By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Here’s some weirdness:
The 2013 Nissan Altima coupe is no longer available with more than a four — and only with a CVT automatic. But you can still get a V-6 in the Altima sedan.
It’s weird because usually, the coupe version of a given car is considered the sportier version of that car — and usually offers the sportier drivetrain.
The previous (2012) Altima coupe came standard with a six-speed manual — with either the standard four or the optional six.
Well, not anymore.
Both versions of the 2013 Altima — and irrespective of engine — are now automatic (CVT) only.
This is unhappy news for those who prefer the sportier two-door layout — and a sportier driving experience. And it may be bad news for Nissan, too — if buyers turn away from the new Altima because it’s no longer sporty enough, relative to the competition.
But, at least the base four is stronger than before (182 hp vs. 175 in ’12) . . . well, in the sedan. And you can still get that sweet six (and 270 hp) . . . er, in the sedan.
PS: Blame Uncle — not Nissan — for the disappearance of the manual gearbox from the options roster. Probably for the loss of the six in the coupe, too
More on that in a moment.
WHAT IT IS
The Altima is Nissan’s mid-sized, mid-priced sporty sedan — and coupe. The sedan is actually about the same size outside — and roomier inside — than the more expensive Maxima sedan — and it’s available with the same basic VQ-series 3.5 liter V-6 engine that’s shared with/descended from Nissan’s Z-car sport coupe. But The Altima costs a lot less — with a base price of $21,760 for the 2.5 sedan (and $25,760 for the V-6 equipped S) vs. $31,000 to start for the Maxima, which has become a de facto entry-luxury sedan.
Primary cross-shop is the Honda Accord — which is also sold in both coupe ($23,350 to start) and sedan ($21,680 to start) versions. Other contenders include the Mazda6 — though it’s now only available with a four. There’s also the VW Passat — which offers a strong V-6 (as well as a 40-plus MPG TDI diesel option).
The 2013 Altima is all-new. It’s slightly larger overall than before, has more front and rear seat legroom — and a more powerful standard 2.5 liter engine in the sedan. Gas mileage with this engine — and the optionally available 3.5 liter V-6 — is significantly better than previously.
All trims now come standard with a CVT automatic, too.
A manual transmission is no longer available.
More power from the four — and the powerful six is still there (in the sedan).
Significant uptick in fuel economy from the four — to 27 city, 38 highway from 23 city, 32 highway last year. And to 21 city, 31 highway with the optional V-6, from 20 city, 27 highway last year with the V-6.
You can get into a V-6 Altima sedan for much less ($25,760 to start) than Honda charges for a V-6 Accord sedan ($30,070).
Roomier inside in several key categories than the Accord. Roomier in all categories than the Maxima.
Really excellent seats.
Straightforward, easy-to-comprehend (and use) controls.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
No power/mileage uptick for the four in the coupe — it’s the same 175 hp engine (and same MPGs) as last year.
No more six for the coupe.
No more manual transmission — with either engine.
Less personality than previously. Not much that makes this car stand out, from the driver’s point-of-view.
UNDER THE HOOD
As before, the Altima comes with your choice of a four or a six — but your other choices have been limited somewhat.
Sedans get an updated version of the 2.5 liter four — now making 182 hp vs. 175 previously. It gets the Altima to 60 in about 7.8 seconds, a solid half second improvement over the ’12 Altima sedan with the 175 hp engine. The updated 2.5 liter engine is also capable of 27 MPG city and 38 MPG, considerably better than last year’s 23 city, 32 highway.
You can also upgrade to a 3.5 liter V-6, making the same 270 hp as last year. And it, too, is more fuel efficient than before: 22 city, 31 highway now vs. 20 city, 27 highway for the ’12. The V-6 equipped ’13 Altima is also much quicker: zero to 60 in 6.2 seconds vs. about 6.7 for last year’s car — in part because it’s almost 100 pounds lighter.
The V-6 is only available in the sedan — and the four in the coupe is still the same four as last year, making the same so-so 175 hp and returning the same not-so-great 23 city, 32 highway. Also, there’s no manual transmission option with either engine, in either body style. The standard — and only — transmission is Nissan’s excellent (but take-it-or-leave-it) continuously variable (CVT) automatic — which is responsible for the majority of the fuel-efficiency improvements as well as the improved 0-60 times.
Some sport-minded buyers may be put off by the absence of a third pedal — especially in view of the fact that one of the Altima’s main rivals — the Honda Accord — offers a standard six-speed manual in the sedan as well as the coupe. And with the base four-cylinder engine, too. You can also still get a V-6 in the Accord coupe — and a six-speed manual transmission to go with it.
The Accord’s four is no weak sister, either. It makes 185 hp (10 more than the coupe’s four) and if you order the Sport trim, which comes with a free-flow exhaust, this notches up the output to 189 hp. It gets the Accord to 60 in about 7.5 seconds — quicker than the four-cylinder-powered Altima — and delivers 27 city, 36 highway (26/45 with the Sport package). The Altima’s mileage is better — but only just barely. Meanwhile, the Accord’s performance — and fun factor — is higher.
Same story as regards the V-6 Accord. It makes 278 hp and gets the car to 60 in just over six seconds flat, comfortably beating the V-6 Altima sedan — and destroying the four-cylinder-only/CVT-only Altima coupe.
It also rates a respectable 21 city, 34 highway — which is actually better overall than the V-6 Altima’s 22 city, 31 highway.
Interestingly, the Accord does all this — beats the Altima pretty much across the board, performance-wise as well as MPG-wise — despite being substantially heavier: 3,192 lbs. for the base four-cylinder Accord sedan vs. 3,108 lbs. for the base four-cylinder Altima sedan.
ON THE ROAD
The Altima used to be what the Maxima once was — Nissan’s sportiest four-door model. When the Maxima lost its manual transmission and evolved into a still-powerful but more luxury-minded cruiser, the Altima stepped in to fill the void as Nissan’s hot-shoe sedan. It was almost the same size overall (still is) and it had (and still has) the same basic Z-car sourced/shared V-6 engine (optionally, at least). But most of all, you could get that six with a manual, if you wanted. So equipped, the Altima had become, for all practical purposes, the new Maxima — just with a different name.
I’m not sure what the Altima is now. Or rather, what it’s role is in Nissan’s lineup — other than as a lower-cost alternative to the Maxima.
Like the Maxima, it is a powerful, “sporty” feeling car — even with the base four-cylinder engine, which has more than adequate gumption to move things along. And with the six, the Altima is downright quick — if not quite as quick as the Accord V-6.
But, it’s also very Maxima-like (current version) in that there’s not much to do anymore. Push the accelerator and the car goes — swiftly, quietly. Turn the wheel — and the car turns. But, what’s the difference, really, between the Altima V-6 and the Maxima (equipped with the same basic V-6)? In real terms, not much. Though the Maxima’s version of the 3.5 liter engine rates higher — 290 hp vs. the Altima’s 270 — acceleration is virtually the same. The Maxima does 0-60 in about 6.2 seconds — and so does the V-6 Altima. They’re even-Steven because the Maxima is heavier by about 450 pounds (3,551 lbs. vs. 3,108 for the Altima). But I can tell you they ride and drive pretty much the same.
The question arises: Why buy the Maxima? And the answer is: Because it’s more luxurious — fitted out with more in the way of standard amenities. The Maxima has become Nissan’s almost-Infiniti sedan.
Which brings up the follow-up question: Why buy the Altima?
When the Altima was more like the Maxima once was, it filled the role that had been left open. But now?
The Altima is a nice-driving car, four or six. No complaints about the CVT — other than it’s not a manual. It shifts quietly and smoothly, even mimicking the stepped gear changes of a traditional/conventional automatic.
And it’s nice that you can get that also-excellent (recipient of numerous awards and loved by all who are familiar with it) VQ-series V-6 engine in the Altima for a lot less than it would cost you in the Maxima. But after a week spent in the car, I couldn’t come up with a compelling reason to buy this car over the Accord, in terms of driving fun. Or even economy, for that matter. The ’13 is a lot more fuel-efficient than the ’12 it replaces. That’s great. However, it’s not noticeably more fuel-sippy than its primary competition (Accord) or, for that matter, others in this segment like the Kia Optima — which is available with a very sporty 2.0 turbo four that makes 274 hp, gets the car to 60 in 6.5 seconds — and pulls down an EPA-rated 22 city, 34 highway — which is within 3 MPG of the 185 hp (and 7.8 seconds to 60) four-cylinder Altima.
There’s also the superb VW Passat TDI — capable of 45-50 MPG on the highway, if you drive it right.
In sum, the issue isn’t that the Altima’s not sporty or fun to drive. It is. It’s just not particularly sporty — or more fun than the competition to drive. When it had the six-speed stick, it was. When you could get that powerful V-6 in the Altima coupe, it was. But now that you can’t get either. . . ?
Well, it’s hard to see what the “sell” is.
The Altima is pretty roomy (more on this in a moment) and it’s priced competitively (especially V-6 versions) but I think the upticked MPGs will please Uncle — the government — more so than potential buyers — especially given that competitors offer similar MPGs, along with other things besides.
One thing I will say — strongly — in the Altima’s defense: It is a no-fuss car. As a guy who test drives new cars each week, I can testify that cars in general are becoming too clever for their own good. And ours. Too many buttons — and too many small buttons. Over-the-top “mouse” inputs that make what ought to be a straightforward thing like changing the radio station a multiplexed PITAS. Obnoxious buzzers that insist you “buckle up” the second you put the car in gear — even if all you’re doing is rolling the 20 yards down the driveway to the mailbox. The Altima is afflicted with no such stuff. You open the door, sit down — and buckle-up if you want to, when you want to. Put the shift lever in Drive — and go. All the instruments are clear and concise. As are all the controls for everything. That makes the Altima a not-exasperating car to drive.
And these days, that’s no small thing.
AT THE CURB
The ’13 has been enlarged relative to the ’12. The wheelbase is the same (109.3 inches) but the new car is about an inch longer, nose to tail (191.5 inches vs. 190.7 inches for the ’12) and both the front and rear track (distance between the wheels) has been significantly increased (62.4 inches in front and back for the ’13 vs. 61 inches for the ’12).
Visually, this gives the ’13 a wider stance — and functionally, allowed Nissan to carve out a bit more space inside for passengers. There’s almost an extra inch of front seat legroom (45 inches now vs. 44.1 before) and a wee bit more legroom in back, too (36.1 inches vs. 35.8 before). Shoulder room is noticeably more generous, too: 56.4 inches in front and 56.1 in the back seat vs. 55.7 up front and 55.5 in back for the ’12.
This — interior roominess — is an area where the Altima smokes the Accord. The Honda has only 42.5 inches of front seat legroom, though this is made up for by very generous legroom in the back seat (38.5 inches). This is nice, of course . . . for the Accord’s backseat occupants. But taller drivers will find the Altima (which also has more headroom up front) a lot more accommodating.
What’s really noteworthy, though, is that the Altima’s interior is roomier than the Maxima’s. And not by a little bit, either. In the Maxima, there’s only 43.8 inches of up-front legroom — and in the back, just 34.6 inches. There’s also less shoulder and head room.
Oh, and the Altima sedan also has a bigger trunk: 15.4 cubic feet vs. 14.2 for the not-so-Maxima. (The Altima coupe’s trunk is tiny — just 8.2 cubic feet.)
The shifting emphasis toward practicality (room, fuel economy) and comfort is also apparent as far as the new Altima’s “zero gravity” seats — which Nissan says were designed (using NASA’s astronaut research) to relieve pressure point areas — you know, the ones that make your butt go numb on long road trips. And they are noticeably more comfortable, not only vs. last year’s seats but vs. the seats in other cars in this segment, such as the Accord. The doors in my test car were also softy padded with a velour-type material — including the arm rests.
If you order the V-6 equipped Altima 3.5S, you’ll get an upgraded 18-inch wheel/tire package (16s are standard), better brakes and a Sport mode for the CVT automatic with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters for manual control. This version of the Altima is a performance deal. A comparably kitted out V-6 Accord is almost five grand more to start. The turbo Kia also costs considerably more ($26,800). Ditto the V-6 Passat, which starts at $29,235.
If only you could still order the Nissan with a stick. . . .
THE BOTTOM LINE
The revised Altima has the virtues of lots of room, very good gas mileage — and very respectable power/performance. But it’s debatable whether these practical enhancements will make up for the less lively personality of the new Altima — which is no longer as distinctive to drive as the old Altima.