A slew of mediocre cars had us sleeping on Nissan. But the Altima proves it's back and better than ever.
If it were up to Nissan’s sales team, the Rogue would be America’s Japanese car of choice. Driveways and garages would be filled with that awkward but profitable crossover and high sales would help smoothen the ride for the Nissan-Renault-Mitsubishi alliance after the whole Carlos Ghosn scandal sent it down a bumpy road. If all went according to plan, the French-Japanese automaker could even beat Volkswagen and Toyota to become the world’s largest carmaker. But inside the company there’s a rift-a rebellion even- keeping that dream from becoming a reality. It stems from what we suspect is the engineering team’s hatred of crossovers, a hate that you can’t spot until you drive the Nissan Rogue alongside the 2019 Altima and notice the chasm of quality between the two. We hadn’t had the pleasure of experiencing that contrast until Nissan loaned us a Scarlet Ember Altima Platinum for a week and set us free on Bay Area roads.
Before getting inside, it’s clear that one of the aspects helping the Altima save Nissan is its new design language, which is based off the angular-looking V-Motion 2.0 Concept unveiled at the 2017 Detroit Auto Show. Thanks to liberal use of the hammer and chisel, Nissan designers have trimmed the round fatty edges off the Altima and given the new one a leaner and more focused look.
While it’s not likely to turn as many heads as the ads will have you believe, the 2019 Altima looks more deliberately designed than previous iterations. Its beltline adds some of the front end’s character to the sides and rear while darkened 19-inch wheels as well as chrome and black accents bordering the greenhouse add visual reinforcement to the Altima’s modern touches. The rear end also gets a decklid spoiler and what looks like a mild rear diffuser painted to match the body and styled to integrate dual exhaust tips.
Two exhaust tips might sound like overkill given that the V6 has been discontinued for 2019, but that doesn’t mean the Altima isn’t available with the satisfying kick of horsepower. In place of the six-pot is Nissan’s revolutionary variable compression-ratio engine, which has been ripped out of the Infiniti QX50 and tuned to make 248 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque on premium fuel in the Altima. It comes mated to a CVT that turns the Altima into a milage champion capable of an EPA rated 31 mpg combined, 27/37 mpg city/highway.
Thanks to the clever Variable Compression-ratio technology, the Altima’s emphasis on fuel economy makes no tradeoff for acceleration. Once turbo lag and CVT lull is overcome, our red Nissan managed to rocket from 0-60 mph in 5.9-seconds. The only downside to the VC-Turbo powertrain is that it limits you to front-wheel drive and keeps you within the Altima’s SR or Platinum trim levels.
If you live somewhere where the roads get icy and need all-wheel drive, or just don’t want to spend the extra cash on horsepower and trim options you may not want, the Altima can also be had with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine making 188 horsepower and 180 lb-ft of torque. Milage varies depending on whether you opt for all-wheel drive or just front-wheel drive, but either way the naturally-aspirated 2.5-liter gets mated to a CVT. At least paddle shifters are an option for those who like to maintain control of the driving experience.
The theme of easy control is one that’s felt inside the Altima’s inviting cabin-itself a refreshing surprise given that Nissan has recently built a reputation for letting its products go stale before they get a refresh. Even though interior of the well-spec’d Rogue we drove in 2018 felt cobbled together (with a confusing array of cheap-feeling buttons mixing with beautifully-colored leather to make it feel like a polished budget rental), the 2019 Altima relies on chrome accents, wood-colored trim, and an ergonomic layout to make its interior feel simple and look beautiful.
Rather than surround a small infotainment screen with a swarm of buttons, Nissan has removed the mess and used that real estate to house an 8-inch Apple CarPlay and Android Auto-enabled touchscreen display. Many of the Altima’s infotainment controls live there now, with large icons and the sensitive, easy to reach screen removing the headache of scanning the dash for the right button.
We’d usually praise a lightly colored interior and a large greenhouse for making the cabin of a car feel spacious, but the Altima has it all. A downward-sloping hood and large windows to make outward visibility easy, an inviting shade of creme to give the impression of even more space, and actual space. The Altima’s interior room is afforded by a wheelbase that’s 1.9-inches longer than the car it replaces. Overall length goes up too, by only 1 inch, with that 0.9-inch chunk of extra wheelbase being cut out of the front overhang.
Thanks to an additional 0.9-inches in width and a loss of 1.1-inches in height, the new Altima looks sportier while actually cutting through the air more efficiently with a drag coefficient of 0.26. The Altima also blows its larger sibling, the Maxima, out of the water with 15.4 cubic feet of trunk space and a large opening versus the Maxima’s 14 cubic feet.
There is one asterisk we should have mentioned earlier, though. That would be that there was no time for us to marvel at any of the Altima’s aforementioned highlights before driving it because its keys were tossed to us in the middle of San Francisco’s rush hour and we were prodded into hitting the road by loud honks. That short drive was enough for us to wipe our slate filled with ill thoughts about Nissan clean. The comfortable NASA-inspired Zero-Gravity seats, which live up to the marketing hype by spreading an occupants body weight so no one part of the body carries an unfair share of the burden, certainly added to the Altima’s likability. So did the quiet cabin that lets the 9-speaker Bose sound system do its job without impediment, but it’s the steering that really made us swoon.
There’s nothing particularly special about it. At low speeds the wheel is light like a luxury car’s (steering weight goes up as speed does) and delivers no feedback like every other modern steering system, but it’s so direct and the Altima’s visibility and dimensions so conducive to effortless travel that a driver immediately feels like they are one with the car.
It’s not a sports car-like experience either, you don’t go searching for an apex so much as you see a corner and let your mind think pleasant thoughts while the Altima telepathically rounds the bend. The suspension is just as good too, cushioning the many imperfections in San Francisco’s streets without feeling mushy, which lets the driver actually enjoy driving. And if having a car drive for you is more of an appealing thought, the Altima can almost do that too thanks to its ProPilot Assist suite of driver aids.
At its core, ProPilot Assist is the combination of automatic cruise control with the ability to deal with stop-and-go traffic and a lane-centering function that keeps the Altima in its lane better than just about any other steering assist function we’ve encountered save for Tesla’s Autopilot. Combined with rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, automatic emergency braking, blind spot monitoring, traffic sign recognition, an around view monitor (which you can finally see clearly), and an overbearing rear automatic braking system, the Altima has all the tech to help new drivers, bad drivers, and drivers who are just plain lazy get from A to B without causing an insurance claim.
Our brand-new tester didn’t give us any real trouble during its week in our hands, but we did find two minor annoyances that drivers in large cities may have to deal with. One of those is the automatic rear braking system, which stops the Altima too early to let it fit into San Francisco’s cramped but usable parking spaces. The second annoyance occurs when you try to turn the rear automatic braking system off. That requires a trip into the driver aids menu on the 7-inch gauge-mounted screen. Given the awkwardness of trying to navigate menus using a directional pad on the steering wheel, it’s too easy to get lost under the wrong options list and spend a few minutes trying to find your way out before getting too frustrated and giving up entirely.
One easy way to bypass the system is to just opt for an S or SR-trim, the lowest two tiers in the five-trim Altima family, since these come without Pro Pilot Assist or automatic rear braking. Including destination charges, the Altima S and SR can be snagged with FWD for $24,645 and $25,995, respectively, or with an AWD powertrain for $25,995 and $27,345, respectively. If ProPilot Assist is more your thing, you can get the whole suite for as low as $28,825 including destination by buying the FWD SV trim.
Upgrading to the 2.0-liter VC-Turbo costs a minimum of $30,045 including destination for the SR FWD, but applying that drivetrain to the top-tier Platinum trim pushes the sticker up to $35,675, which also accounts for destination. If you happened to like the special decklid spoiler and 19-inch wheels on our test model, the Platinum Edition One with the VC-Turbo engine, expect to shell out a juicy $36,645 including destination.
If there’s one thing we gleaned from enjoying the Altima’s company for a week, it’s that Nissan has elevated its position considerably, enough to make us lose our disdain for the brand. Before experiencing the Altima, each Nissan we drove not only felt like it could have used more time in the oven, but like the design team could take a tour of the competition to see what an attractive and ergonomic cabin looks like or how a good car handles.
Before, Nissan only seemed to worry about offering the minimum viable product and using its reputable badge to targeted consumers who didn’t know any better. No longer is that the case. Now, the biggest worry should be that drivers, whether they’re the type to enjoy driving or just endure it, will miss out on a home-run hit from Nissan and head towards the crossovers when they get to the dealership.
The Altima gives us the satisfaction of seeing what we knew all along, that Nissan could make a much better car than it was making, like it used to in the 90s. Hopefully the Altima is just the beginning of a new era for Nissan.