NEW YORK — Nissan's redesign of the Altima is meant to raise the stakes in the intensely competitive midsize sedan segment.
But the redesign introduced at the New York auto show also reveals three notable changes in Nissan's design direction.
1. China will rise as a design influence.
Nissan global design chief Alfonso Albaisa for the first time turned a design project into a worldwide endeavor, putting designers from China, the U.S. and Japan in the same studio for a month to hash out the car's final look.
That approach will probably be repeated, especially as China becomes more important to Nissan's global sales. Although the Altima has been historically a product for the U.S., it will be part of Nissan's China growth plan for the next five years.
And Nissan is looking for opportunities with other products, including a the U.S.-centric Titan pickup.
For the record, the China design team pressed for a flashier and more luxurious Altima, with more chrome, larger headlights and body cladding. The Japan team wanted a more mature, luxurious look, while the U.S. team pressed for a lighter, sportier design. Project leader Ken Lee of San Diego navigated a path among the preferences.
The takeaway: As China becomes more important to Nissan, expect bolder styling.
2. The next wave of sedans will sit lower and wider.
Nissan made the Altima lower, longer and wider, and brought down the hood. Designers adopted what looks like a thinner roof, with slimmer side pillars to make the car lighter and airier inside. That look will influence other models, Lee said. Expect a family look on the next Sentra and Versa coming in 2019, and on the next-generation Maxima that will follow.
3. Nissan is inching toward an autonomous-drive design.
Because the Altima moved to a pair of compact four-cylinder engine options and did away with its V-6, its engine compartment could be rendered smaller. The car also sits on an extended wheelbase. As a result, the passenger cabin is larger, accentuated by interior materials styled to make the front dash appear wider.
This is the direction for other models to come, and it plays into a future of autonomous vehicles and electrified models with smaller engine compartments.
The industry vision is that autonomous vehicle interiors — where drivers will be freed from hands-on steering — will operate as social spaces, with seats that turn to face each other.
That future is a few years away, Albaisa said. But the subtle changes on Nissan's new mass-market Altima evoke that era to come.