I just got back from a week-long excursion in California where we had a Nissan Altima as a rental car. This particular example was at the "S" trim level, and had the 2.5L inline four (from what I could tell peering into the engine bay) which produces a manufacturer-claimed 182 hp and 180 lb-ft at peak. This is competitive with other cars in its segment, and was evident throughout my spirited stints behind the wheel.
The car was silver outside and black cloth inside. From the curb, it's a fine-looking sedan, something you'd be pleased to show your neighbors in your driveway. The interior was comfortable and spacious; my relatively tall in-laws had no worries about legroom. The Little One's car seat clipped effortlessly into the LATCH hooks in back; my only quibble there was that, without a base, the seat seemed more loose on the side seat than in the "NOT RECOMMENDED" middle position, where it was rock-solid.
The driver's seat position adjusts on two axes, folds, and rotates; the steering wheel tilts and telescopes. All of this combined to allow me to sit in my wacky skateboard-height racing-wannabe setup while my mother-in-law was able to adjust to the driving position of a normal person. The cockpit was well-appointed with attractive gauges, unobtrusive LCD info display, and intuitive idiot-lighting.
Speaking of lighting, the headlight controls include an "auto" setting, for people who are too lazy/stupid to realize when their lights should be on. I didn't use it, but I would
require encourage folks who fit into those categories to use it exclusively, because I hate following an unlit dark silver car on a dark gray day in the rain.
There might be a higher trim level with a nav screen and all that jazz, but this one just had a big radio with big, physical buttons, and I loved it. The environmental controls were likewise large and physical, perfectly suited for no-look groping by ham-fingered drivers like myself who pay more attention to the road ahead than to the current temperature setting or radio station.
Everybody loves to hate CVTs but this thing was incredibly smart. Every time I stomped the throttle, the car smoothly revved to the power peak and held there while the CVT contracted and expanded as needed. When I let off, the drivetrain geared back down to a sedated purr. Cruising down the highway, I was holding with the traffic at 80mph and barely 2000rpm, producing stratospheric fuel economy for such a big non-hybrid car. We easily reached the mfg. claimed 38mpg highway rating and achieved a 34mpg overall average for the week. There was a "Drive/Sport" position on the shift pattern, which supposedly locks the CVT into discrete gear ratios to produce that up-and-down-shift feel, but I never reached for it; the CVT's smooth transitions between high-power and hypermiling were flawless. This car really made me rethink my daily-driving life decisions in a way that I did not expect at all.
I didn't fully exercise the handling on the car with skittish in-laws and a trunk full of suitcases, but it felt solidly stable on freeway on-ramps and high-speed cruises. The suspension was compliant over bumps but the car never laid over in hard cornering. I would love to take one to an autocross and put it through its paces just to see what it was truly capable of, because I am betting that it would surprise the hell out of me and everyone else.
The only major annoyance with this car was the number of compromises that were made in order to have "keyless" push-button start. Most severe was the power window control, which shuts off as soon as you turn off the engine. That meant that, the one time I left the windows down too far after parking, I had to fully start the car just to roll the windows up. Dumb dumb dumb. Other electronic doodads behaved similarly. Want to check your odometer? Hope the car's still running. This probably matters to about 5% of drivers but I'm in that segment and it annoyed me repeatedly.
Back to the positives. Nissan is really attacking the family car market with the Altima S. Base MSRP on this trim level is only $22k, which not only puts it even with the Chevy Malibu, Honda Accord, and Toyota Camry, but also directly competes with things like the Mazda 3S and the Ford Focus, which are nominally "sportier" but are not nearly as roomy inside and have (in the Mazda's case, anyway) far inferior fuel economy.
Verdict: For jalops who already have a
Miata weekend racer and who would like to have a comfortable, efficient family DD, put the Altima S on your test drive list. Even if this is your only car, the 2.5L motor might be enough to sate your need for speed on your otherwise boring commute, and I would imagine that the available 3.5L V6 would cheerfully sacrifice fuel economy for sheriff-maddening hooliganism. For the everyday consumer, this car will fulfill every need you have in a family sedan, and then some. I confess that I was shocked by how much I liked this car. My Mazda's place in the garage is safe for now, but if Nissan keeps producing products like this in the future, then they'll find a slot in my "next DD" test drive list for sure.