Buy a car that’s good at being cheap, buy a car that’s good at being interesting, but don’t buy a car that isn’t good at either. I think this basic approach should lead to satisfying motoring whether you are looking for stable matrimony with a commuter or a torrid, tempestuous affair with an aging exotic. Car ownership becomes unsatisfying when you land in that awkward middle, and I believe a strong case can be made that buyers still do not have adequate information to avoid this in the commuter class of automobile. These vehicles are not very interesting and thus need to be trouble-free for the relationship to work and….oh, well hello there 2012 Nissan Altima 2.5S. Awkward running into you here.
Shall I tell these guys the story of us? Of how I kicked you out of the house when you began following the ruinous habits of your family that were not apparent to me when dating? I think I will, since you are still trolling around the used car scene in alarming numbers and people need to be warned about you. Now get lost.
I apologize for the interruption. But it was well-timed, as that Altima is an example of the awkward middle and there was little to warn me that it would end this way. We met through an acquaintance. Our family of four had just amicably parted ways with a nice little B-segment subcompact that just couldn’t manage the new stress of twin rear-facing car seats. Our friend Consumer Reports recommended that we meet the Altima, figured that we’d hit it off. Good ol’ CR, he’s stable and has his life put together. We trusted him, and he knew we wanted a long term relationship with an affordable and reliable sedan with stretch-out space for our new family, capacious trunk, good fuel economy, controlled road noise for long-distance cruising, and a bit of life in the steering and suspension if possible. CR also knew we found the 2012 Accord and Mazda6 too loud, the Camry too expensive, the Fusion’s transmission hopelessly dim-witted. The 2007-2012 Altima checked all those boxes and CR even rated it best in class at the time due to the high road test score and reliability.
Our sketchy sometimes-friend Car and Driver, slurring words between hits of Jagermeister and energy drinks, said the Altima even knew how to cut loose once in awhile and have a good time, which surprised me coming from him. “But what of the CVT”, I demurred. “I need long term commitment and low-TCO here, we’re hemorrhaging from child care payments”. C&D was useless here and became distracted smashing the empty Jager bottle against the wall and hooting at a passing car of girls who blasted TLC’s “No Scrubs” on the stereo in response. He’s become such a puerile twit in recent years, knowing he carries the weight of his father’s legacy but utterly incapable of living up to it. CR stepped in with his reliability ratings, and the CVT was aces every year since its 2007 introduction. Surely if this transmission were a bag of bolts it would be evident after six years? Empirical due diligence accomplished, we got hitched to a clean 40,000 mile example and drove off into the sunset of cost effective frugal transportation. The domestic life, secure and worry free. My wife and I suspected a tragic midlife crisis would result in a fling with a sport sedan once the relationship hit 150K miles or so, but Altima didn’t need to know this and for now we were happy.
The Altima performed as-expected over the next four years and did all that midsize sedan stuff very well. Appliance-class cars have really been quite good for some time now. It was roomy and quiet on the freeway and it cost less than the brand names. There was a touch of natural tactility to the steering and firm control in the suspension response, and this was achieved with high profile 60-series tires which preserved ride quality. Impressive. The brakes were excellent in feel and linearity. This was a dark period for Japanese automotive interior quality, yet the Altima was a step nicer, closer to the Fusion and Malibu. The performance of the CVT was spot-on for what this car was. If you tired of the fixed-RPM drone when charging up a mountain road, the manumatic ratio selector turned it into a 6-speed with far crisper shift response than Nissan’s own G37. I’m not kidding. I had a genuinely good time scrubbing tread off the shoulders of the tires on a deserted mountain two-lane. Nissan did a lot right with this car.
Anyone who has fired up the box-of-rocks QR25DE 2.5L engine and spent extended time in the seats knows that not all was peaches and cream. The engine sounds terrible anywhere above idle and the seats have zero lateral support, so that mountain road required lots of core tensing and a hard grip on the wheel. Cosmetic long-term durability was also questionable, inside and out. All that plastic looked fine but liked to talk and talk and talk, whether you were interested in having a conversation or not. The bland white paint was beginning to flake off the primer under the trunk lid and it wouldn’t be long before it started spreading onto the visible sheet metal. But, relationships are all about compromise and the car was mechanically flawless at nearly 90k miles. Still on the original brake pads. So what if she’s showing some age, it’s not like I’m getting younger either.
The real problems began one day when climbing a mountain grade on the highway, engine thrashing away at 3500. A distinct mechanical whine began to rise above the background. Load in some more throttle and the whine intensifies, back off and it recedes. Hmm, that’s interesting. I’d been hearing rumors about her family recently, unsettling ones about instability and hostile erratic behavior. But they were just rumors. Months pass of in-town use and nothing comes of it until the next highway mountain grade. The whine is back, recurring on every climb now. Very interesting. I Google “Altima CVT w–” and the search engine autofills “hine” and up pops a very nice selection of YouTube videos, news articles, and forum threads on the matter, like a waiter rolling up the dessert cart. “Would sir care for a video of an identical whine just prior to the transmission exploding? Or perhaps a forum thread discussing abrupt failures, overheating CVTs entering limp mode alongside 18-wheelers at 80 per, and transmission coolers undertaking the futile toil of Sisyphus? If sir’s appetite has failed him, a discussion of replacement costs will ensure it does not return.” This was no longer interesting. The rumors were real, and the behavior was innate and heritable. Counseling would do nothing, she was going to burn this relationship down one way or the other. She had no choice, it’s who she was.
I knew this car would be getting the heave-ho, but for kicks I dropped by the dealer to see if there would be any defensive stonewalling or denial. There wasn’t, the service advisor didn’t even blink at my description. Nice guy, low pressure, said this was common and probably not a great sign, but who knows–let’s wait and see. He recommended the $1000 transmission cooler I’d seen all over the forums, knew the $4300 CVT replacement cost off the top of his head. Just another day ending in Y at the Nissan service department. He recommended shorter fluid change intervals. Dealerships have been shortening this interval over the years, whereas the owner’s manual lists it only “as needed”. Ours had been changed when we bought the car at 40K. The replacement tranny would be a remanufactured unit with a confidence-inspiring 1 year warranty. Nissan would not cover it, as their make-nice extended 10yr/120K warranty stopped at MY2010 vehicles. Because they fixed the issues for 2011, you see. SURE THEY DID.
So we now had a 6-year old car with 85K miles, a $4300 repair looming somewhere in the hazy future, and an internet full of similar stories contradicting the published reliability metrics. Getting rid of the Altima so early required swallowing a big depreciation hit, demonstrating that divorce isn’t cheap. Since we already had a car loan, and were not expecting to replace the paid-off Nissan for years, we ran straight into the arms of the most dependable rebound available. This is exactly how a car company chases off a customer for life. It doesn’t matter what the engineer’s proprietary statistics say about failure rate per 100 cars because I’m not buying 100 cars. I’m buying one. And if it is white goods with surprise Mercedes-Benz repair costs, you’re done. Your vehicle completely failed at its intended mission and you would not stand behind it. Thanks to the hole this Nissan dissolved in our transportation budget, it is going to be quite some time before I get to enjoy a more interesting set of wheels. First World Problems, as they say. My wife likes the Camry far more than the Nissan anyway.
However, it does lead to an interesting question: where did this all go wrong and how do you avoid it in the future? Next time, I’ll use this Nissan to demonstrate how Average Joes like me can be misled by published third-party reliability metrics. And how sometimes, even due diligence results in a roll of the dice.