Redesigned 2013 Altima adds mpg, sophistication
Nissan aims to catch Camry in crucial mid-sized segment
NASHVILLE -- The Nissan Altima sedan was already striking gold with consumers as it crept up the U.S. sales charts over the past two years. For 2013, Nissan Motor Co. has created a redesigned fifth-generation Altima sedan that goes on sale June 26.
The redesigned Altima gets better seats, more elegant trim, new safety features, a pinch more horsepower, a bit more legroom and better fuel economy. At least for now, the Altima has the best fuel economy in the mid-sized sedan class.
The basics: Import-brand sedan manufacturers such as Nissan tend to be obsessed with other imports, regardless of what Ford and Chevrolet achieve. It is primarily what Toyota and Honda do that stirs the competition.
For the 2013 Altima, though, Nissan's binoculars were trained on the Hyundai Sonata, the car that looked so good in 2012 that it made the industry gasp. Nissan's Altima team even paused the project temporarily to scrutinize the Sonata when it appeared.
What they saw made them work harder on design cues, interior comfort, exterior trim and fuel economy.
The resulting Altima is a step forward in sophistication. Starting with the base model, it receives Nissan's first application of active understeer control, which automatically assists with steering during cornering. The base model also receives a 4-inch 3-D graphics drive-assist display system, positioned directly through the steering wheel to give drivers navigation and other information.
Notable features: Nissan's strategy with the redesigned Altima is to give customers a sense of buying "a class above" their expectations -- a significant step for a brand once known for inexpensive vehicles.
Starting one step up from the base, at the 2.5 S level, the Altima receives chrome trim around its windows, front grille and doors. The car comes with what Nissan is somewhat dubiously calling "NASA-inspired zero-gravity seats," which are designed to put occupants into the most comfortable sitting position to reduce fatigue, based on Nissan's reading of past NASA research.
The car also receives three safety features that are more typical of higher-end vehicles: lane departure warning, blind spot warning, and moving object detection to aid in backing up.
According to Nissan's official specs, the car also picked up an inch of front-seat legroom. But the roomy front passenger compartment seems to offer far more than an extra inch.
Most notable will be the Altima's gain in fuel economy, achieved through cutting weight and reducing friction in its continuously variable transmission. The car now claims 27 mpg city/38 mpg highway, ranking ahead of the upcoming Chevrolet Malibu equipped with hybrid-drive components.
Compromises and shortcomings: It's hard to complain about improved fuel economy. And Nissan managed to preserve the Altima's performance credentials by sticking with a V-6 engine option at a time when other automakers are reducing engine size. But the result is a more sophisticated Altima that relies on last year's engines.
The 3.5-liter V-6 is purely a carryover from the outgoing Altima. And the more common QR25 2.5-liter four-cylinder gained only 7 hp over the last-generation engine.
Nissan has more advanced, powerful and fuel-efficient direct-injection engine technology in its pocket, but it appears to be reserving it for a competitive fight to come.
What Nissan says: "Some of our competitors have done away with the V-6," says Scott Shirley, the Altima's chief marketing manager. "We don't think our customers agree with that. There are still substantial V-6 customers."
The market: A lot is riding on the Altima redesign. For the past 20 years, the model has struggled to break into the top ranks of family sedan sales against the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. Now it has.
Last year the Altima passed the Accord to become the second-best-selling mid-sized sedan behind the Camry. And in the early months of this year the Altima has come close to passing the Camry.
But now the competition will be taking Nissan more seriously. And the Altima is going to need the added 2013 features and technology to maintain its momentum.
The skinny: For Nissan, the outgoing 2012 Altima will be remembered for getting it into the mid-sized winner's circle. Now Nissan wants the 2013 model to win the segment.
You can reach Lindsay Chappell at firstname.lastname@example.org.