– Fairly good handling
– Great cabin with ample legroom
– Solid engine performance
– Bit firm ride quality
– Slightly limited rear headroom
– Overly soft steering
Hounded by complaints of cheap interiors and patchy build quality, the outgoing American-built Nissan Altima only captured a niche market among people tired of higher-priced Accords and Camrys. It was a side-effect of Renault buying up Nissan and then proceeding to cut costs like there was no tomorrow. Coming back to their senses, we can now say for sure that the new-for-2008 Altima has clearly addressed most of those complaints, while retaining its value-packed pricing and still remaining different from the mainstream crowd. But they might have missed a few bits.
The new exterior is the most extroverted styling ever on a “family” midsize sedan, with a swooping roofline, the raked front end and that rocketship tail. While certainly cool among younger buyers, it may scare conservative older consumers. And while everything is tightly built, we found two plastic trim pieces which were misaligned on one of the rear doors. But for all we know, this could just be a bad repair job.
The interior is a big step up from before, with quality materials rivalling their own Infiniti division. All upper surfaces have soft-touch materials, including the dashboard, armrests and door sills. The only hard plastics are found in the lower panels, which is a trick used by every other car in this price range, and they match well with the upper materials. The centre console is certainly stylish, with covers for every storage cubby, including the cup-holders. There are just handfuls of faux wood and chrome accents to brighten things up, without overdoing it. And the leather-stitching on the seats and door-inserts of our top-spec tester reminded us of premium brands.
The seats themselves were moderately bolstered in the front, and only the driver’s seat is power-adjustable. Legroom is excellent both front and back, but the stylishly low roofline means headroom is a bit tight for tall people especially in the back, although not an issue for average-sized folks. There are three cup-holders up front and two in the back, and the storage cubbies are all useful in size. The luggage trunk is pretty big, with a split-folding rear seat, and comparable size-wise to that of its class rivals.
In terms of toys for the price, the Altima outshines them all. With standard cruise control, dual exhaust tips, power windows, electric mirrors, total keyless entry and starter-button on all trim levels, while the Bose CD/MP3 stereo, CD changer, Bluetooth and dual-zone automatic a/c come on all but the most basic model, it is the best deal on the market. Our top-spec tester had extras such as rear parking sensors, sunroof, mirror-mounted indicator lamps, HID headlights, auto-dimming mirror with compass, and a trip computer. Front airbags are standard, while side-curtains are optional. As with any Nissan, the a/c is excellent, with a nice digital dual-display and rear vents in our tester. The stereo is rather good too, as long as it is not turned up too high, and there is an iPod connector as well as a cassette player too, to bridge the generation gap. The Bluetooth system is complicated to use without reading the manual, so we didn’t bother with it. Oddly, a power-adjustable passenger seat is not offered, and neither is a navigation screen.
What this top-level Altima SE does offer is a strong 3.5-litre V6, good for 270 hp at 6000 rpm and 349 Nm of torque at 4400 rpm. While it sounds a bit gruff compared to the Honda Accord’s V6 motor, the Nissan unit puts down its juice at lower revs, making it feel stronger in casual driving. The gearless CVT automatic is again an interesting contraption, acting as if the car only has one “gear” under full throttle, while it even has an entertaining manual mode that gives the impression of a quick-shifting traditional gearbox. Advantages of CVT include quicker response while overtaking since one does not have to wait for any downshifts, but there is still a bit of delay due to the needless drive-by-wire throttle pedal. In any case, with the traction control off, we netted a 0-to-100 kph time of 7 seconds flat, with minimal wheelspin and no noticeable side-to-side torque steer. Our overall fuel consumption came to around 14.4 litres per 100 km, which is slightly above average for a V6. Getting the standard six-speed manual might save slightly more petrol, while increasing the fun factor.
It is safe to say that the Altima handles very well for a midsize front-driver. It rides firm, but there is still a fair bit of noticeable body roll. However, the 215/55 tyres on 17-inch alloys do a good job with grip, and with quick zig-zag steering inputs, the body roll is controlled and never gets jiggly. Our tester did not have the optional stability control, but with sensible driving, it’s not needed. The strong ABS-assisted disc brakes and the competent front-wheel-drive platform offer easy manoeuvrability at the limit. The general characteristic is to safely understeer, or ever-so-mildly oversteer under braking during turns. But driving enthusiastically at the limit is hampered by an excessively soft steering-and-pedals setup, which made us correct our inputs numerous times in the middle of a turn or while braking, since there is very little feedback from the sensitive controls.
However, the soft controls make it easy to drive this sizeable car in thick traffic, and parking is made easy with well-placed mirrors and beeping rear sensors. While we are satisfied with the firm ride quality, it might be a bit too harsh for people used to the cosseting Camry. On some surfaces, road noise can be overly noticeable, but wind noise is admirably kept at bay on the highway. The foot-operated parking brake could’ve been placed more to the left, so as not to confuse gear-shifting people into thinking it’s a clutch pedal, as it is easy to see what such a confusion could cause.
The Altima is a unique entry in the conservative midsize segment that tries to infuse a sporty bias into a vehicle that should be battling comfort-commuter cars. Nissan should’ve gone all the way and worked more on the total sporting experience, since it might be a bit “hard” already for the non-enthusiast drivers. However, its value is undeniable, and if comparison tests with the Camry and the Accord were judged on a side-by-side listing of features alone, the Altima would be the hands-down winner.