An attorney who has an office in the building where I work drives a Nissan Maxima. When I left my office one afternoon to find the Nissan Altima that had been left for me in the parking lot, I initially walked by it, having assumed that it was the aforementioned Maxima.
Which is good news for people who might be looking for a midsize sedan. And possibly not-so-good news for Nissan.
You see, the Altima starts at $21,760 for a car with a 2.5-liter I4, and goes up to $30,560 for one with a 3.5-liter V6 (the one driven here). The Maxima comes in two variants, both with a 3.5-liter V6 (sound familiar?), and the base starts at $33,780 and the upper model at $35,520.
Which is to say that the midsize sedan customer might be really, really pleased by getting a car that actually looks better than the Maxima (i.e., after I actually discovered the Altima, I did a visual comparison of it with the Maxima, and there is something to be said for the Altima’s fresher styling).
To say that the midsize market is a competitive one is akin to observing that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie make an attractive couple. Yes, with the Sonata and Optima, the Camry and the Accord, the Fusion and the Malibu, things are—well, things are where they really ought to be, because for far too long, it seemed as though that segment—its robust sales notwithstanding—was looked upon as a “this is a family car, so let’s imagine that the family is Ward and June Cleaver and sons, not Modern Family. Now there is style. Now there is technology. Now there are materials that don’t seem as though they could be used for knock-off Wham-o products that you’d find at a dollar store.
Here’s a bit of metaphoric stretching for you: The third highest grossing film in the U.S. is The Avengers. The star of that movie is, arguably, Robert Downey, Jr., who is in the Iron Man role. Robert Downey, Jr., of course, is the “voice” of the Nissan television commercials (“Wouldn’t it be cool. . .?”). The third best-selling midsize sedan in the U.S. in 2012 was the Altima (behind the Camry and the Accord, which are the Castor and Pollux, it seems, of midsize sedans).
(A brief digression on the sales figures, just to give you a sense of where things stood in 2012. The number-one slot was held by Avatar—I mean, the number-one sedan was the Camry with sales of 404,701 units (according to numbers from Autodata, which will be the source for all the sales figures here). The Accord followed, with 331,872 units moved. And the Altima is closer to the Accord than the Accord is to the Camry, with 302,934 units. Meanwhile, the Fusion is back at 241,263 units, and the Malibu at 210,951. Of course, let’s not forget that ad populum is a fallacious approach, so don’t over interpret these numbers. But don’t underestimate them either, because there does sometimes tend to be the so-called “wisdom of crowds.)
Anyway, back to that Altima 3.5 SL. Once, and not in a dim, misty history, the interiors of Altimas were not all that appealing. In fact, the interiors of plenty of Nissans seemed to be where the company was, to use a euphemism, thrifting things. Carlos Ghosn wasn’t known as Le Cost Cutter for nothing. Maybe they’re making it up on volume, or something, but the interior of the Altima—especially at this top trim level, which brings such things as leather on the seats and almost convincing carbon fauxber panels, is really a class-above. (I’m really thinking the Maxima guys are in a world of trouble here.) This is the car that has the “Zero Gravity” seats that are mentioned in the commercial. No, they don’t float. They are comfortable, however. (Does an astronaut, wearing that massive suit, actually feel the seat? Would she know the difference between a Barcalounger and a lawn chair?)
One of the features of the Altima that cannot go unremarked, even though I think it to be unremarkable, is the continuously variable transmission. Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate the technology that is a CVT, and I also appreciate the fact that by dialing in the right ratios it provides good fuel economy (stickered at 22/31 mpg). (Oddly, there are really nice paddle shifters mounted to the steering column, devices that, near as I can discern, are used only by automotive journalists who come down with acute andrettitus when someone hands them the key—or, in this case, the fob—to a new car.) I think that customers look at the transmission situation as a binary choice: it is an automatic with the gear selector in the center console or somewhere else. Period. (Manual? Are you kidding?) So, to tell someone, “This car has a CVT” is akin to telling them, “It has an optimized xylophonic steering rack”—it doesn’t mean anything to them.
But I digress.
This all-new Altima was clearly designed and engineered (designed with a slippery profile so that the coefficient of drag is just 0.299; engineered with a body-in-white that is >50% high-strength steel) to compete with cars that come in at a higher price point, but probably cars that don’t carry the same corporate badge.
Engine: 3.5-liter, DOHC V6
Material: Aluminum block and heads
Horsepower: 270 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 251 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm
Transmission: continuously variable
Wheelbase: 109.3 in.
Length: 191.5 in.
Width: 72 in.
Height: 58.1 in.