It seems like only yesterday that Nissan took the tired-looking Altima and converted it into a stylish, roomy and great-handling car.
Alas, it was a decade ago already when that third-generation Altima dazzled the automotive world and took Car of the Year honors at the North American International Auto Show.
That was the third generation, followed by the fourth generation in 2007. So what did Nissan dare do to tamper with a highly successful formula for the fifth generation?
Well, the changes were not dramatic at first glance, but definitely satisfying. For 2013 — new models arrive in showrooms this summer — Nissan has carefully resculpted the front and rear, refined the interior, added more seat comfort (with a little help from NASA), and made it more fun to drive.
Altima has been carefully crafted outside to retain its sleek look, but now it has a more rounded, classier look; a sweet new contour across the front fenders, a smoother profile.
The only mistake by designers, in my mind, is messing with the rear taillight cluster. It had been one of the sharpest, most distinct arrangements on the road today and now it blends in more with the trendy wraparound designs of some competitors.
It’s comparable in size to the previous generation, with the same wheelbase but nearly an inch longer in overall length and just over an inch wider. That, by the way, translates to more shoulder room inside.
The entire cabin, actually, is quite roomy. Headroom and legroom are more than ample.
Seats are comfortable and supportive in all the right places — Nissan attributes its seat design to NASA’s zero-gravity seats on the space shuttle, designed for comfort on the long haul. Good to know in case you’re headed to the space station or, perhaps, cross-country.
A huge center console offers great storage, and long cargo fits nicely within the broad pass-through from the trunk. The trunk offers 15.4 cubic feet of space, which ranks about average for the segment.
The Altima also is more refined and classier-looking inside. Materials now have a look and feel of an upscale car.
But, undeniably, it’s Altima’s high-tech gadgetry — some of which is found only on higher-priced cars — that will bring the raised eyebrows and nods of approval.
Kick on the engine with a push-button start. Then, before you go, make that Bluetooth hands-free call. The phone system even allows streaming audio and text messaging.
Starting to rain? Headlights will turn on when the windshield wipers swipe four times. Clever.
A 4-inch LCD screen, situated between the speedometer and tach, is recessed and tilted backward for easy visibility. In it you can see a clear rear-view monitor for safely getting out of the driveway. In higher-line models, you get a 7-inch screen.
Opt for the tech package and you also get lane departure and blind spot warnings, and a moving-object recognition system helps spot a wandering toddler. And get this: The rear camera has its own wash-and-dry system to keep the images clean and sharp.
Another cool feature is Altima’s easy-fill tire-pressure monitoring system: The car will chirp when tires have reached the correct pressure.
On the road, the front-wheel-drive Altima provides a smooth, quiet ride. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have some fun along the way.
Altima’s familiar 2.5-liter engine returns but has been tweaked and brings along 7 more horses for the ride — now producing 182 horsepower.
This popular powerplant provides enough oomph for most folks from the stoplight, up the ramp or when they kick it into passing gear.
A 3.5-liter V-6, though, is available and ups the throttle response. It gets 270 hp and gets up to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds, according to Edmunds.
Regulating the speed is Nissan’s CVT called Xtronic. If you’ve read me before, you’ll know I am not a big fan of the CVT and its whining sound as it runs up to speed. But Altima’s new CVT is smooth and quiet and, frankly, I had to remind myself that the Altima had a CVT.
And Nissan has said its redesigned CVT has translated to a 15-percent boost in mileage: 27 mpg city, 38 on the highway. Those are incredible figures, perhaps as good as it gets in the segment. The V-6 gets 22 city, 31 highway.
Steering is wonderfully crisp, aided by Nissan’s “electromechanical” assist, a deviation from all-electric-assisted steering.
On corners or the highway, Altima offers confident handling. A retuned rear suspension gets some of the credit for that.
With the high-tech safety gadgetry, every Altima for 2013 also gets ABS and stability control standard, plus front-seat side bags and side curtain air bags.
In terms of body style, the Altima is what it is: a four-door sedan. No coupes, no hatches, no ragtops. But there are a number of trim choices.
The base 2.5 has steel wheels, unfortunately, but does have full-power on the accessories, keyless ignition and Bluetooth phone connectivity. Still, better to go with 2.5S which adds cruise control, automatic headlights and a better sound system. The SV gets you alloy wheels, a slightly bigger LCD screen with rear-view camera and even better sound system.
The top-line SL adds xenon headlights, sunroof, leather seats and 9-speaker Bose sound. The optional navigation package gets a 7-inch color screen but is only available on the 2.5 and 3.5 SV versions.
Altima is in a tough class, what with the Camrys and Accords leading the way. But, with careful design changes outside and upgrades inside, the 2013 Altima is up to the challenge.