Perhaps because the midsize car segment is inundated with such strong performers like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, and up-and-comers like the Mazda6, that the Altima is an often overlooked contender. But given its sporty performance, attractive styling, and bargain price tag, it may be the best midsize car of the bunch.
To begin with, depending on what your definition of a family car is and how big it should be, the Altima exceeds the performance characteristics you’d expect of a relatively inexpensive people mover. While the sedan styling is unoffensive, in coupe form the Altima takes on some of the aggressive lines present in Nissan’s Infiniti cars or even (dare we say) the Z car. Four trim levels are available that span from a base model, a more well-equipped 2.5 S, the sporty SE and a top-of-the-line and pricey 3.5 S badged model. There is also a hybrid version, though the regular four-cylinder engine and Continuously Variable Transmission are sufficiently fuel-friendly for most buyers.
Drivetrain and Performance
The same engine choices are available in both body styles; either a 2.5-liter four producing 175 horsepower, or an impressieve 270-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 that many critics have commented is too substantial for the modest front-wheel drive car to handle. A manual transmission is standard with the four cylinder engine in the 2.5S and the V-6 enters into the fray with the 3.5 SE version. The only automatic transmission is a continuously variable (CVT) type that is much maligned in automotive circles for its ambiguous shift qualitities, but Nissan has limited the frustration level by offering “manumatic” mode that makes use of paddle shifters. Automatic Altima SE V6 versions are capable of hitting 60 mph in a sprite 6.6 seconds. Handling qualities of all models, and particularly the coupe, is superb if a bit stiff in the SE model due to it’s sport-tuned suspension. The sedan version earn top scores of five stars in every government crash test and the coupe comes in just a shade short of these same marks. One negative is Nissan’s excluding Stability Control from the standard equipment.
The 2009 Altima was purposely meant to resemble the Infiniti G37 and it wears this look well. In fact, it at least holds its own against pricier competitors from Honda and Toyota if not exceeding their more conservative styling. This is especially true in the coupe mode which loses a bit a bit of leg and head room in the rear due to its sharply raked roofline, but gains considerable points in overall appearance and styling over the sedan.
Inside, Nissan’s efforts in improving overall fit and finish have paid off, though maybe still lagging behind perennial best-in-class winners from Honda and Toyota. While hard plastic is certainly still the material of choice Nissan has mostly been able to incomporate the entire package in a clean, attractive and functional way. Unlike the coupe, the sedan can truly accomodate four 6-foot adults in reasonable comfort, at least for a moderate distance, but legroom is just average, and headroom is tight in the coupe. The interior layout, however, is much improved over the previous-generation Altima and is now near the head of the family sedan class in terms of both design and material quality.
One annoying practice in the automotive world is on full display with the Altima and rears its ugly head when talking about price. Although theoretically the Altima is priced at just under $20,000, to obtain a decent share of the goodies, including a V6 engine and a substantial amount of options, a price of $30,000 becomes much more of the reality. And it is at that price point that potential buyers will have to weigh whether they may as well step up into the realm of a completely differenent set of cars. Decisions, decisions…