Midway through my drive in the 2019 Nissan Altima, I was ready to pronounce it a bit “meh” – decidedly improved over the previous-generation car, but lacking in verve. That’s been a Nissan hallmark of late – a conservatism has descended upon the brand, taking out of some of the sportier cachet it was once known for.
Instead, we’ve been getting good-looking vehicles that cruise the highway just fine but lack a little bit of charm and character. This, from the brand that once called a large sedan a four-door sports car with a straight face?
My outlook changed a bit after we left lunch behind. Pulling out of the parking lot of one of California’s myriad beaches, I punched it to get up to speed. The acceleration from the 2.0-liter variable-compression turbocharged four-cylinder wasn’t life-changing or anything of the sort – we’re talking about a mid-size sedan, here, remember – but it was enough to make me remember, for the umpteenth time, that power cures a lot of ills.
Full disclosure: Nissan flew me to Santa Barbara, California and housed me in an upscale hotel and fed me excellent meals and booze. They left drink coasters and snacks in the room.
Nissan offers two engines in the new Altima – a 2.5-liter four-cylinder that is mostly carryover, and the aforementioned 2.0-liter, which replaces the 3.5-liter V6 and uses the variable-compression technology also found in the Infiniti QX50. For the uninformed, this VCT technology is essentially the use of mechanical parts to vary the compression ratio as needed. The system raises and lowers the reach of the piston to accomplish this. Higher compression ratios offer more efficiency at a greater risk of engine knock, while lower compression ratios conjure up more power and torque without the risk of premature combustion.
The other big news for this model year is the addition of available all-wheel drive, but oddly, you can’t have AWD if you want the VCT – Nissan claims it’s not a problem to fit the AWD system in VCT cars, but it’s waiting to see how buyers react to the availability of AWD with the 2.5 before offering it with the more powerful engine. I can already hear the screams of Snow Belt dealers, pining for all-wheel drive.
The previous paragraph applies only to ‘Muricans like me – you hosers up north get AWD standard and no VCT at all.
If you pick the VCT, you get 248 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque. You also get a nice exhaust snarl when you punch it. The compression ratio varies from 8:1 to 14:1, for those curious about the numbers.
Meanwhile, the 2.5 gets a slight power boost – a mere nine ponies. That brings horsepower up from 179 to 188, and the engine has been resituated in the bay to give the car a lower and wider look.
Fuel economy on the 2.5 with front-drive is up a tick – one mpg each city and highway to 28 mpg city and 39 mpg highway, though it’s one mpg down on the combined measurement (from 32 to 31). Opt to equip your 2.5 with all-wheel drive and the numbers read 26/36/30. The front-drive-only VCT checks in at 25/34/29.
As per usual, Nissan has saddled the Altima with a continuously-variable automatic transmission, one that’s programmed to shift with the feel of a standard automatic. You can feel it “upshift”, but it’s still a CVT.
Punch it in the 2.5 and the acceleration you get is fine for most passing maneuvers, but it’s decidedly mediocre in comparison to the VCT – unsurprisingly, considering it’s down 100 lb-ft of torque compared to the turbocharged engine. A lighter curb weight (exact weights vary by trim) for a front-drive 2.5 compared to a 2.0 VCT isn’t enough to help. At least the engine sounds almost as good as the turbo mill when you reach the upper rev range.
Like almost all automakers at almost all product launches, Nissan told the media that the new Altima has sharper handling than the previous-generation car. In this case, it’s true, but that’s partly because the previous car was quite soft and dull. Low bars aren’t hard to clear.
That said, the Altima displays competence when the road gets curvy. The steering is unfortunately light, but it’s accurate with little play. There’s some body roll, but it’s mostly controlled, thanks to increased lateral and roll stiffness (increased by 10 percent over the last gen). The fun-to-drive factor falls well short of the Mazda 6 or Honda Accord, but there’s enough good here that you won’t skip the Altima in the Enterprise lot, even if you plan on driving on roads that snake a bit.
The freeway cruise experience is pretty calm and smooth, but one expects that from California roads; I’m curious how the Altima deals with potholed roads in less pleasant parts of the country. Speaking of freeway cruising, the Altima’s seats are comfy for long hauls, and rear-seat space is plentiful for the long-legged. The car is mostly quiet at interstate speed, but wind noise does intrude a bit at the upper ranges of the speed limit.
Both cars I drove were the “sporty” SR trim, which has spring rates 10 percent stiffer than the base S. The SR also has 19-inch wheels as opposed to 16-inch, as well as different steering tuning. I had no chance to drive an all-wheel-drive car or a non-SR trim, so I can’t compare the SR to the rest of the line.
I also didn’t get a chance to see if the ProPilot Assist system on the Altima worked better than it did when I tested it in an Infiniti earlier this year – neither car I drove was equipped with it.
All Altimas now have a rack electric-power steering system and decreased lateral stiffness in a bid to reduce shock from impacts (seems to have worked, but again, there are few impacts on California roads).
Had I driven an all-wheel-drive Altima, I’d have piloted a car with a system that’s split 50/50 from rest, 0/100 under cruise for fuel-economy purposes, and 30/70 during cornering.
Not only was the last Altima forgettable to drive, it was forgettable to look at, too. That’s not a problem anymore, as the newly angular Altima is pleasing to the eyes. The downside is that it’s derivative of the big-brother Maxima, but if the shared resemblance cures the boredom, it’s a fair trade to make.
Inside, the materials mostly look good – a large and flat dashboard won’t work for everyone – but fit and finish on the pre-production models we drove was disappointingly flimsy in places. Looks are one thing, but materials have to feel expensive if a mid-size sedan wants to go after Camry and Accord. Again, those we drove were pre-pro models. Factory builds may be better.
The loathed-by-me tacked-on infotainment screen is here, and it is customizable. With it comes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, on all trims. Controls are laid out simplistically and logically – no fuss, no muss. It’s a clean, if plain, look.
Trims – there are six of those. Base S, “sporty” SR, SV, SL, top-line Platinum, and for a short time, Launch Edition One (turbo and FWD only). All trims except the Launch Edition One are available with all-wheel drive (unless you go turbo, of course), but the VCT is only available on the SR, Platinum, and Launch Edition One.
Base price: $23,750. SR runs $25,100 ($29,150 with VCT), SV $27,930, SL $29,840, and Platinum $31,870 ($34,780 with the VCT). Delivery fees check in at $895 and AWD adds $1,350.
Among the safety features list is rear-door alert, a driver-alert system that can warn inattentive drivers to pay attention, a rear automatic braking system that can detect objects and apply the brakes if the driver is about back into something. Cars with nav can recognize traffic signs to keep lead-footed drivers abreast of speed limits, and there’s also the usual driver-aid suspects: Lane-departure warning, blind-spot alert, rear-cross traffic alert, high-beam assist, and automatic emergency braking.
Other available features include Bluetooth, navigation, remote start, satellite radio, USB ports (4), and a rear-view camera.
Nissan’s cooked up a car that’s worlds better than what it replaces, but that wasn’t a hard job to do. The harder part is stealing sales from the stalwarts – Accord and Camry – and/or offering up something as fun to drive as the Accord, the 6, the soon-to-be-dead Ford Fusion, or even the Kia Optima SX.
Nissan falls a bit short in both departments. If I’m benchmarking here, the Altima is right about on par with the Hyundai Sonata. Both are comfortable cruisers. Neither are for enthusiasts with a mid-size need, but neither are terrible to drive – there’s just enough verve to keep you engaged.
There’s missed opportunity here, too. While I believe AWD is not always needed in the Snow Belt, many consumers do, and not offering AWD with the VCT seems a silly marketing decision. It would also be nice if Nissan offered the VCT on more trims. It doesn’t because the VCT is meant to replace the V6, so its available on the same “sporty” and top-line trims that engine was.
Instead of offering the best range of options possible, Nissan acted conservative and risk-adverse, and that’s a shame. It’s one thing if the car isn’t quite on par with the best in class. It’s another to start with one hand tied behind your back because of corporate aversion to risk.
Last time around, the Altima was forgettable. This one isn’t, thanks to its Maxima-inspired looks, and it’s better on-road than its predecessor. That’s probably not enough to fight for class supremacy, but it may be enough for many buyers. Especially those that test drive the turbo.