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2013 Nissan Altima Pros and Cons: Why (Not) This Car?

Introduction

The Nissan Altima midsize sedan isn't at the top of public consciousness like those from Honda and Toyota, but it has been outselling the Accord and hasn't been too far behind the Camry. Nissan seems to have concocted a winning formula, but what is it? And does the redesigned 2013 Altima still have it?

Altima Reviews: Nissan Altima front quarter view

Infiniti-like character line over the front fender. (Photo of V6 model) more Altima photos

Altima Reviews: Nissan Altima interior

Doesn't work in beige.

Tested: 2013 Nissan Altima

4dr Sedan 182-horsepower 2.5L I4 CVT FWD

Compared: 2013 Ford Fusion

4dr Sedan turbocharged 178hp 1.6L I4 6-speed shiftable automatic FWD

Why the 2013 Nissan Altima?

  Compared to the Fusion
Fuel economy
Better Worse

The 2007-2012 Altima managed decent fuel economy, but the 2013 does much better. The sedan's EPA city rating is up from 23 to 27 mpg and its EPA highway rating has been bumped from 32 all the way to 38 mpg. The city figure ties the new Accord's for best of any non-hybrid midsize sedan, while the highway figure doesn't need to share the honor. How did they do it? Partly by reducing the Altima's curb weight to a compact-like 3,108 lbs., about 100 below the Accord and Camry and 300 below the new Fusion. But the MVP award likely goes to the continuously-variable transmission (CVT) with an unusually wide 7:1 ratio spread. At 60 mph the four-cylinder engine spins a very relaxed 1,450 rpm. The EPA ratings for the Fusion are lower, especially in city/suburuban driving: 23/36.


Rear seat room & comfort
Better Worse

I'm already stuck. In just about every other way aside from fuel economy the Altima is a good, even very good car, yet an unremarkable one. Either this, or a strength must be qualified with a "but." The latter is the case with the front seats. Inspired by the "zero gravity" seats designed by NASA for ultra-long-distance travel, the Altima's buckets feel substantial and fit like a glove. BUT...also check the reasons not to buy an Altima.

Move to the back seat, and Nissan's midsize sedan has a clearer advantage. The comfortably padded rear seat cushions in both the Altima and the Fushion provide good thigh support--those in many competitors do not. The Altima's rear seat isn't quite the roomiest, but it is roomier than the Fusion's.


Altima Reviews: Nissan Altima rear quarter

The longer you look, the more you see. (Photo of V6 model) more Altima photos

Altima Reviews: Nissan Altima instrument panel

Not pretty, but functional.

Powertrain performance
Better Worse

Aided by the sedan's relatively low weight, the short initial ratio of the CVT, and the ability of this transmission to hold the engine right at its 6,000-rpm power peak, the Altima's 182-horsepower 2.5-liter engines feels quick for a non-turbo four-cylinder. Nissan claims that an independent testing company (sponsored by Nissan) got the car from zero to sixty mph in a V6-like 7.14 seconds. The Altima 2.5 didn't feel that quick to me, but add another second and it's still plenty quick for typical driving. BUT...again, also check the reasons not to buy.


Quietness
Better Worse

The new Altima is among the quietest cars in the segment. But so is the Fusion.


Controls and instruments
Better Worse

Unlike some other manufacturers (especially Ford), Nissan hasn't sought to reinvent the controls that operate the HVAC and audio systems. The Altima's controls remain highly conventional, with four large knobs for major functions and a reasonable number of easy to comprehend and operate buttons for the others. The 2013 sedan is being touted as "the most innovative Altima ever," but in this case a lack of innovation is a strength.


Why Not the 2013 Nissan Altima?

  Compared to the Fusion
Front seat support & comfort
Better Worse

The NASA-inspired driver's seat is very comfortable and supportive, BUT its headrest juts so far forward that I had to remove it and reinsert it turned around. This severely compromises safety, but otherwise the headrest presses very uncomfortably against the back of my head. For this reason I doubt I could own an Altima. The average person, with a less vertical neck, won't have this problem. Just be sure to pay attention to this during your test drive.


Handling
Better Worse

Tossed into a curve, the Altima handles with moderate lean, minimal plow, and good composure. But with the 2.5 the Nissan's chassis can't approach its potential because economy-oriented tires prematurely lapse into a noisy slide. The grippier tires standard with the V6 should at least be offered with the four--though the 27/38 fuel economy would then take a hit. Add in steering that isn't nearly as quick or as communicative as a Maxima's and the non-linear operation of the CVT, and the Altima isn't notably fun to drive. The new Ford Fusion has a tighter, sportier feel.


Altima Reviews: Nissan Altima front view

Grille big enough? Not the Altima's best angle. (Photo of V6 model) more Altima photos

Altima Reviews: Nissan Altima rear seat

Roomy, though not the roomiest.

Interior styling
Better Worse

The Altima's rise began with the 2002 model, which had clearer advantages over competitors. Its V6 engine was much stronger, its rear seat was much roomier, and its exterior styling was much bolder. None of these advantages remains, as competitors have caught up. The 2002 Altima also had a major weakness: a cheap interior. The sedan's interior has been upgraded each time it has been redesigned, and interior materials are now about average for the segment. In black leather it even looks a bit upscale. But in beige cloth it's a very different story. This cloth looks like it came out of the bargain bin and its color clashes with the prevalent, overly chunky silver-painted plastic trim. There combination of black atop the instrument panel and doors with beige on their faces also doesn't work. Dark brown would work better, and the dividing line needs to be lower. Solution: get the single-tone charcoal interior.


Powertrain performance
Better Worse

The Altima 2.5 might be quick, but the engine doesn't sound pleasant when revved to 6,000 rpm and held there. For quicker acceleration that's much easier on the ears, the 270-horsepower V6 remains the way to go. The CVT also has less of a "rubber band" feel and can be manually shifted to mimic a conventional automatic with the V6.


Conclusion

Unless you must have the segment's best EPA numbers, there are no compelling reasons to buy a 2013 Nissan Altima. But, unless the front seat headrests conflict with your build like they did mine, there are no compelling reasons not to buy one, either. Well, except that it's boring. But then so are nearly all competitors. So, what's the winning formula? Apparently, solid all-around competence with hints of performance and style.

Altima Reviews: Nissan Altima 2.5-liter engine

If only the four sounded half as sophisticated as its exhaust manifold appears.

Altima Reviews: Nissan Altima trunk

Like the rest of the car, trunk capacity is better than average but short of outstanding.

See more 2013 Nissan Altima photos

Preview drive. Nissan provided airfare, lodging at an upscale hotel, high quality meals, and entertainment along with insured, fueled cars.

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