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Car review: Nissan loads Altima with style, substance

The mid-size 2013 Nissan Altima 2.5 SV can make you think you're in an upscale Infiniti. One of the keys to this car's excellence is its inherent quality.

June 28, 2012|By David Undercoffler, Los Angeles Times
  • The most basic 2013 Altima starts at $22,280. All versions include such features as NASA-inspired seats designed to reduce driver fatigue.
The most basic 2013 Altima starts at $22,280. All versions include such… (Nissan )

You're not going to see Lindsay Lohan crash a 2013 Nissan Altima into the back of a garbage truck. Your 10-year-old won't be hanging a poster of one on his bedroom wall next to a Lamborghini Aventador and Kobe Bryant. The car won't have a heavily scripted cameo in the next "Avengers" movie withRobert Downey Jr.'s character at the wheel.

Mid-size sedans don't get that kind of attention. This Nissan should.

The mid-size segment traditionally has the allure of a used toothbrush with none of the minty residue. Putting function long before form will have that effect on a car. But doing so also makes sense; cars such as the Toyota Camry, Chevrolet Malibu and the previous Nissan Altima are the bestselling cars the companies make. You don't sell 1,000 cars a day by offending the masses.

Yet the 2013 Altima 2.5 SV is so thoroughly conceived and executed, it might be the first time you've lusted over such garden-variety transportation since you took the training wheels off your bicycle. And this time, you don't even need a helmet.

One of the key elements to the new Altima's excellence is its inherent quality. Cars in the mid-size coterie are often an assemblage of compromises to keep costs manageable. Thus, doors sound hollow when you close them; interior panels are stamped out of hard, cheap plastic and an overflow of the world's noises (wind, road, compensatory Harley-Davidsons) seep into the cabin.

None of these problems plagued the Altima. Blindfold friends and take them for a ride in this Nissan and they'd swear you'd robbed an Infiniti dealership. The interior is one of the quietest and best-made in its class. Any button, switch or surface that occupants touch belies the car's economy, while the dashboard layout is clean and intuitive.

My solidly middle-class test car, a $24,880, pre-production Altima 2.5 SV, came standard with niceties like a backup camera, a color digital display in the instrument panel, dual-zone climate control and keyless entry. The most basic Altima 2.5 starts at $22,280, and all of them are put together by American hands in Nissan's plant in Smyrna, Tenn.

The new Altimas also come with NASA-inspired seats designed to reduce driver fatigue. Although Nissan has dubbed them Zero-Gravity seats, you should disavow notions of floating Jell-O or slow-motion back flips; they're still just seats.

But after my week with the car, I came away impressed with them; the chairs manage to squish and support at the same time. Unfortunately, the headrests are oddly positioned and hard as nails (maybe that's where they put the gravity). Interior room is average for this class, though rear headroom is a tad tight.

On the road, swaddled in your space seats and surrounded by the quality interior, the Altima's ride is comfortable but firm. Its predilections err more toward sporty driving than will other cars in this segment. This comes most sharply into focus when you toss the Altima into a turn and come out on the other side smiling rather than cringing.

This is possible largely because of a system on all new Altimas that will lightly feather the brake on the front inside wheel to reduce understeer. A well-balanced suspension design doesn't hurt; neither does shedding 80 pounds compared with the previous model.

Nissan is due kudos for giving the Altima impressive steering feel by way of an electronic-hydraulic power-assisted setup. Although it may be a smidge less fuel-efficient than the full-electric systems dominating many of today's autos, it's a trade-off you will appreciate every time you turn the wheel.

Unfortunately, the Altima does make a concession to fuel efficiency with its gearbox. Like its predecessor, the 2013 Altima comes with a continuously variable transmission. It's the sole detractor from the car's sporty demeanor and the general quietude of the interior.

A CVT, as these transmissions are known, gives a car essentially one gear with infinite ratios. This is instead of the five or six fixed ratios (normal humans call them speeds) on most automatic and manual transmissions. In theory, a CVT always has the engine running at optimum speed (rpm) relative to the vehicle's speed, and thus is more efficient.

But because a CVT is never shifting, it allows the engine to rev higher (and therefore louder) as you're accelerating than would a car with an automatic transmission. So be prepared for more engine noise than you might expect when really pushing the Altima.

This transmission also inhibits the four-cylinder model's sporting proclivities by not offering any manual shifting. A sport mode will mimic shifts for you, but there's no way to have absolute control over this gearbox.

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