by: NISSAN MOTORS CORPROATION, USA - The 2014 Nissan Altima remains competitive in the hotly contested affordable midsize sedan market.The 2014 Nissan Altima is one of the better midsize sedans for a surprising reason — its continuously variable transmission, or CVT as they are commonly called. It is as responsive as a conventional automatic transmission, which is significant accomplishment that compliments the Altima's other positive attributes, rather than detracting from them. That's more than can be said for a lot of other CTVs.

As the same implies, CVTs do not have gear ratios or shift points. This allows manufacturers to program them to work with engines to achieve maximum fuel economy, a growing priority now that the federal government has increased mileage requirements. But since they were first introduced, many CVTs have been criticized as unresponsive and noisy. Critics charge they improve mileage by taking the fun out of driving.

By coincidence, I've recently test driven three different Nissans with CVTs. The first was the 2014 Pathfinder crossover SUV, followed by the 2014 Quest family van and, finally, the 2014 Altima. All of them drove like they were equipped with contemporary multiple speed automatics. They accelerated smoothly off the line, sped up and slowed down without hesitation, and weren't noisier than most other transmissions.

The Pathfinder and Quest were both equipped with 3.5-liter V6 engines while the Altima came with a 2.5-liter inline 4. All performed as expected, with little to reveal their CTVs. Only the engine in the Altima over-reved a little under hard acceleration, which is another complaint about CVTs. It was barely noticeable, however, and never an issue during normal driving.

XTRONIC CVT is the name Nissan has given its continuously variable transmissions. It was first introduced in 1992 and upgrade 10 years later, with the 2013 Altima being the first vehicle to receive it. The company claims to have spent a lot of time refining what it calls the Next Generation version, and the results are evident in the three models I've spent some time with lately.

But there's much more to the 2014 Altima than its transmission. Like the Pathfinder and Quest, the rest of the car is very well made and comfortable to drive. The interior is well designed and comprised of high-quality materials that help create a premium feel in what is actually an affordable family car. The silver trim pieces on the steering wheel and dash were especially distinctive. Our full-loaded SL version came with a leather interior and Tech Package that added to the upscale impression. The front bucket seats were supportive enough for long trips, despite what some reviewers have written about the seats in recent Nissan models.

Exterior styling is a little conservative, like most Nissan models with the exception of the 370Z and GT-R sports cars. There's nothing really wrong with it. The lines are pleasing and the revised headlights and grill give it a slightly sporty look. But the overall appearance is very reserved compared to such competitors as the sharply styled Kia Optima, which is designed to call attention to itself.

On the road, the Altima was well composed and pleasant. The ride was firm without being stiff, while the steering was precise without being abrupt. With 182 horsepower, the 2.4-liter inline 4 is peppy and more than a match for freeway traffic, although short of a genuine sports sedan. For those who want that, a 3.5-liter V6 is available that produces 270 horsepower — which should be significantly increase the fun factor, at the cost of a little worse mileage. The XTRONIC CVT did have a Sport mode that noticeably increased the throttle response and hastened the upshifts, however.

The midsize sedan market is incredibly competitive these days, with notable new and improve models appearing every year. They include the Chevy Malibu, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Optima and Toyota Camry. But the improvements to the Altima first unveiled last year make it well worth considering, too.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model tested: 2014 Altima 2.5 SL Tech.

• Manufacturer: Nissan.

• Class: Midsize sedan.

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

• Style: Five-door car.

• Engines: 2.5-liter inline 4 (182 hp, 180 ft-lbs); 3.5-liter V6 (270 hp, 251 ft-lbs).

• Transmission: Continuously variable transmission (CVT).

• Fuel Economy: 27/38/31 (2.5 - as tested); 22/31/25 (3.5).

• Price: Starting at around $22,000 ($30,000 as tested).

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