Now on its fifth generation, the Altima is an important car for its maker Nissan. Until recently, it was the brand’s biggest seller in America, with sales often getting fairly close to its deadliest of rivals, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. In the past eighteen months or so, though, the US market has seen a shift and the Nissan Rogue has taken over as the marque’s biggest seller, just as the Camry and Accord have lost out to Crossover models, too. That said, as Nissan’s entry in the full-sized family saloon car class, it still finds an awful lot of buyers every month, with in excess of 300,000 units sold every year until 2017. Quite a few of those buyers are the daily rental car companies, as this is one of the most popular models on the fleets of all the Big Names. The current version of the Altima was launched at the 2012 New York International Auto Show and went on sale late in the year as as a 2013 model. The new version appeared in the Hertz fleet almost immediately on release, so it was only a matter of waiting for my next trip after its arrival before I got to sample one. I was favourably impressed, finding it preferable to the Toyota Camry and Chevrolet Malibu of 2013, but fell to wondering how I would find it against some of the other rivals, such as the Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima and VW Passat, none of which I had driven at the time. They all feature strongly in the rental fleets as well, so by later that year, I had tried most of the competition, and was still of the opinion that the Altima was a good car, but in a segment full of very capable alternatives. In the following couple of years, little changed in the sales listings, with the Nissan still playing third fiddle to the Toyota and Honda, but finding more customers than all the other rivals. In a bid to keep things fresh, it was given a comprehensive update for 2016. Some of the changes were visual, with new front and rear bumpers, headlamps and taillamps, and a more pronounced chrome-edged grille that followed the ones seen on other recently launched Nissans. Inside there were reshaped Zero Gravity front seats, a new design of steering wheel and central console and the car was built with new cabin silencing materials, and had a new sound-reducing windshield. Equipment levels were upgraded and there were changes to the suspension, steering and the CVT gearbox aimed at making the Altima that bit edgier to drive. Most of the rental cars in this category come with the base engine and one of the lowest levels of trim available, as these are the volume sellers, Indeed, the 2013 Altima I tested was the 2.5 S model, only one above the entry-level car that is offered for those who want the lowest possible purchase price. Back in December 2017, when I was talking with the staff at Hertz’ LAX facility, they told me that they had seen details of some of the cars that they were expecting on fleet in 2018, and among them it listed SL versions of the Altima. SL is the top spec model, whereas by now, the S models which had featured to date are the bottom one. As I had not tried an Altima since its mid-cycle revamp, I was keen to try one of the posher SL cars, which means careful scrutiny of the badging on the back of those parked up, as they are all categorised in the same rental group by Hertz. I found one in a rather fetching shade of red which Nissan call Scarlet Ember, and which sparkles in bright sunshine, making it far more attractive than the sea of white and grey ones that constitute most of the fleet, so decided to take this one for a day. Interestingly, I discovered it was actually a 2017 car, and on Colorado plates, so clearly it has been acquired before the quantity of SL models that Los Angeles acquired in early 2018. There were only minor changes made for the 2018 model year, so I decided to take it, keen to see how what is now a 5 year old design what stand up, and with memories of a direct competitor, the Ford Fusion, also sampled in posher than usual trim, fresh in my mind.
When I first heard that Hertz were going to get some SL trim Altima models, I got excited that maybe these would be the more powerful 3.5 litre cars, but now they are on fleet, I’ve not seen a single one with the 3.5 badge on the back, suggesting that they are all 4 cylinder models. That means the same 2.5 litre 182 bhp unit that has featured in the car since launch, and which was fitted to the 2013 test car. Nissan persist with a CVT gearbox, but they have done some more work on it as part of the 2016 facelift. By and large, it works well. It is smooth both when accelerating and when slowing down. There were a few times during the test, though, when it felt like I had outsmarted it, usually when I had been doing a steady and relatively low speed, at low revs, in traffic and then wanted a sudden burst of acceleration, and it felt like the gearbox was then holding the car back unless you pressed the throttle harder than you really wanted to do, given the surrounding traffic. Otherwise, 182 bhp is right in the middle of the outputs of the 4 cylinder versions of cars in this class, and it is ample to give the Altima sufficient performance, without it ever feeling really rapid. The engine is smooth and refined though, and only gets noisy if you really rev it hard, which you probably won’t feel the need to do very often at all. Couple this with plenty of sound insulation, helped by the acoustic windscreen, from the road and the wind and cruising was a peaceful and relaxed matter in this car. Where the Altima has scored in the past is its fuel economy, with the last test car delivering a much better result than any of its rivals. When I collected this one, it advised me that the expected range was 640 miles, which, even allowing for the fact that there is an 18 (US) gallon tank, sounds like a lot. But it was not a false expectation, as the range reduced by roughly the miles I was covering. In the end, having driven 383 miles, and with the tank showing not a lot less than half full, I squeezed in 12 gallons, which calculates to 31.92 mpg US or 38.13 mpg Imperial, a very creditable figure indeed, and entirely in line with what I saw last time, suggesting that result was not a one-off.
The kindest way to describe the other driving characteristics is to say that they are largely unmemorable. There is nothing which stands out, good or bad. The steering has some feel to it, thankfully, but not as much as you would get in a Ford or a Mazda. The Altima goes round the bends with a nice precision, tending ultimately to understeer when you get enthusiastic, at which point you will start to experience a bit of body lean, but it is nothing significant, just a gentle reminder that this is a family sedan and not a sports car. More to the point, on its 215/55 R17 alloys, it rides very nicely with a comfort level which will gain praise from all occupants, who will also be appreciating the low noise levels and the comfort. The brakes worked fine. There is a foot operated parking brake pedal. Good-sized mirrors helped to see what was alongside and in SL trim you get a Blind Sport Warning system with an orange light and a warning beep when something is alongside, which is helpful. The rear-view camera, now a legal requirement in the US, helped to judge were the back end is, as it is not something you can see directly when reversing. Overall, although this is quite a large family car by European standards, the Altima was very easy to drive and to position on the road.
Five years ago, I was quite positive about the interior of the Altima. Judged against what else is available in 2018, it now looks decidedly old-fashioned. As this was a top-spec SL model, there is plenty of leather in evidence. As well as covering the seats, and wrapping the steering wheel, it features on the door casings. There’s also a highly polished inlay on the centre console and in front of the passenger which I guess is supposed to be some sort of wood. I would not like to say what, as it seemed to have blue streaks in it, and is so obviously plastic. It was odd rather than unpleasant. The rest of the dash is made from what seemed like quite hard plastics, but it is well put together, and despite the fact that the test car had been on fleet for 15 months and 33,000 miles, it looked factory fresh, still. The dash layout itself has not changed from that 2013 test car. You get a pair of large dials for speedometer and rev counter with smaller fuel and water temperature gauges inset in the base of them. In the upper area between them is what Nissan call the Digital Display Assistant, which means trip computer functions. There are a series of menus and sub-menus and you select them with one of the buttons on the left hand steering wheel spoke. You will also find audio repeater and cruise control buttons here, all of them rather small, but still easy enough to use. A pair of column stalks feature, with lights operated by twisting the end of the left hand stalk. The centre of the dash contains a neatly integrated but small screen for the audio unit, and even though this was a top of the line car, and this is 2018, that is what it was. There is XM Satellite radio and you can connect your iPod to it, but there is no navigation, and no other functions on the unit at all. The SL spec includes a Bose 9 speaker system and the sound quality from it was pretty good. You operate the audio unit with old-style buttons on either side of it and volume and tuning knobs underneath it, which is easy to do. Beneath this are knobs and buttons for the dual zone climate control. The system did a great job at keeping me cool on a day when the temperature soared into treble figures. The centre console only contains the gearlever and the buttons for the front seat heaters. Keyless starting is standard. It is all a very neat set-up, and certainly a lot less fussy than some more recent designs, but that audio unit was a definite throwback to a few years ago.
In SL trim you get leather upholstery, and electric adjustment of the seats. That means 6-ways for the driver with a lumbar support as well as fore/aft, backrest rake and height. The front passenger gets 4-way adjustment, not being offered the lumbar adjuster. The seats are what Nissan call “Zero Gravity Seats”. Regardless of the name, what you need to know is that they are indeed very comfortable, a fact I can attest having spent a lot of hours behind the wheel of the test car in the day I had it. There’s a good driving position, too, with plenty of reach and rake on the telescoping steering wheel. And with the optional glass sun roof letting plenty of light into the cabin, this was an airy place on a day where cloud was mixed in with the sun for most of the time.
There is plenty of space in the rear. Even with the front seats set well back and reclined somewhat, there is adequate leg room. There’s only a small bump in the centre for the transmission tunnel and the centre console does not protrude back unduly, so three adults could fit across the width of the seat quite easily. Headroom is sufficient. Just. My head cleared the rooflining by about a couple of inches, so it could be a bit tight for someone very tall. There is a drop down central armrest with a pair of cup holders in the upper surface. Bits and pieces can be put in the map pockets on the back of the front seats or in the door bins.
The boot is a good size, with a generous opening, and not much of a lip over which to heave your suitcases. There is a space-saver spare underneath and you could tuck a few odds and ends in around it. More space can be created by folding the asymmetrically split rear seat backrests forward, to create a much longer load platform. There is quite a decent aperture through the rear bulkhead when you do this. Inside the cabin you get what has to be one of the largest gloveboxes of any family car (this seems to be a Nissan thing!), a bi-level cubby under the central armrest, pockets in the doors and a well in front of the gearlever which will take things like cameras and phones. There are two cupholders in the centre console.
Most Altima are sold with the 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine, though for zippier performance, Nissan does offer the 270 bhp V6-powered 3.5 SL model. Within the 2.5 trim levels, the 2.5 SR is the sport-oriented model, while comfort features constitute most of the differences among the remaining editions. If you’re looking for a good value on a mid-level sedan, the place to start, and the most popular of all the trims, is the 2.5 SV and you would probably want to add the $1,280 Technology package. This bundle gets you an upgraded infotainment system (complete with a larger 7″ touch screen, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto), along with navigation, heated front seats, and a moonroof. The entry-level Altima 2.5 S comes with a 5-inch infotainment display, Bluetooth, a USB port, Siri Eyes Free, hands-free text messaging, six speakers, keyless entry with a proximity key, push-button start, a six-way manually adjustable driver’s seat, a four-way manually adjustable front passenger seat, forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, and a rearview camera. Pricing starts at $23,260. The sporty Altima 2.5 SR ($24,320) features paddle shifters, a rear spoiler, a sport-tuned suspension, an eight-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert are added to the Altima 2.5 SV ($25,910), along with dual-zone automatic climate control, satellite radio, an eight-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The $29,110 Altima 2.5 SL, spec of the test car, builds off the SV trim, adding a nine-speaker Bose premium sound system, ambient lighting, leather seats, heated front seats, a heated steering wheel, a four-way power-adjustable front passenger seat, and rear passenger air conditioning vents, as well as some diamond cut alloys which looked quite smart. At the top of the range is the Altima 3.5 SL. In addition to its more powerful engine, the Altima 3.5 SL ($33,630) features paddle shifters, a heated steering wheel, a sunroof, a 7-inch infotainment touch screen, navigation, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, voice commands, adaptive cruise control, and front and rear parking sensors.
I was quite enthusiastic about the Altima back in 2013. But that was 5 years ago, and whilst it has only changed a bit, almost all of its rivals have been completely updated. Ironically, the one which I drove only a few days before testing this Nissan, and which I really rather liked, is the one design which goes back a few months further. That car was the Ford Fusion, also tested in a posher than usual spec for a rental car. The Ford wins over the Nissan in many ways: it is more fun to drive, and with the potent 2.0T Ecoboost engine in it, is considerably more powerful than this 2.5 litre 182 bhp Nissan. In Titanium spec, it felt plusher inside, and the infotainment system offered rather more features and functions. The Ford does not have things all its way, though. The Nissan is probably even more comfortable to ride in, the rear seats are at least as spacious and it certainly had the fuel economy trump card that it always seems to have had. I’ve not tried the latest Toyota Camry or Honda Accord yet, but I have driven the other main rivals, and there’s not a weak competitor among them. This Altima is not a bad car, either, just an old one. And Nissan knows that, as an all-new 2019 model is waiting in the wings, due to go on sale within weeks of completing this test. It takes its styling cues from the larger Maxima, and the interior looks like a big step forward. I look forward to seeing just how far it advances things. Meanwhile, it is likely that this design of Altima will linger in the rental fleets for some months yet, and you should not be fearful if you get one, especially if it is an SL, as it is still a nice, if slightly unmemorable car that will do the job just fine.