Nissan Altima US 23

2016 Nissan Altima SL Review: US quick drive

Rating: 7.0
$11,930 $14,190 Dealer
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The US-market buys Nissan Altimas at a staggering rate, contrary to Australia. We spent some time in LA finding out why.
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Let’s be realistic, the Nissan Altima sedan is a bit anonymous in Australia.

Disregard attempts to sex up the Altima up through Nissan’s factory backed V8 Supercars connection. The parallels are marketing-led, though that isn’t to impugn the hard work done by the team to make a competitive touring car.

Truth is, the Nissan Altima is more of a rival to the fleet-focused Toyota Camry than the premium Mazda 6. It’s safe, spacious and evokes vanilla. And that’s quite ok. It has a place.

The problem is that, unlike the locally-made Camry, the Altima is not particularly popular in Australia. The Camry averaged 2300 sales per month in 2015 and won 53 per cent market share. The Altima? A monthly average of 124 and 2.9 per cent share.

It would be easy to call the Altima a victim of the SUV boom that has hurt medium cars, but the fact is, even the niche Skoda Octavia outsold the Nissan last year.

So why are we covering it? Well, to understand a mid-sized car, you really have travel to the land of them — the United States. Americans love their medium sedans almost as much as their pickup trucks, and they love few cars in this segment more than the Altima.

Fortunately, I was in the US a few weeks ago covering the Detroit motor show. A quick trip westwards to California — principally to defrost from the cold, and eat In-N-Out burgers — required the organisation of a set of wheels.

What better than the ubiquitous Nissan? Especially when you consider that the company’s US wing launched a significantly upgraded model late last year, with new front and rear design, cabin updates, chassis tweaks and extra safety equipment among the changes.

“One of the most extensive mid-cycle makeovers in Nissan history,” if you believe the brand. “No area was left untouched”. Hmm.

We wanted to know what it was like to drive US market's tenth most popular car, at home. Especially when you consider the fact that it is almost entirely ignored in Australia. Have we missed something here? Does scarcity, in the Nissan’s case, actually decrease value?

In LA, Altimas are just everywhere. Sit in gridlock for a few minutes and look around. You’ll see another Altima somewhere in frame. And a Camry. Next to a Honda Accord. Unless they’re obscured by a dual-tyred RAM or F-Series.

Americans bought or leased about 330,000 of them last year alone. In other words, Nissan US sells as many Altima sedans in two days as Nissan Australia sells in an entire year. It’s far and away the company’s top seller.

In SL spec, our car starts in the US at $28,570, which is about $A40,500, exactly what an equivalent Altima Ti costs in Australia (before your inevitable discount). Who said cars in Australia were overpriced, again? Given the SL costs the same as a Camry, more or less, it's decent value. In the US, you can also lease Altimas for well under $200 per month with 12,000 mile annual limits. No wonder they're so popular...

The “major update” to the 2016 Altima, revealed in September last year (three years into the car’s life-cycle), brought with it a redesign. This new design language can also be found on the US-market new-generation Murano and Maxima, neither of which come to Australia.

Our test car, compared to the old version — and the Altima still sold in Australia, we’d add — get new sheet metal front and rear, a much more muscular frontal design with revised grille and headlights, new bumpers and boot lid, and different tail-lights. Improved aero comes from active grille shutters and underfloor covers.

Don’t swallow too much Kool-Aid, the mid-life update here isn’t as significant as what Toyota did on the new US-designed Camry, where every single panel changed (see our video interview with the chief designer of that car here). But the overall look and stance was rather aggressive on our SL test car, well-proportioned and even a shade desirable.

The MY16 Altima is also quieter thanks to acoustic glass and the application of more sound insulation, particularly in the firewall, and stiffer thanks to additional high-tensile steel in the pillars. There are even new door seals, put through 200,000 open/close cycles, apparently. I hope by robotic arms…

The cabin also gets a few tweaks, though as with the Camry the overall design updates seem less substantial than what’s happened on the outside.

Our tester had the optional 7.0-inch touchscreen-based NissanConnect system with satellite-navigation, split-screen capability and mobile apps. It gets 3D-effect map views, voice recognition (if you can fake an American accent or tone down the bogan-chic Aussie twang), and turn-by-turn navigation (presumably to find Shake Shack more easily).

Being the US, you also get the ability to stream SiriusXM radio for all the Howard Stern you could wish for. The thing is, though, this system looks a little lo-fi compared to, say, the Mazda 6’s MZD Connect.

It’s better than the Camry’s, however. Furthermore, the sound-deadening and the nine-speaker BOSE system made this a very pleasant high-way high-miler. As with the Toyota, there’s no digital speedo, but the US police won’t take away your points for going 2mp/h over either…

Nissan will tell you the revised materials in the cabin — such as our car’s leather seats and contact points, and trim finishes — are craftsman-like and rival “upscale luxury sedans”. The ambience doesn’t, but everything feels very tough and hardy, which is more important.

Familiar are the Zero Gravity front seats standard on all trim levels, developed with NASA research data (legit). Suffice to say my five-hour stretch on-road didn’t necessitate a five-hour stretch of my legs and shoulders afterwards. They’re just fantastic (the seats, that is. My shoulders are iffy…)

There are good levels room in the rear as well, with plentiful space for three adults abreast and ok (if not fantastic) headroom even with a sunroof fitted. Big seats, big cupholders and something pliant across big expanses — Nissan knows what’s needed.

What’s it like on the road? Forget the V8 Supercar tie-in, the Altima has never been a dynamic champion. But its compliant suspension setup and light, slightly vague steering are fit-for-purpose if a highway high-miler is your desire.

Our test SL was fitted with the base QR35 2.5-litre petrol four with variable valve timing, rather than the vaguely interesting 183kW 3.5-litre V6. It offers a class-competitive 136kW of power and 247Nm of torque. Current Australian versions get 127kW/230Nm, but it’s unclear if this is a translation issue. Nissan doesn’t mention any power bumps…

Torque is sent to the front wheels via a CVT, albeit a retuned one in third-generation form, which Nissan claims is more responsive to throttle inputs off the line and during rolling acceleration, and kept quieter thanks to the aforementioned extra firewall insulation.

Naturally, the CVT still drones along and lacks the defined ratios that one is used to, but it’s decent as far as single-speed transmissions go, and is fairly linear and responsive around town much like a conventional slushbox auto. The engine is no firebrand, but the Altima will happily sit at 130km/h at less than 2500rpm all day.

Fuel economy is 10 per cent better than before thanks to aero tweaks and a new engine compression ratio. It’s now best-in-class, Nissan claims, with a highway reading of 39mpg (7.2L/100km). Our long, long highway cruise yielded mid-30s. We’d still have the six-pot.

Nissan swears black and blue that this iteration of the Altima is sportier. The independent suspension setup (benchmarked against the Euros) comprises new shocks rear springs and bushings, plus new tyre designs. But the fact the sporty Altima SR has 20 per cent less body roll than the SL tells you that our car has a surplus when pushed…

Our SL tester rode on 17-inch alloy wheels. Not particularly low profile, but nevertheless partly responsible for an occasional ‘busy-ness’ in the cabin. The Altima is cushy, but can get mildly brittle over LA’s brutal road joins. Good, not great.

Nissan also claims to have sharpened the on-centre steering response via a re-mapping of the hydraulic power steering valve, though it still passes the straight-ahead ‘sneeze test’. It’s light and devoid of feedback, but the car is actually somewhat poised and eager to turn in when pressed. Not to Mazda 6 or Ford Mondeo levels, but sharper than a Camry.

The nifty Active Understeer Control system brakes the inside front wheel to remove the curse of front-drive cars, and it does so relatively well. This, plus the inoffensively calibrated ESC, mean you can have a quick punt about.

One area where the 2016 Altima does feel Euro premium is in the realm of active and preventative safety.

You get Predictive Forward Collision Warning, radar-based Blind Spot Warning, Forward Emergency Braking, Intelligent (radar-guided) Cruise Control and Rear Cross Traffic Alert.The blind-spot monitor is especially welcome, because the C-pillar and small-ish side mirrors give you a sizeable gap in rearward vision.

The radar cruise proved effective enough, though the pickup of the CVT/engine once the obstacle ahead clears was mediocre, a bit like a previous-generation system.

So that’s the 2016 Nissan Altima, in US-specification. As we said, it’s not clear if this new-look version will come to Australia, or if the Thai plant will just keep making the older ones. Nissan Australia isn’t saying much on that front.

Our experience more than anything else was to spend some time while in the US driving a car owned and loved by more people than almost any other.

The Altima is utterly inoffensive and occasionally excellent, which last time we checked was the secret to most successful pop stars. Guess it applies to cars too…