The 2013 Nissan Altima 3.5SL

The Nissan Altima, long a second stringer in the ferocious battle for sales dominance in the midsize category has become something of a MVP of late; several months it has outsold the Honda Accord and even the Toyota Camry, the annual sales leader for many years.

What has brought the Altima off the bench and into driveways of so many Americans? Undoubtibly part of it is the incentives such as great lease deals that Nissan has used to goose sales. But much of it is down to the overall goodness of the vehicle itself, as evidenced by the week I recently spent with the top model, the 3.5SL.

Unlike Ford, Hyundai, Kia and Mazda, Nissan still offers a V6 in this size class; the Altima’s is a freshened versions of the venerable VQ-series of motors, updated—like the Altima four cylinder—for more efficient and refined operation. Its 270hp and 251lb-ft of torque are channeled through a continuously variable transmission to (theoretically) increase economy, and thanks to the robustness of available urge, the CVT is much less objectionable in this installation than many of its breed. It also doesn’t stand in the way when you get after it, shifting ratios without undue lag and enabling the 3.5SL to hit sixty in just over six seconds. There is little of the aggravating “mooing” sounds that often define this type of tranny, and it even has a sport mode and paddle shifters that allow it to mimic a twin-clutch gearbox. 

The last generation Altima was one of the most refined, quite cars in the class, and this new one continues that laudable trend, smothering most objectionable frequencies of road roar and suffering almost no wind whistle at legal speeds. It also rides quite well on its 18-inch wheels and low profile rubber.

Handling is impressive; though there is a fair amount of body role, the Nissan hangs on gamely, and doesn’t begin to succumb to nose plowing understeer until really provoked. The steering is accurate, though lacking in feel, and more linear than that of many cars in the class. Brake feel and performance are more than commensurate with the Altima’s performance.

The new car’s styling is a voluptuous evolution of its predecessor’s, with particularly rounded front fender forms and more brightwork smattered around the body. It looks quite fetching on the larger wheels that come on V6 models; the four cylinder models’ smaller footwear undermine the Altima’s stance, giving it weak visual persona.

Inside the new model is a bit of a mixed bag. Many of the materials are cheaper looking and feeling than the older model. This is somewhat offset by the use of some interesting textures and silk screened metallic trim. The instruments are shared with other models in the Nissan/Infiniti portfolio and feature a nicely configured information screen between the tach and speedo.

The test Altima was equipped with the corporate navigation system, meaning the center screen increased in size from five to seven inches—but it still cant tell you what tracks are on a playlist in your iPod. Most objectionable, though, were the seats.

Nissan has bragged that NASA helped design the front, “zero gravity” chairs. While they may work great in orbit, in Earth’s gravity field they are quite annoying, with non-adjustable headrests that force one’s head so far forward you end up in a semi-fetal position, and a lack of lateral support commensurate with the Altima’s cornering potential. The backseat is actually a welcome respite, with lots of leg room and supportive cushioning. Trunk room is generous and easily accessed.

Solid in most catagories, ahead in such areas as refinement and quietness, the Altima is a compelling choice. While only about 10 percent of buyers are likely to choose the V6, it is nice to know that Nissan still sees value in such a powertrain choice for those of more enthusiastic bent.

Car buying tips for the 2013 Nissan Altima: Altimas have never held quite as much of their value as the class-heavyweights Accord and Camry, but they have the same excellent track record for reliable service and actually make a much better second hand choice for most people, due to their slightly lower pricing. As a broker, I have found them to be very durable and frugal (in the case of the four cylinder), with low reconditioning costs and a character of refinement that pleases a great many people. Since they have tended to depreciate more than the Honda or Toyota, leasing one makes new makes more sense than purchasing. Nissan is trying to address this by lowering the car’s MSRP in Juune 2013; while this will mean the Altima holds a greater percentage of its original sticker price, what really matters to most buyers is what they can actually buy (or lease) one for; these actual transaction prices are unknown at the time of this posting.

EPA Ratings: 22/31; 25mpg combined
Price as tested: $32,135

For Nissan’s view of the Altima, go here.