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Nissan Altima: efficient, powerful family sedan

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TechnoFile.com

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It may not get the kind of attention that some of its midsize sedan competition does, but Nissan's Altima definitely deserves a look - and a test drive - if you're shopping for a new vehicle in this niche.

This fifth generation Altima, new for the 2013 model year, offers a heckuva lot of stuff and, while it looks a tad more conservative than the fourth generation model, it's still an attractive design, good to drive, and full of features.

Nissan Canada's sample was of the 3.5 SL trim level persuasion, which means it was top drawer and featured the V6 engine as opposed to the 2.5 liter four cylinder power plant of lower levels. That six puts out (an estimated) 270 horsepower and an estimated 251 lb.-ft. of torque, and it's more than adequate for the lion's share of driving situations. Power is smooth and the car accelerates well.

Alas, as is Nissan's wont, it's saddled with the company's Xtronic continuously variable transmission (CVT), accompanied in Nissan's sample version by the paddle shifters the company makes available only on the 3.5 SL version. The paddles are a great addition, and give you a not-too-unreasonable manual mode from an otherwise uninteresting CVT, but for some reason Nissan decided to mount the paddles on the steering column instead of behind the steering wheel - where they don't rotate with the steering wheel. That means if you're trying to shift manually while coming out of a turn, you're out of luck.

What's with that?

Still, that was my only real gripe about this car, and in the grand scheme of things that's pretty piddlin'. And there's plenty of other good stuff on board to help make up for that oversight, including projector-type halogen headlights (Nissan's sample also had auto on/off headlights), fog lights, optional LED taillights and heated outside mirrors with integrated LED turn signals. And that's only the tip of the tech tricks.

Keeping the Altima's body from falling onto its wheels is a nice-feeling independent strut front suspension (which Nissan says features advanced geometry, equal-length half shafts that are "almost parallel to the ground - reducing torque steer") and a new independent rear multilink suspension design "with improved toe angle control and improved camber angle control" Nissan says "maximizes interior volume while improving dynamic performance and comfort." It toes the comfort line well, but without any trace of wallow.

There's also a standard Active Understeer Control and front and rear stabilizer bars, and the electronic hydraulic power-assisted steering offers good performance and feel - as do the standard power-assisted front vented disc/solid rear disc brakes with ABS and Electronic Brake force Distribution (EBD). All in all, it all adds up to a pretty nicely driving family sedan.

Base Altimas come with standard 16 inch steel wheels but you can swap them out (not for free, I'm willing to bet!) for 17 inch aluminum-alloy ones. Nissan's test sample 3.5 SL wore that model's 18 inch aluminum-alloy wheels.

Inside the Altima is a nice, modern cabin that looks and feels quite up market. It's no Infiniti, but that's okay. Nissan says the Altima offers five passenger seating, but as is usual in such vehicles the person stuck in the middle of the steerage section doesn't get treated as well as the other four passengers - especially those up front, where Nissan says its NASA-inspired "zero-gravity" seats help relieve pressure points "no matter what the body type." This zero gee concept is fine, and the seats are indeed comfortable, but I never found myself floating out of the eight way power-adjustable heated driver's seat even once.

Interior tech tweaks include "Advanced Drive-Assist Display," which features a little high-resolution color display in the instrument cluster on which you can show a variety of things. Nissan's sample also came with NissanConnect, which features a seven inch color display, turn-by-turn navigation integration, steering wheel-mounted navigation controls and a nice Bose Premium Audio System with nine speakers. And of course there's Bluetooth for phone and audio.

The new NissanConnect Apps system (which Nissan says is standard on all Altimas that come with display audio and navigation) lets you stay connected when you should be watching the road by letting you interact with stuff like Facebook and Google services. And you can opt for Safety Shield Technologies, which include a Blind Spot Warning (BSW), Lane Departure Warning (LDW) and Moving Object Detection (MOD) system. A tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) is also available.

On the other hand, Nissan says its Hands-Free Text Messaging Assistant (another part of NissanConnect), lets you manage incoming text messages via voice control without taking your hands off the steering wheel or your eyes off the road. I only text under extreme duress, so didn't try this, but I like the idea. The company says it gives you an alert when a text comes in and can read the text to you. It's operated either by voice recognition or the steering wheel controls and Nissan says you can fire off responses such as "driving, can't text," "on my way," "running late," "okay" or a custom message you set up.

One really nice thing I noticed with the sample Altima is that, unlike in the last Nissan I drove, the company's voice recognition worked, and worked well.

Safety equipment includes the usual bevy of bags and belts, including roof-mounted curtain side impact supplemental air bags designed to protect front and rear outboard occupants' heads. You also get Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) and a Traction Control System (TCS).

The Nissan Altima competes in a crowded segment that's full of good vehicles. For example, it goes head to head with the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Kia Optima, Hyundai Sonata, Volkswagen Passat et al, all of which have their own joys and their own advantages. Well, and their own shortcomings, too, since nothing's perfect except my wife. Whether or not the Altima stands out enough from this crowd is a question I can't answer. But I do know there are plenty of them on the road, so some people certainly notice it.

According to Nissan's Canadian website, the 2014 Altima starts at just under $24,000 for the base 2.5 liter four cylinder model. The 2.5 SL starts at $28,898, while the V6-powered 3.5 SL (the only trim level available with the six cylinder power plant) kicks off at $32,998, which is pretty reasonable considering that it comes with the technology package built in (includes Nissan Navigation System 7 inch color touch-screen monitor, voice recognition, Moving Object Detection (MOD), Lane Departure Warning (LDW), and Blind Spot Warning (BSW).

For comparison, Toyota's Camry also starts at just shy of $24,000 and its top of the line XLE V6 version starts at $33,625, while the Honda Accord starts at just shy of $26,000 and its top line "Touring V6" version starts at $33,400. That puts the Altima right in the ball park as far as pricing is concerned.

Copyright 2014 Jim Bray
TechnoFile.com

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