Nissan takes its popular family car to a whole new level

by: NISSAN MOTORS CORPORATION USA - The 2013 Nissan Altima can easily be mistaken for a more expensive sedan.Nissan needs to be careful how they market the redesigned 2013 Altima, especially the top-of-the-line, V6-equipped SL model, the subject of this review. With its sleek lines and refined interior, the Altima 3.5 SL competes well against the other V6-equipped affordable family cars on the market, including the redesigned Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. But it also competes well against the entry-level cars in Nissan's own luxury division, Infiniti.

The same can be said of the entry-level cars in Honda's luxury division, Acura, and Toyota's luxury division, Lexus. Yes, the 2013 Altima 3.5 SL is that good.

The affordable midsize car market has changed a lot over the years. It used to be enough just to offer practical family sedans. Priced enough below full size family cars to seem like bargains, they all sold well. But as consumers began demanding more for their money, the race was on to improve quality and add features while still keeping the prices reasonable. The result is a wave of well built, fully equipped, affordable midsize cars that are rewarding to drive. New or heavily revised in recent years are the Chevy Malibu, Chrysler 200, Dodge Avenger, Ford Taurus, Honda Accord, Kia Optima, Hyundai Sonata, Toyota Camry and Volkswagen Passat.

The 2013 Altima embodies the changes that have occurred in this market segment. The styling is crisp and attractive, not dull and dowdy. The interior is contemporary and composed of high quality materials, not cheap looking. All of the available engines — two 2.5-liter four cylinder engines and a 3.5-liter V6 — deliver good power and admirable fuel economy. And the trim levels range from the well-equipped base model to the luxurious SL. A coupe is also available.

The basic looks of the Altima are not radically different than last year's model, which was attractive in its own right. But they have been punched up with a larger grill, sharper creases, redesigned tail lights and a few other nips and tucks. The interior has been substantially upgraded and now seems more like a German sport coupe than a Japanese economy car. The heated leather bucket seats in our test car were comfortable enough for long trips, and all of the instruments were easy to find and understand — a welcome departure from the button-laden dashes that mar some cars.

On the road, the Altima 3.5 SL was remarkably quiet and stable. It felt and drove like a larger car, with the well-tuned suspension easily absorbing road imperfections. The 3.5-liter V6 has plenty of power — 270 horsepower — and the Continuously Variable Transmission was one of the best we've ever tested. It allowed the Altima to accelerate and decelerate quickly and effortless, just like a refined six-speed automatic transmission. The CVT also featured a manual shift mode with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters for even more control, although most drivers will probably not find using it necessary.

The EPA rates the V6 at 22 miles per gallon in the city and 31 on the highway, which is very respectable. But the four-cylinder engine is significantly better at 27 miles per gallon in the city and 38 on the highway. We suspect most buyers will sacrifice power for economy when the basic Altima is so good.

Of course, our positive impression was aided by the array of comfort, convenience and entertainment options on the SL model. The base Altima comes with such features as power everything and an AM/FM in-dash single CD player with CD MP3 Playback stereo. But the SL adds everything from leather to a navigation system with rearview camera and dual zone temperature controls. Stepping up that much boosts the price from around $22,000 to over $32,000, but that's still less than some cars that are not noticeably better.

We found very little about the Altima worthy of complaining. Rear seat leg room could have been better and the semi-fastback styling reduced side visibility a bit. Some reviewers have found the front bucket seats lumpy, but we didn't think so. Nevertheless, a long test drive is in order — if only to fully appreciate what Nissan has done with the Altima for 2013.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model tested: 2013 Altima 3.5 SL.

• Manufacturer: Nissan.

• Class: Midsize sedan.

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

• Style: Four-door car.

• Engines: 2.5 inline 4 (182 hp, 180 lb-ft); 2.5 inline 4 (175 hp, 180 lb-ft - coupe only); 3.5-liter V6 (270 hp, 251 lb-ft - as tested).

Transmission: Continuously Variable Transmission with manual shift mode and steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

EPA estimated city/highway/mileage: 27/38/31 (4); 22/31/25 (V6).

Price: Beginning at approximately $22,000 ($32,135 as tested).

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