2013 Nissan Altima 2.5S (USA)

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Just over a year ago, I spent a couple of days behind the wheel of the Altima, Nissan’s best-selling car in America, and a long standing rival to the big-selling Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. I concluded that whilst it was in no way exciting, it was a very impressive motor car, and also that it was certainly preferable, in my opinion, to the recently superceded Toyota Camry. At the time, it was widely rumoured that an all new, fifth generation Altima was waiting in the wings, and sure enough, a few weeks later, Nissan unveiled their 2013 model, a car which claims to be “all new”, even though it does not dare to deviate from the formula which had seen sales increase steadily over the years. Although a lot of the sales of cars in this class go to fleets including the car rental companies, it is clear that Nissan have tried hard to imbue the 2013 Altima with more of a sense of style than was present in the outgoing car. Taking its cue from the larger Maxima, it now sports the less rectangular light units front and rear, and there is judicious use of chrome accents, on the door handles, the boot and even in the edge of the light clusters. I would say that it works and this is a smart looking car. The mechanicals were also updated, with a reworked 2.5 litre 4 cylinder engine generating a little more power than before, and there is a new version of the continuously variable transmission. Although it is marginally larger than its predecessor, with around 1″ extra length and width, Nissan have trimmed off some weight, and model for model the 2013 version is around 80 pounds lighter, making it among the lightest cars in its class . There are currently a lot of 2013 Altima in the Hertz fleet, and when I arrived at the facility in Phoenix, and found it relatively devoid of cars ready to rent, taking one of these from the Gold Choice selection seemed like my best option, and the chance to find out how worthwhile the improvements in the 2013 car really are.

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I came to the Altima after a couple of days driving around in a Corvette, so was well aware that I needed to do a certain amount of resetting my expectations back to how a regular family sedan should perform. Even so, first impressions on the short journey between the Hertz Phoenix Airport facility and my hotel were not particularly positive. For a start the steering felt very light and vague, and then as I pulled up onto the freeway, the engine sounded awfully raucous and the CVT gearbox seemed to be doing what causes these transmissions still to have a somewhat jaded reputation. However, out on the road the following day, everything seemed a lot better. For sure, the Altima’s 182 bhp 2.5 litre engine is noisier than is really acceptable when accelerating hard, however, once a steadier speed is reached, it is extremely quiet and refined indeed. Drive it more gently, and you will not even experience the noise when accelerating. The CVT transmission is actually not bad, working quickly to respond to what your feet are doing with pedals, and that includes braking, which can be quite jerky with this type of gearbox. The Altima is plenty quick enough to keep up with the flow of traffic, and never had me worrying when a sudden burst of speed was needed, either to pull out on the freeway or across an intersection in the gap between cars. What is impressive is the fuel economy. I had read reports suggesting that this car is particularly economical, and when the fuel gauge had still not moved after I had driven 120 miles, I was beginning to wonder whether it was stuck. Eventually it did start to nudge down, but in my test distance of 319 miles, I managed to squeeze in just 9.4 gallons, which equates to 33.4 mpg US or 39.9 mpg Imperial, a very impressive figure indeed. When full, the trip computer advised that the range was over 600 miles, and I believe it. That is really very good indeed for a car of this size. Although my first impression had been that the steering was too light and lacking feel, I came to the conclusion that it was not as bad as that, and although no Ford would probably ever be allowed on the road feeling like this, it is far better than many contemporary vehicles. It is light, especially around the straight ahead position, but does gain a bit of weight as you twist the wheel, so when you are on swoopy and twisty roads, you do actually have a pretty good idea what the steered wheels are doing. The handling proved to be front wheel drive safe and unremarkable, but with little body roll, and the fact that the gearbox should ensure you are always in the optimum gear (that’s the theory of a CVT), the Nissan could be hustled along winding roads with some aplomb. Arizona’s roads are not like those in neighbouring California, as most of them are beautifully smooth, so testing the ride out in this State is more difficult, though I did experience a bit of bump/thump on a rough patch of the I10 south of Phoenix, and there was a certain amount of tyre noise evident. Perhaps this was all the more so as wind noise is well suppressed and at speed the engine is also quiet. Otherwise, on the move, all was composed and comfortable. The brakes worked well, needing just the right amount of pressure on the pedal to bring the car to a halt. There is a foot operated pedal for the parking brake. Visibility did not present any undue problems with good field of vision from the mirrors, and plenty of glass, so it was relatively easy to judge the extremities of the Altima when parking and manoeuvering.

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Nissan’s attempt to try to make the latest Altima look more up-market continue on the inside, and by and large I would say they have been successful. Contrast this car’s inside with the sea of grey plastic that you would have expected to find in a rental spec family saloon only a few years ago and you can see that enormous strides have been made. The seats were trimmed in a sort of felt like material, and finished in black. Whilst they looked quite smart, and the material was nice to sit on, on a hot day, it showed every single spec of dust, fluff and hair, so was not entirely practical. The same material finds its way to the central part of the door casings. The main dash moulding is from a soft touch dark grey plastic, and there is some piano black trim finish on the centre console which I thought looked a lot classier than some of the sort of plasti-minium nasties that many manufacturers inflict upon us. Judicious use is made of chrome finishers, on the edge of the transmission tunnel, the steering wheel spokes and edging the centre of the dash, as well as rings around the instrument dials. It is not too bright and tawdry looking, which is good for the ambience that Nissan are clearly trying to create. On to the dashboard, and it contains a single cowl over the instruments, of which there are two large dials for speedometer and rev counter, with a smaller duo of fuel gauge and water temperature set in the base of the larger pair. All are very clearly marked and easy to read. Sitting between the two main dials is the Advanced Driver Assist display area for the trip computer functions and other vehicle information. You cycle between the various menus by pressing one of the buttons on the steering wheel boss. I particularly liked the very clean font in which they were displayed. Chunky steering column stalks from the Nissan parts bin operate the wipers, indicators and lights. The centre of the dash contains the audio unit, a relatively simple affair on this model, offering AM/FM radio, a CD slot, and elsewhere there is MP3 and a USB port. Below this are the controls for the air conditioning, which proved very easy to use, and the system was effective at dealing with 90 degree heat. Buttons on the steering wheel boss operate the cruise control, some repeater functions for the audio unit and the trip computer. Like its predecessor, there is keyless starting, so as long as the fob is in range you just press the “Start/Stop” button to the right of the wheel. I find this feature very convenient, especially when hopping in and out doing photos. The only downside is I can be sure that there will be rental car customers who walk away at the end of the rental with the key still in their pocket. With the possible exception of the plastic steering wheel, the overall impression is one of simple elegance, which is probably exactly what Nissan were hoping I would say.

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Despite the ever increasing popularity of SUVs and CrossOvers, cars like the Altima still need to handle family duty with ease, which means space for passengers and luggage. The Altima makes a decent fist of this. In the S model, the driver’s seat has 6 way electric adjustment, which made it easy to get the seat where I wanted it. The column adjusts manually, so I readily got my perfect driving position, and the seat proved very comfortable, though I did not actually have an extended period sitting on it without interruptions during this test. There is ample space in the back, with head room that extended a couple of inches above my scalp, and enough leg room  even when the front seats were set well back. Although there is a drop down central arm rest with cup holders on the upper surface, this folds in flush with the seat back rest and so a third adult could doubtless sit quite comfortably in the back. There is a good sized boot, which is regular in shape, and I was pleased to find that as well as a remote opener on the key fob and the dash, there is a button on the boot lid as well. The rear seat backs, split asymmetrically, can be folded down, by tugging at the loops that appear just under the upper edge of the boot lid, though as the rear headrests are an integral part of the seat back, you will need to make sure that the front seats are far enough forward for them to fold down flat. There is not that large a gap in the bulkhead, but you could certainly get more long stuff into the Nissan with the seats down.  Inside the cabin, another Nissan feature is particularly welcome – the massive glovebox which goes back far further than you might expect. There is a split level cubby under the central armrest, and there are door bins on all doors, with a moulding to take a bottle, and for those in the back, that is pretty much all you would fit in them.

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Nissan offer the Altima in four different trim levels: Standard, S, SV and SL. The test car was an S. The bigger engined 3.5 litre model comes in S, SV, and SL versions. Nissan still sells a Coupe model, but this is based on the previous generation Altima. It is only offered in 2.5 S guise. Standard 2.5 sedans come with many popular features, including power windows/locks/mirrors, keyless access and starting, wireless cell-phone link, and audio streaming are also standard. Added in the 2.5 S sedans are cruise control, automatic headlights, and 6-way power adjustment for the driver’s seat. Nissan has predicted the 2.5 SV will be the volume seller of the 2013 Altima range, though I don’t believe that the rental car companies will be buying this version. It adds dual-zone automatic climate controls, an upgraded audio system with satellite radio, rearview camera, and 17″ tyres on alloy wheels. The 2.5 S coupe blends some elements of the S and SV sedan; it includes cruise control and keyless entry/engine start. The 2.5 SL is the top-of-the-line 4-cylinder-powered Altima. It adds a heated steering wheel, leather trimmed interior, heated front seats, power sunroof, Bose audio system, LED tail lamps, compass, and a driver’s seat with 8-way power adjustment and lumbar adjustment. V6 powered 3.5 models are equipped like their 2.5 counterparts, but each adds 18″ alloys and a manual-shift mode with paddle shifters for the continuously variable transmission.  Unlike with the previous model, at least for now, there is no Hybrid version available.

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I was quite a fan of the previous generation Altima. For sure, it was not exciting, but it went about its business with a quiet competence, and had no significant weaknesses. The new model builds on that, and is just that bit better. You may or may not like the new styling (I do), but there is no doubting that it looks that bit classier especially inside. It drove well, and the economy was especially impressive. Like its predecessor, it had no significant weak points apart from the rather rowdy engine under hard acceleration. However, the story does not quite end there. Altima sits in a fiercely competitive class, and within a few months either side of its launch, Toyota have refreshed the best selling Camry, and Honda the Accord, Ford have launched a new Fusion, Chevrolet a new Malibu, Mazda a new 6 and VW a US built Passat. Hyundai’s Sonata and the Kia Optima, although now a few years old are also still a force to reckon with. At the time of my test of the Altima, I had driven none of these, but as luck would have it, literally the next day I got a Sonata, so was able to compare and contrast. There is a separate review of that car, but suffice to say that it was also supremely competent. My suspicion is that if only I could get one of the new Fusions that are now at Hertz, but everyone seems to want them, I may find that the Ford is even better, and I do also love the look of the Mazda. Competition in this class has never been fiercer, but also standards have been higher, and that is extremely Good News for the customer, and indeed the car renter.  For sure, next time you are presented with an Altima, then you have nothing to fear. And if there is a Malibu and a Camry alongside, as there very likely will be, then do as I did, and take the Nissan.

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