By Christopher A. Sawyer
It wasn’t until the third generation launched in 2001 that the Altima became the car we know today. The two previous generations were, to be brutally honest, small and dumpy little cars that would have had a hard time standing out in a crowd if they were on fire. That all changed in 2001 with a car that was larger, much more handsome, well-equipped and aimed directly at the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. And because it was both sportier and less bland that its main rivals, people took notice.
The fourth-generation Altima built on the base of its immediate predecessor. It retained an independent rear suspension, but reduced its cost and complexity. (Third-generation Altimas got their IRS almost intact from Nissan’s Skyline.) Engineers spent countless hours developing a suspension layout that dramatically reduced torque-steer (the tendency of the front wheels to steer the car under hard acceleration), without adversely affecting ride. And money that had been taken out of the third-generation car’s interior to keep costs under control was put back in. Sales increased. Yet the Accord and Camry still held top-of-mind with the midsize car buyer.
That’s when the unintended acceleration question began to dog Toyota, Honda seemed to run out of inspiration, and Nissan became the #2 Japanese nameplate in the U.S. Even though the car was not the new kid in town, it began to attract more buyers. Part of its success, ironically, came with the global financial downturn. People were shopping value harder than ever, and those going up — and down — the size staircase were attracted to this American-built Japanese midsize car. Unlike at any other time in its now 20-year history, Nissan’s Altima was the right car at the right time for the right price.
So what makes the 2013 Altima so different? Let’s start at its base, the monocoque structure upon which everything literally rests. Slightly larger than its predecessor, it is nevertheless 79-lb. lighter than before. Ultra-high-strength steel — so strong it must be stamped into shape while hot — is used throughout for reinforcements and in structure-critical areas. Aluminum replaces steel in the hood and bumper reinforcements. And engineers spent countless hours refining load paths and perfecting joints to get the most effect with the least material possible. Already one of the lighter entries in the segment, the base 2013 Altima weighs 3,108 lb. V6 models are, on average, 120-lb heavier than their four-cylinder twins.
VW’s Passat, the Toyota Camry and Honda’s Accord all offer the option of a V6, but it’s becoming increasingly common to replace them with direct-injected turbocharged fours of similar output. Though more complex (and expensive) they offer better part-throttle fuel economy while matching the larger engines in performance. For Nissan, however, it was easier to take its award-winning 3.5-liter V6 and drop it into place, even if just 10% of buyers are expected to order this engine. Especially when the supposedly archaic six-cylinder engine weighs less than some competitors’ turbo fours while producing 270 hp, 258 lb-ft of torque and approximately 10% better fuel economy (est. 22 mpg city/31 mpg highway).
The vast majority of buyers, however, will order the 2.5-liter inline four, which has been redesigned for improved efficiency and lighter weight. (mileage is estimated at 28 mpg city/38 mpg highway.) Variable timing was added to both the intake and exhaust camshafts, the lightweight variable-flow intake manifold helps flatten the torque curve, a smart alternator works only when needed to reduce drag on the engine and the starter motor is more efficient. If that’s wasn’t enough, the cylinder head walls are thinner and aluminum replaces steel for the exhaust manifold cover, helping reduce engine weight by 11 lb. Horsepower is up seven to 182 hp, and torque is 180 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm.
Backing this up, on both the four and V6, is a heavily revised CVT, the only transmission available on the 2013 Altima. Fully 70% of its components were redesigned, the ratio range was expanded to be equivalent to a conventional 8-speed automatic, friction was reduced by 40% through the use of a more viscous oil (but less of it to cut drag), and the control logic was revised. Two improvement are of note: Lift Foot Control holds the ratio should the driver momentarily lift his foot, and Brake Downshift causes the transmission to grab a lower ratio if the driver brakes while entering a turn. Both help ensure the right ratio is in place, making the car more responsive.
V6 models get standard paddle shifters and a manual shift mode. Drivers unfamiliar with CVTs undoubtedly will find the transmission’s effect on the engine note — the engine races up under hard acceleration before quickly leveling off and dropping as the ratios change on the fly, and low-speed acceleration keeps the engine at a low rpm level while the transmission does the heavy lifting — disconcerting after years of dealing with conventional automatics. Still, it’s hard to argue with its relative mechanical simplicity, and the effect it can have on both performance and fuel economy.
Surprisingly, Nissan didn’t go for a full-electric power steering system deciding instead to use an electric motor to drive the hydraulic rack and pinion steering system. This eliminates the parasitic drag that comes with driving a hydraulic pump directly from the engine, while retaining the more natural feel of a hydraulic system.
Though Active Understeer Control may sound like something related to the steering system, it actually is a function of the braking system. During cornering, the car looks at steering angle, intended vehicle path and speed, then brakes the inside front wheel to tighten the line through a corner. It operates in the background and varies its response to the need, making the car feel more nimble. The brakes, by the way, are 11.7-in vented discs up front and 11.5-in solid discs in the rear. Four-channel ABS, brake assist, and electronic brake force distribution are standard.
The strut front suspension has an anti-roll bar, pretty standard practice in the industry. Out back, the multi-link independent rear suspension goes in a direction opposite most of its contemporaries. The percentage of aluminum has been reduced and replaced by a larger proportion of lightweight steel pieces. If that wasn’t enough, Nissan engineers added a lateral link on each side that ties lower arms together. The front arm pulls the leading edge of the tire in slightly to aid rear stability, compensate for tire deformation under cornering, and improve both tracking and stability. In addition, bushings on the lateral arms control the rate of toe-in change, and allows a limited amount of fore-aft wheel movement to reduce ride harshness. These arms and their bushings also increase the lateral stiffness of the rear suspension. Premium ZF Sachs dampers are used in the rear, and the combination results in a composed ride, excellent damper control and the ability to corner cleanly. Unfortunately, the Altima lacks the touch of verve, fun and personality it needs to stand out as more than a surprisingly composed, quiet highway cruiser that also can corner.
Two other technologies worth mention are the Easy Fill Tire Alert air pressure system (standard on all Altimas) and the rearview camera that comes as part of the $1,090 Technology Package. If you’ve ever needed to add air to a tire when there’s no tire gauge handy, the Easy Fill system will alleviate your fears. Once you start adding air to the tire, the four-way flashers begin to flash to acknowledge that air is being added to the tire. When the recommended inflation pressure is reached, the horn honks to let you know you’ve reached the right pressure. However, if you continue to fill the tire, the horn will honk insistently when you have reached the maximum recommended pressure. If you want to lower the pressure to the correct level, just let air out until the horn gives a single honk. It’s that simple.
The rearview camera, unlike the items seen to this point, is used to provide visual information for the blind spot and lane departure warning system as well as the moving object detection system. It is much simpler and cheaper than the short-wave radar units used in similar systems, but is susceptible to reduced visibility in snowy, wet, dusty and muddy conditions. To combat this, the camera initiates a cleaning cycle when its vision is obstructed. A jet of washer fluid is sprayed at the lens, followed by a puff of air to dry it before more gunk is deposited.
The real space technology, however, is found in the cabin. Using NASA research on seating and posture, Nissan engineers created a seat that closely imitates the “neutral posture” the human body takes in a weightless environment. The seat shape provides continuous support from pelvis to chest, and distributes point loads over larger areas. This helps reduce muscular and spinal loads, and improves blood flow, each of which helps reduce fatigue on long journeys. (I found the seats to be extremely comfortable during our three-hour drive.) Also, the optional leather seating surface is fully perforated for better breathing, and heated seats are available as an option.
All Altima models also come with Advanced Drive Assist, a rather pretentious name for a 4.0-in LCD display screen situated between the speedometer and tachometer. System warnings, individual tire pressure readings, audio information, turn-by-turn directions (if the car is equipped with the optional $590 navigation unit), and individual settings appear in this display.
One reason the Altima is so quiet is the addition of 3M Thinsulate material to the headliner. This damps noise that resonates along the roof panel, and even helps reduce the sound of the available power moon roof’s electric motor. That’s attention to detail.
The base Altima 2.5 gets an AM/FM/CD unit with four speakers and MP3, WMA and RDS compatibility. Move up to S or SV trim and the number of speakers rise to six, while the SV models add a USB port and iPod connectivity, speed-sensitive volume control and Sirius/XM. The top of the line SL models add three more speakers for a total of nine, an AUX port and Bose audio. Bluetooth and Bluetooth streaming audio are standard on all Altimas, with Pandora, Google point of interest search, and Nissan’s hands-free text messaging assistant standard on the SV and SL trim levels.
I could go through all of the options, packages and standard equipment, but leave it to those interested to either check out Nissan’s website or visit their local dealer. The base 2.5 Altima starts at $21,500, the 2.5 S at $22,500, the 2.5 SV at $24,100, and the 2.5 SL at $28,050. Pricing for the 3.5 V6 is: $25,360 (S), $27,780 (SV) and $30,080 (SL). Buyers who pre-order also get a $700 3 year/45,000 complimentary maintenance plan free. What’s not clear is if there are any deals available for competing automakers wanting to buy an Altima for their evaluation fleets. Based on my short time with the 2013 Altima, there will be lots of requests for just such a deal.