CHICAGO, IL – When you have a product that’s already a top seller, one has to be careful when tinkering with it. Changes can’t be too drastic or you may lose loyal customers. So it’s no surprise Nissan has taken the safe approach in designing the fifth generation of its popular Altima mid-size sedan.
Although the car is all-new for 2013, this iteration is more an evolution in design than a dramatic change – and that should please Canadian buyers who’ve made the Altima the top-selling, Japanese-brand, mid-size sedan in the country.
The stylish exterior has a more premium look, yet it's still unmistakably Altima. Although the overall length is unchanged, the track is wider and the wheelbase longer, both enhancing the Altima’s already strong ride and handling capabilities.
Nissan engineers have also made the new Altima lighter to help improve performance and reduce fuel consumption. Overall, the car is 36.3 kilograms lighter than the previous generation, with 12 kg of that mass saving resulting from lightening numerous engine parts, such as hollow camshaft lobes and a lighter exhaust manifold.
The weight-loss diet improves the new Altima’s performance significantly despite a modest increase in power. The 2.5-litre four-cylinder, which accounts for more than 90 per cent of Altima sales, is now rated at 182 horsepower, up from 175, while torque is listed at 184 pound-feet, up from 180. (The 3.5-litre, 24-valve V6 with 270 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque continues to be offered, unchanged for 2013.)
Nissan has achieved the four-cylinder’s improved output without adopting more-costly direct injection technology, although variable valve timing has been added on both the intake and exhaust camshafts. The fact the engine remains essentially unchanged means it’s an engine current owners are comfortable with already – they know its pedigree and are familiar with its performance.
What they won’t be familiar with, however, is the dramatic improvement in fuel efficiency. The 2013 Altima 2.5L is now rated at 5.0 litres/100 kilometres in highway driving – the best in its class and the most fuel-efficient gasoline-powered product in the Nissan lineup. City consumption is 7.4 L/100 km, for a combined rating of 6.3 L/100 km.
A good share of this efficiency can be attributed to Nissan's new next-generation CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission), which has been redesigned to have 40% less friction. With less power lost to friction, more engine output is getting to the ground.
The CVT’s ratios have also been improved at both the low and high ends of the gearing range, which enhances initial launch and lowers engine revs at cruising speeds. At 100 km/h, for example, the 2013 Altima 2.5 I was driving was loafing on the interstate at just 1,500 rpm. If one felt playful, however, there were paddle shifters on the steering wheel that allowed the driver to simulate a six-speed automatic gearbox.
During my time with the new Altima, I had an opportunity to compare it back to back with a 2012 Toyota Camry and a 2012 Hyundai Sonata. In terms of acceleration, the Altima felt more responsive than the competition, while its handling was significantly better.
Unlike the rear strut suspension under the Camry, the Altima has a multi-link setup that adjusts caster and camber while it travels up and down, keeping the tire level and flat with the road surface. Special bushings also automatically create a one-degree adjustment to toe-in on braking.
Nissan says it used the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series as benchmarks for the new Altima’s handling parameters – and it shows on the road. The car felt confident and stable when pushed in corners, yet the ride was comfortably compliant on the often choppy Chicago roadways.
Another feature that sets the new Altima apart from the Camry and Sonata is an active understeer reduction system. This technology uses the braking system on the inboard wheels to help rotate the car when turning into a corner. The braking action reduces the amount of steering input required and also lessens the potential for excessive understeer or "unintended lane departure."
Toyota and Hyundai both use electric power-assisted steering, but Nissan has opted for an electro-hydraulic assist. Although this approach, using an electric motor to drive the hydraulic steering pump, is more costly, it does provide more-consistent feel from the wheels to the driver, ensuring better steering feedback.
Trunk space in all three products is generous, which is significant in a family sedan. Getting stuff into any one of these cars isn’t difficult either, with all having a good-sized trunk opening and decent access height.
The Camry had an edge in overall finish, particularly with its embroidered logo on the trunk mat. In contrast, the Sonata’s trimming was just average, while the Altima was more in the middle of this mid-size trio.
One area where the Nissan did fall short was the trunk hinges – they are the cargo-crushing exposed design rather than non-intruding struts.
Inside the new Altima, the redesigned cabin has a spacious feel. Its headroom is comparable to the Camry's and superior, especially in the rear seat, to the Sonata's, which suffers because of its swoopy, lower roofline.
The rear seat bolsters in the Altima add to the occupants’ comfort, while the knee position is far better than its competitors, thanks to the theatre-style seating. There is no rear-seat heating option offered, however.
On the road, one can’t help but be impressed by the quietness in the cabin. Nissan has made a concerted effort to reduce noise intrusion into the cabin, utilizing more sound-deadening materials throughout, even in the engine compartment. The result is a noticeable reduction in interior noise – it’s 40% better than the previous model, say Nissan engineers.
With this new Altima and its improved fuel efficiency, engine performance, chassis dynamics, creature comfort and stylish flair, Nissan has raised the bar in the mid-size sedan market. It should also ensure that the Altima continues to be consumers’ top choice in the segment.