Nissan Altima quick look

Quick look: Nissan Altima car review (V6-CVT)

nissan altima car review

Personality Flashy
Why we’d buy it Feel, power
Why we wouldn’t High parts costs
Gas mileage 19 / 26 (EPA/CVT)
Written by Terry Parkhurst

Back in 2002, when Nissan’s Altima morphed into something bigger than the generation just before it, it made people sit up and take notice. That is especially true with the venerable “VQ” engine, the 3.5-liter V6.

Since then, the competition from Honda, Toyota, and General Motors has intensified; the Altima’s V6 was joined by potent V6 engines in the Chevrolet Impala and Toyota Camry.

But getting into the fourth generation Altima recently, with that DOHC (double overhead cams) 3.5 liter V6, showed that Nissan has hardly been asleep at the wheel. Two engines are available in the Altima, the 13-time Ward’s “10 Best Engines” award-winning VQ-series V6 and an inline four-cylinder. While the four-cylinder (2.5 liters) engine is no slouch, you really want the V6 and that’s what was tested.

Both V6 and four cylinder engine feature continuously variable valve timing, modular engine design, micro finished crank journals and cam lobes, molybdenum coated lightweight pistons and electronically controlled throttles.

There are things about the Altima that make you smile, if not wonder exactly what were they thinking? Something to make you wonder is the push button ignition. If you haven’t raced a NASCAR stock car or other real racing machine, then your experience with a push button starter might come from driving, or sitting shotgun in, a Honda S2000. It appeals to the boy racer (or girl racer) in all of us.

In a sedan, it does seem like an affectation; however, it also serves to break up the monotony of the usual “turn the key” ritual. In the case of the Altima sedan, it also means you don’t have to worry about a key, since the electronic messenger in the fob can be in your pocket, and stabbing that starter button gets the engine running.

The platform the Altima rides on is called the D-platform and is shared by the Nissan Maxima. It’s one long car – 189.8 inches – with a wheelbase of 108.3 inches. Of course, that allows a large cabin, well suited to the American market.

The interior is also reminiscent of the Maxima, with some slight variation. There’s enough room inside, once the rear seat pass through is put down, to allow carrying items such as bookcases.

The biggest drawback in the interior’s human interface is the fact that the hand brake control is on the left side, just front of the driver’s seat, similar to most American cars from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, or today’s Buick LeSabre or Toyota Avalon. Somehow, it seems inconsistent with the rest of what Nissan is trying to put forth with the Altima: a sedan that is designed to appeal to a younger demographic that is used to a flyaway handbrake in the center console. Right now, there is a three- cup, coffee cup holder right where you might expect to see a handbrake on most contemporary cars.

There’s a back-up camera that comes on as you shift into reverse and that’s extremely helpful. Visibility from within inside is generally good, looking forward, but there’s a B pillar stuck in your face when you turn to look left. Looking out, the body panels go off short distances and then drop off.

Two transmissions are available: a six-speed manual and a CVT (continuously variable transmission). The CVT, which transmits the power from the engine via rollers and discs, is similar to the one that debuted in the Nissan crossover, the Murano, in 2003 and now also sees service in the Rogue. However, it does allow manual inputting, albeit without a clutch pedal. There are four-speeds forward with the auto-stick capability, if you put in into the gate at the back and to the left. You shift up to go forward in speeds, and back if you want to shift down – which seems a bit backwards, given how an actual manual transmission works. Again, it’s one of those “what were they thinking?” aspects of the car.

The 3.5-liter V6 engine – with 270 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 258 lb/ft at 4,400 rpm – seems almost too much for the 3,399 pounds of curb weight. A launch from a standing start is almost guaranteed to produce wheel spin. The torque is such that one is wise to keep both hands on the steering wheel; and it takes a smooth, steady application of the accelerator to ensure an assured launch on wet pavement.

A low engine-mounting position features a six-point pendulum-type mounting system and the half-shafts are set at equal angles and nearly parallel to the ground – helping to eliminate torque steer.

The steering feel is precise, good on center and with just enough power boost to make this car, while not a real sport sedan, far from the numbed out feel of most near luxury barges.

Altima’s sub frame-mounted front suspension makes extensive use of lightweight aluminum parts. An X-type upper cowl structure helps establish front body rigidity for suspension mounting. The rear multi-link independent suspension design separates the rear shock absorbers and springs for minimized friction and the shocks are in line with the center of the rear wheels, providing excellent damping and almost no harshness. Front and rear stabilizer bars are standard.

Altima 3.5 SE, as tested, offers larger diameter stabilizer bars and unique spring rates and strut damping, as well as 17-inch wheels and tires. The larger wheels allow a substantially aggressive look to the Altima and the tires certainly improve handling by allowing a bigger contact patch on the pavement.

The exterior design of the Altima is something that is an acquired taste. While we probably won’t see one setting on the lawn at Pebble Beach in the mid-21st Century, it is a case of form following function. There’s little wind noise and the mileage – good for a car this size – comes due to the fact that this is a shape that cuts through the wind.

However, the Xenon high-intensity discharge headlights, while guaranteed to cut a hole in the night’s darkness, anytime of year, aren’t anything you want to have to change out, anytime soon. They’re an interesting piece of modern design, with the multiple lights, including turn lights, all in one unit. But last time we checked, one of these light units cost $656.

The base cost of the Altima 3.5 SE was $28,905 when we tested it; our ran to $32,485, including the Technology package with the navigation system and rear view monitor at $2,000, Vehicle Dynamic Control and a full size spare tire at $900, rear spoiler at $370, splash guards at $135, and floor mats at $175.

The 2009 Altima has some small improvements over the model just exiting the scene. They include a trip computer and outside temperature gauge, power door locks with auto speed-sensing door lock system, an air conditioning with in-cabin micro filter and front side window demisters and speed-sensitive variable intermittent windshield wipers. There’s a revised 3.5 SE Sport Package content (Vehicle Dynamic Control, HID bi-xenon headlights), and standalone moon roof package.