2010 Nissan Altima 2.5 S: Practicality without the sacrifice

Value-packed family car aims to please
by: L.E. BASKOW, Nissan's bread-and-butter Altima does just about everything well.

The 2010 Altima proves you don't have to buy a hybrid or wait for a yet-to-be-produced electric car to buy a family vehicle that gets good mileage.

The 2.5 version gets 32 mile per gallon on the freeway, but still has enough room for five people. And it's not a slug, either. The inline four produces a respectable 175 horsepower, enough to easily handle freeway traffic.

Although the best economy is achieved with the six-speed manual transmission, the Continuously Variable Transmission that came with our test car could also be used to squeeze out the maximum mileage. It worked flawlessly and allowed the car to be driven briskly without over-revving the engine.

Unlike traditional automatics, CTVs do not have perceptible shift points. Although some early versions from various manufacturers were very slow, Nissan seems to have worked out the bugs with its current model. Under light acceleration, the Altima kept up with other cars around town, but the engine never exceeded 2,000 rpm. Under moderate acceleration, the engine speed remained below 4,000 rpm. Only the heaviest acceleration moved the tachometer needle into the gasoline-wasting ranges - and even then the needle quickly dropped back down while the car continued picking up speed.

But if economy is not your number one concern, the CTV also has a sport mode that turned it into a fairly responsive six-speed manual transmission. Adding to the fun was the S package that came with our test car, which includes suspension tunings that improve handling.

Even that combination does not turn the Altima into a genuine sport sedan, however. Even the optional 280-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 engine won't accomplish that. Nissan clearly intends the Altima to be a family car - a reliable people-hauler for commuting, daily errands and the occasional weekend vacation. And there's nothing wrong with that, especially when the Altima - which starts at around $20,000 - represents such a good value.

Once upon a time, it was easy to categorize cars by size. Compact cars were small on the outside and inside. Full-size cars were big everywhere. Mid-size cars (also called intermediates) fell somewhere in between.

It's not so simple anymore. Technically the Altima is probably a midsize. But it is smaller on the outside than some older compacts and offers a lot of interior room, aided by the large windshield and windows that let in plenty of light. The trunk is also surprisingly large, and the back seats fold down to increase the cargo space even more.

Like many cars there days, the exterior styling of the Altima is somewhat generic - aerodynamic without being radical. Perhaps the most distinguishing features are the large tail lights that frame the blunt rear end. The optional 16-inch alloy wheels on our test car looked good but, in keeping with the family image, not too racy.

The interior was simple but well laid out. The plastics were high quality and well-fitted. The dash was dominated by large circular air vents and big round knobs for the climate and stereo systems, all of which were easy to read and use.

Our test car came with such options as a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a leather shift knob and heated front leather seats. The result was more practical than sporty, although the seats were well bolstered. The wood-grain trim was too out of place to be considered luxurious, however.

A hybrid version of the Altima is also available. Although it gets better average mileage (32 vs 27, according to the EPA), the transition between electric and gasoline power is not very smooth. It also costs several thousand dollars more than the gasoline version, although that might balance out if prices hit $4 or more a gallon again.

Those looking for a roomy, economical family car should put the 2010 Nissan Altima 2.5 near the top of their list. It proves you that basic bread-and-butter cars don't require their owners to make sacrifices anymore.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2010 Altima 2.5 S.

• Manufacturer: Nissan.

• Class: Midsize sedan.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four-door, five passenger car.

• Engines: 2.5-liter inline 4 (175 hp); 3.5-liter V6 (280 hp).

• Transmissions: Continuously Variable Transmission (with six-speed manual shift mode); 6-speed manual transmission.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 23/32 (as tested).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $20,000 ($26,800 as tested).