I still remember when the first Altima was released for the 1993 model year, those first models still sported a little “Stanza” tag next to the “Altima” one during that first year as that is the model it replaced. I recall going to a dealer to see it and thinking it would probably be a pretty good car to own and that Altima was a better name than Stanza. Twenty-seven years later here we are a year after the 6th generation Altima was launched and for the first time in its long lineage it now features all wheel drive as an option.
It turns out that I’ve actually driven this exact car before, it was one of the featured ones at the winter driving event I went to a couple of months back where I got the opportunity to put it through its paces in a deeply snow covered parking lot. At the time I found and reported that I rather liked the car and this week with it in vastly different weather, mostly sunny and dry, didn’t dispel that notion.
I’ll fess up and admit that last year when I was in the market for a new car a new Altima was in the running, the main issue at the time was I had zero desire to spend a lot of money but wanted a low hassle new car and with it still being a brand new generation there were no ridiculously good deals to be had (which is fine, of course). After barely being able to tell the previous three generations apart from each other, I quite liked the new styling direction that Nissan had chosen with this one, although I suppose it’s still evolutionary from the most recent one.
The styling now, a year or so later, still looks fresh to me, I actually find it to be a little (just a little) bit Audi-like with clean lines, a distinctive front grille and shapely but not weird tail lights. The hood drapes over the front fenders like an A4’s does, and the overall look is fairly long and low. While not at all a ripoff of that other brand’s design especially due to that C-pillar “floating roof” effect, just subtly evoking some aspects of it seems to work here, and let’s face it, if you’re going to even remotely be compared to another company’s design, you could do a lot worse.
Or maybe I’m thinking of that other brand due to their long experience with AWD on family sedans. Could be, but I think this is exactly what this segment has needed for a long time. Subaru has obviously had their Legacy sedan forever, and Ford offered AWD on some Fusions, but Nissan now doing so is what I think finally pushed Toyota into (re-)introducing it on the Camry line now as well. Nissan has stated that the take rate for AWD has been quite significant in winter-weather locales, my main question has been what took them so long.
I suppose that perhaps part of why they got off the fence is that mid-size sedan sales (well, pretty much all sedan sales) have been flagging in recent years (although Nissan still managed to sell about 210,000 Altimas in the US in 2019), so introducing a new model was the perfect time to engineer in a popular option that could increase sales and add some differentiation while costing little and being easy to integrate into the production line. Perhaps sales will keep sliding and manufacturers will consider adding regular station wagon versions too for the same reason. Dare to dream, I suppose.
The interior as well brings me back to Audi as a potential inspiration with the relatively low and wide dashboard. The view out is quite good with fairly slim pillars and a large windscreen, you actually see a significant portion of the hood from behind the wheel. It’s not quite 1980’s Honda-like low cowl but as close as I’ve seen in years.. The blind spots are minimal even with the kickup around the rear side windowline.
While the interior materials are class competitive they obviously aren’t Audi-grade but at a little more than half the list price, they shouldn’t/needn’t be. If Nissan decided to invest a little more money such as Mazda has been doing, they could possibly become extremely competitive though as far as that aspect goes. Then again, I’m not sure it’s really paying off for Mazda and there really isn’t any need for it, it’s plenty attractive as is.
The mid-level SV version (the range starts with S, then SR, SV, SL and finally Platinum, with AWD available in all) that I had came with cloth seats that were electrically powered as well as being heated. The leather wrapped steering wheel was heated as well, the heaters are all standard in this AWD version.
It seems that for the most part makers have finally gotten beyond horribly cheap-feeling fabrics for the cloth seats, something that afflicted many others over the last few years, and the Altima’s fabric looks and feels good. It’s not veloury and it’s not that mouse-fur-ish stuff they used to use in some trims but it’s not at all nylon-ish looking either as compared to perhaps the current Accord, whose seats on the lower trim levels come across as very (too) budget conscious. (The material here looks a bit better in person than in these pictures, the center section is kind of a “brushed” effect)
There is an 8″ version of the more or less ubiquitous center tablet touchscreen that works very well, I mainly used it for the entertainment system as this car wasn’t equipped with a Navigation option. However, I did find it simple to pair my iPhone with it (I literally hooked up Bluetooth while waiting for a traffic light to change) and used Apple CarPlay when I needed to find my way on occasion. The display is crisp and clear which is useful when in backup camera mode. The center console has both conventional and mini-USB ports in it as well as a 12v outlet but alas, no wireless charger although it has the perfect tray area for it.
Instrumentation is clean, crisp and informative at a glance. It’s simple and without gimmicks or weird fonts that will grow stale quickly. Buttons on the wheel work intuitively and a large center screen between the gauges allow one to easily cycle through various setting and information display screens. Stalks to either side of the wheel work just like you’d expect them to on a Japanese car with good heft and resistance but not reluctance.
When adjusting the wiper setting the center display changes to inform you exactly how you are adjusting the intermittent setting, not really necessary but nice to have, especially when the car isn’t the usual one and there is no universal standard for this. The display makes it obvious that you are increasing or decreasing the swipe timing and to what extent.
For the materials fetishists, pretty much everything above the centerline of the dashboard is soft and everything below is fairly hard. The top of the dash is soft as well until you get about 3/4 of the way toward the windshield then the soft pad turns to a harder surface. There are a couple of points ahead of the doors on the top of the dash where various materials meet and while the fit is fine, the material surface changes a bit too obviously from soft to hard although the molded in grain remains the same, somehow the sheen is a little different. Not a big deal and I think forgivable or at least not worthy of serious complaint in a car that starts at around $24k. The real stitching across the dash is an attractive feature though and definitely richens the cabin up.
Further, the climate controls are easily understood and the knobs for both the screen as well as the HVAC are very well done with a metal look and feel that makes them a pleasure to use. The HVAC ones especially are an excellent size and the cross hatching around the circumference of the dials is attractive and feels good to the touch.
I was surprised at how much leg space there is in the front cabin. My legs could stretch all the way out and the dead pedal is fairly far back towards the firewall with plenty of space between the door panel and the center console. Headroom too, even with the sunroof, was abundant, one of the few cars where it didn’t bother me (6’1″, 32″ inseam for comparison).
The back seat also had oodles of room for legs with about 4″ of space between the seat back and my knees when the front seat was adjusted for myself. Where the back seat fell down though was headroom. With the sunroof in front robbing some headroom when I was sitting upright my head was up against the headliner. Transporting kids would be fine, but taller adults might be less comfortable for longer distances. At least the legroom allows for a lot of slouching.
In the United States if you want an Altima with AWD, you are forced to accept the 2.5liter 4-cylinder engine. While the engine generates 182hp and 175lb-ft of torque, I initially thought Nissan is perhaps missing a trick by not offering the Variable Compression 2.0l turbo four here in this AWD version of the car.
That being said though, after giving it a chance, I came away very pleasantly surprised, the engine works well, is very, very quiet, and provides plenty if not extravagant levels of power. Even uphill and eventually cresting 8000 feet on Interstate 80 between Laramie and Cheyenne it was easily able to keep at the 75mph speed limit with power to spare.
The transmission delivered a further surprise, while an “Xtronic” CVT, it is one of the least CVT-feeling CVTs I’ve had the pleasure to drive. Even when cold it has fixed shift points, will rev well beyond the torque peak, never drones like a motorboat and made me review the spec sheet to be sure it was really a CVT. Frankly they’ve gotten rid of any CVT-like traits with the exception of fuel economy which was outstanding for an AWD car of this size.
In fact, the car is rated at 26city and 36hwy with a 30mpg average rating. In my use I drove it over 400 miles, of which 170 were to Laramie on Highway 287 (from 5000 to 7000 feet) and back home on I-80/I-25 cresting at 8640 feet (Sherman Summit, Wyoming, the highest point along the entire length of Interstate 80) and back down to 5000, city driving for about 100 miles, and a run to Denver with a sleet and rain storm on the way back for the remaining 140 miles or so while ending up with a displayed 33.6mpg overall. Not bad at all for a fairly large non-hybrid four that doesn’t include stop/start technology. I drove it like I figured a normal person would, never dawdled but wasn’t a hoon either.
I wasn’t cursing it at any point trying to make it accelerate faster, and didn’t ever really miss the extra 90hp that the variable compression turbo engine would add. Sure it’d be nice to have but is the extra complexity and cost really needed?
I’d say not for most of the market so perhaps Nissan’s decision makes sense although they really didn’t need to offer that engine in the FWD versions either then. (Full disclosure: I have not driven that engine so perhaps it would actually make me giggle like a little girl – my advice if you want an Altima is to try the regular engine first, if that works for you, don’t try the other one and be happy with this one, it’s excellent).
The AWD system is biased to be basically 100% FWD unless traction is needed, then it can send torque rearwards until a 50/50 split is reached. It does seem to do better than many other systems as far as response time is concerned, there really is no perceptible delay in transferring the power, i.e. you don’t feel the fronts spinning away and then eventually the rears kick in, without an actual back to back comparison with a locked 50/50 split vehicle I can’t be completely sure but it certainly felt better than most older slip and grip systems that I’ve tried.
As far as how it feels to drive, well, that’s where the Euro-comparison from earlier falls a bit short. It’s on the softer side, softer than an Accord too, but still well damped over road irregularities. Corners make it feel like it’s wallowing and leaning a bit however it’s still very capable of elevated speeds, it’s just that initially there isn’t a lot of confidence.
With time and experience behind the wheel of it confidence is built up and it does corner better when pushed than first impressions indicate. However its forte is definitely city and highway driving, leave the canyons for the weekend car.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m pretty much completely on board with all the safety features/assistants nowadays as frankly I believe they help far more than hurt and while I am obviously the single best driver that I know, even I can admit that it’s possible that I may have been distracted at least once. It struck me now that after driving two recent Nissans back to back that I really like their implementation of LaneKeepAssist, or at least the way it was set up on these; there are apparently parameters that are user-programmable as to the car’s actual response. However as it was set up here, should you veer very closely toward or over a painted line (or what it perceives as one), it doesn’t beep or gently try to force you back into the lane, rather it vibrates the wheel a bit – in fact it feels almost exactly like when you run over one of those serrated sections near the edges of a lot of freeways and highways nowadays. It completely makes you aware of what’s going on or perhaps about to occur in a way that is likely already somewhat familiar to people.
Driving this car in the snow like I did previously and definitely in a heavy rain and slush storm with lots of standing water on the freeway it tracks beautifully, the AWD is there to keep things going without drama when needed and the drive in any weather is simply serene.
Coupled with the very low noise levels (the majority of what little there is is due to the tire/surface interface) this is a very relaxing and non-tiring car to drive any distance. Tires this week were Continental ProContact all-seasons whereas on the snow day it was equipped with dedicated winter tires on the same wheels.
It’s kind of scary how good mid-size sedans have gotten over the last decade or so, with the current crop becoming serious competition for those Euro-brands if A) You’re at that point in your life where the badge is irrelevant, B) You will not be able to use all of the power all the time anyway, C) You just don’t want to worry about anything and D) Value is paramount.
With even base engines being similarly powerful than the up-spec turbo or greater cylinder count engines of yore everything has become so much more even, the real differences are reduced to maybe a few hundred dollars in interior materials and perhaps some nebulous notion of “heritage”. And for what? A $20k difference in price? Not worth it, at least on a purely objective level.
AWD adds about $1350 to any of the trim levels which makes it a good value, generally I believe adding it adds between $1500 and $2000 in most vehicles. While the turbo engine isn’t offered with AWD as I mentioned, in the FWD trims that it is offered in it costs between $3000 and $4000. Call it $3500 on average. Imagine a mid-level well-equipped Altima with 273hp and AWD for under $34,000. That might be a quite compelling proposition indeed.
So let’s look at the pricing here. While you can start out with a base FWD Altima for an asking price of about $24k (I assume street price would be less), and you could load the fanciest one up to just over $36,000, this particular one (an SV with AWD) starts at $29,230 plus $895 in destination charges.
For that you get everything I mentioned above, a full suite of safety addenda, a power moonroof, split folding rear seats, dual zone automatic climate control, rear parking sonar, auto-dimming mirror, two rear USB power ports, the 17″ alloys, as well as LED headlights and foglights.
Options on my particular car amounted to another $2,370 total, comprised of: $205 for splash guards; $300 for floor mats, trunk mat, cargo net, two large grocery hooks; $380 for ground lighting; $455 for interior accent lighting; $400 for illuminated kick plates; $420 for the rear spoiler; and $210 for impact sensors. I think I could comfortably live without at least the illuminated kick plates, ground lighting, and interior accent lighting and save myself at least $1200.
I’d probably avoid the $420 rear spoiler as I had to look at the pictures again to remind myself of what it was, it’s that subtle and the metalwork already has a little spoiler effect built. In any case, this one with everything came out to $32,495 after destination. The metallic paint in this case is included in the base price, the color here is called Gun Metallic, and the interior is Charcoal. This Altima was built in Smyrna, Tennessee.
These days I’d have a hard time justifying spending more on an AWD sedan of this size, no matter the label. Not that I think this is or isn’t a particularly large sum of money, just that I believe that there is a serious point of diminishing returns for a different car that may cost more than this. There simply isn’t much that any other vehicle like this can do that makes it worth much more.
Of course some people won’t be happy unless they can blitz to 60mph in under five seconds or perhaps a brown leather interior is a must have or if the seats don’t have air conditioned blowers in them then they’re not worthy of sitting on or someone likes the way their car makes them feel special, and that’s all fine and perhaps valid, I get it, but for the other 90% of the market what is on offer here could likely be more than enough if they actually tried it. I had an inkling going into this week that this’d probably be a good one, but it surprised me in ways that I hadn’t realized when I drove it last.
Full Disclosure: Like all of my test cars, the manufacturer provided the vehicle and a full tank of gas. I added a few gallons on the last day so I wouldn’t give it back near empty.