NEW YORK — Don't tell Nissan the sedan segment is shrinking.
The company last week unveiled the sixth generation of its top-selling sedan, the midsize Altima, loading it with a trove of its most advanced technologies and segment- busting features, including all-wheel drive and its semiautonomous ProPilot Assist system as a standard on most trim levels.
"This new car signals that the sedan is back," said Alfonso Albaisa, the automaker's global head of design, at the unveiling of the Altima at the New York auto show.
Nissan believes sedans have a lot of life left and it wants to expand Altima sales — not just stabilize them. On the surface, that looks like a gravity-defying act.
U.S. car sales fell 11 percent last year as consumers continued migrating to light trucks, and midsize sedan sales fell 16 percent. Altima volume declined 17 percent to 254,996 units.
But Nissan has an argument.
"The Altima was in the sixth year of its cycle last year," points out Michael Bunce, Nissan North America vice president of product planning. "And it was competing against its two very strong competitors — the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord — in the first year of their redesign.
"We'll be back this year with an all-new offering."
For that offering, Nissan has gone all out.
In addition to ProPilot Assist, which lets the car steer itself as long as lanes are clearly marked and the driver keeps his hands on the wheel, there is awd. Ford Motor Co. offers awd on the Fusion midsize sedan. And Subaru, one of Nissan's smaller-volume Japanese competitors, has staked its brand name on awd for years.
But not the Camry and not the Accord.
Tim Hill, owner of Hill Nissan in Winter Haven, Fla., and chairman of the Nissan National Dealer Advisory Board, says awd might not set the woods on fire in his central Florida market — although it just might, he adds, if consumers embrace it for protection from Florida's heavy rainstorms. But the feature will make Altimas more appealing in the snowy Northeast and upper Midwest, Hill said. Dealers in those markets tell the advisory board they are eager to gain a competitive advantage there, he says.
Nissan also has loaded the Altima with Safety Shield 360, a network of features that includes front, side and rear safety monitoring and intervention technologies, automatic emergency braking, pedestrian detection, rear automatic braking and lane departure warning.
Further, Nissan has redesigned the Altima with an electronic architecture that will let engineers update its autonomous features as new ones become available.