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New Model Gives Altima a Boost in Crowded Segment

Njuguna Kabugi | 12/12/2012, 12:12 p.m.

When the Nissan Altima launched 20 years ago, not many would have guessed how quickly it would muscle itself into the ranks of the best-selling family sedans. The original Altima was smaller than its competitors, a bit rough around the edges in its handling and it came bearing a completely unknown name. However, none of that mattered to eager customers. Its pricing started at just a little above $13,000 and Nissan sold 120,000 Altimas that first year, 20 percent more than planned.

Today, it is one of the top three sellers in the ever competitive family sedan class. With each new generation (the 2013 is the 5th so far), Nissan continues to fine tune a formula popular in the fashion world where affordable products often model the look and feel of more expensive offerings to enhance their appeal.

This "democratization of design" subliminally works wonders for those of us with lighter pocketbooks. For Altima's case, success is guaranteed because Nissan freely borrowed from more substantial cars in the Nissan family. Without a touch of self-doubt, many of us will gladly take home a base Altima that costs $22,280 while believing that we've acquired the uncannily familiar $48,595 Infiniti M37 from Nissan's luxury division.

Consider also the Maxima conundrum. The Nissan Maxima is, by most standards, a more luxurious and substantial car than Altima. But, unlike the sharp differences between Honda's Civic and Accord or Toyota's Corolla and Camry, Maxima is almost identical in size to Altima.

Though its dimensions haven't increased tremendously since the last model, the Altima is within an inch or two of the Maxima (or larger) in headroom, legroom, hip-room and overall interior volume. Outside, the two cars share practically the same measurements, including front and rear track.

The 2.5-liter 16-valve four-cylinder that we tested delivers 182 horsepower and 180 pound-feet to its front wheel drive system - enough to make it one of the quickest four-cylinder sedans in its class. The new sedan also has updated safety and infotainment features and is roomy enough to hold the average family with little fuss.

The Altima's restyled interior features functionally arranged controls, but the overall design is notably conservative at a time when competitors are getting bolder with their interiors.The trunk, hood, and roof are now aluminum, and the body uses more high-strength steel to cancel out the modest increase in size; the added width makes for extra shoulder room in the larger cabin.

The fuel economy is one of the best-in-segment - 38 mpg highway (for the 2.5-liter engine). It rivals many competitors hybrid output. In tests conducted by Nissan, the Altima clocked the lowest gasoline costs ($532) on a 5350 mile trip from D.C. to L.A. This was better than its main competitors: Toyota Camry ($577 at 35 mpg), the Ford Fusion and Honda Accord tied at ($594) and the VW Passat (31 mpg) at $652.

There's no manual, conventional automatic, or dual-clutch transmission. Every 2013 Altima comes with a CVT which keeps the engine loping along lazily to help the Altima return the mpg highway rating. I am not a fun of this system; it is loud and whines even when the engine is not really struggling, taking away the thrill one gets from the engine's quick acceleration.

The trunk space is rather generous, but I do, however, pick a nit with its design because it does not open fully upright, as in the Camry. I am still nursing a bump and a cut on my forehead incurred during a trip to the grocery store.

The Altima sedan is priced from $21,500 for the bare bones model. Expect to pay up to $30,000 for top of the line model. Our test car was priced at just under $29,000. Though well loaded, I am still puzzled why Nissan left out a navigation system which is included in many Kias and Hyundais under $18,000.