per cent – will be to fleets, however, and most of those are expected to opt for the $29,990 Nissan Altima ST, which costs $500 less than the base model Toyota Camry Altise.
The entry-level Nissan Altima is reasonably equipped, coming standard with 16-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone climate control, auto headlights and keyless entry with push-button start.
With metallic paint the only option for the ST, a jump to the $35,890 ST-L is required to get the likes of Bluetooth audio streaming, satellite navigation, rear-view camera, parking sensors, leather-accented electric seats, and the NissanConnect web-linked app-based smartphone integration system.
The $40,190 Ti introduces a number of advanced safety systems, including blind spot warning, lane departure warning and moving object detection – features only matched by the top-spec $46,810 Mazda 6 Atenza. (Full Nissan Altima pricing and specification details here.)
With the exception of the flagship $45,390 Altima Ti-S, all grades are equipped with a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine that produces 127kW of power at 6000rpm and 230Nm of torque at 4000rpm – aligning the Altima closely with the 133kW/231Nm 2.5-litre Camry Altise and the 129kW/225Nm 2.4-litre Honda Accord, though slightly off the pace of the class-leading 138kW/250Nm 2.5-litre Mazda 6.
The 1435kg Nissan Altima is the lightest of the bunch – thanks in part to its segment-exclusive lightweight aluminium bonnet, roof and boot lid panels – undercutting the Mazda 6 by 27kg, the Camry by 30kg and the Accord by 75kg.
With claimed combined cycle fuel consumption of 7.5 litres per 100km, Altima narrowly beats all but the Mazda (6.6L/100km), and the petrol-electric Camry Hybrid (5.2L/100km).
With the exception of the Camry Hybrid, the Altima is the only one to send its power to the front wheels via an automatic continuously variable transmission (the rest all feature conventional torque converter autos).
Like many CVTs, the powertrain combination responds best to moderate throttle inputs but less favourably to more aggressive throttle use. The former, more measured approach contains engine revs and provides steady progression, while the latter – typical of overtaking manoeuvres and more enthusiastic driving – sends revs flaring beyond 4000rpm where the engine sounds a tad coarse and feels a little breathless.
The upside is how well the CVT settles when holding a constant speed. The engine spins below 1500rpm at 100km/h, minimising powertrain noise, which aids cabin refinement.
Oddly, the transmission features two ‘sport’ modes. Shifting the gearlever one position below ‘D’ engages ‘D Sport’, which sharpens the throttle response and introduces pre-set ‘steps’ to provide a sensation akin to an auto changing gear. The second ‘Sport’ mode – which essentially raises the engine speed around 1500rpm for more responsive performance, useful for driving up hills – is engaged by pressing a button on the inside of the gearknob.
The Sport button is traded for steering wheel-mounted paddleshifters in the Altima Ti-S, which gains the larger and more powerful 3.5-litre V6 that addresses the four-cylinder unit’s shortcomings.
Producing 183kW at 6400rpm and 312Nm at 4400rpm, the V6 feels more relaxed, delivering stronger performance across the rev range and more refinement at higher engine revs.
Two laps around the Phillip Island Grand Prix circuit as part of the Altima’s local launch proved that the V6 still sounds sweet at 160km/h with the engine nudging 7000rpm.
The V6-powered Ti-S also has the best steering of the Altima range. It’s 69kg heavier than the identically equipped four-cylinder Ti – the majority of that additional weight over the front wheels. The result is slightly heavier steering – a positive, as it removes the on-centre vagueness of the four-cylinders.
The opposite is true of the Altima’s ride, however, which provides the most cushioning over coarse surfaces on the entry-level ST’s chubby 215/60-aspect tyres that wrap around 16-inch alloys. It becomes progressively less compliant on the ST-L’s 17s (215/55 profile) and the 18s(235/45 profile) of the Ti/Ti-S.
Tyres can only do so much, however. The Altima can be slow to settle after hitting bigger bumps and it lopes over undulations, the body bouncing slightly, highlighting a slight lack of body control.
The suspension set-up is perfect for highways, however, where the Altima rolls smoothly and offers excellent cruising comfort.
The Altima’s seats – developed using research into ergonomics conducted by NASA – also provide plenty of cushioning though they offer little lateral bolstering.
Rear legroom is on par with the vehicles in the next size class (whose names must not be mentioned…) though headroom becomes tight for those around 180cm tall.
The dashboard layout is clean and user friendly. Soft-touch plastics cover the dash and doorsills, while the silver, piano black and carbonfibre-look trim blend well together and look high quality.
The central screen (five-inch in the ST, seven-inch in all other grades) gives access to the car’s infotainment system together with a smaller display in the instrument cluster, which in Ti and Ti-S grades provides information about their advanced safety systems.
The Altima is equipped with six airbags and electronic stability control, among other active and passive safety systems, though is yet to be crash-tested by ANCAP to receive an official star rating.
The deep glovebox is the highlight of a cabin that offers excellent storage options throughout.
The Altima’s 488-litre boot is 18L smaller than the Maxima’s and 27L down on the Camry, though 50L larger than that of the Mazda 6. A 60:40 split fold rear seat allows owners to expand the cargo area.
The Altima is covered by Nissan’s six-year/120,000km capped-price servicing program. The first six services (completed at six-month/10,000km intervals) cost a total of $1759.40 for both engine variants. Like all Nissans, the Altima also comes with a three-year/100,000km warranty.
The entry-level ST is the best cruiser, the V6 the sweetest engine, and while the Nissan Altima doesn’t take any revolutionary leaps forward, it’s a solid mid-sizer that gets the basics right at a good price.