By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
I’ve written before about the fact that federal fuel-economy mandates are subtly but significantly eroding away the choices available to consumers — and increasing the cost of the diminishing choices that remain. The ’15 Altima being a case in point.
At first glance, it’s what they call in the car biz a carryover — the same basic car as it was last year.
With one big (and expensive) exception.
If you want a big engine — the available 3.5 liter V6, in this case — you’ll discover it’s no longer available in the more reasonably priced S and SV trims. For the new model year, the only way to get more than four cylinders in an Altima is to ante up for a top-of-the-line SL, which stickers for $32,350.
Last year, you could buy a V6 equipped Altima S for $26,320. Or, step up to the SV trim and pay $28,520.
This year, it’s an even bigger step up — to the SL trim. Which also costs a lot more than it did last year ($30,820).
What’s happening is that big engines are becoming rich men’s engines. You’ll notice this is an industry-wide trend.
Even the entry-luxury stuff is increasingly powered — in base trims — by fours.
The reason? Simple math. Fours use less fuel — and that means higher Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) numbers. On the lower end of the market, this really matters because that’s where the volume is. If Nissan sells say 70,000 four cylinder Altimas that average 30 MPG and just a few thousand V6 Altimas that average 25, the fleet average CAFE number will be higher — and potential “gas guzzler” fines, which the government imposes on automakers who don’t cull the number of six cylinder and — heaven forfend, V8 — engines they sell.
This, in turn, increases the cost to consumers, which makes it harder to sell cars.
Now, to be fair to Nissan, this year’s SL trim includes the previously optional Technology Package — which adds an upgraded seven-inch touchscreen GPS system with 3D mapping and a number of “safety” systems (more about them below). But the bottom line is a much less affordable bottom line… if you want a V6 Altima.
Nissan also probably figures that by pushing the Altima V6 upmarket — and up in price — it will compete more directly with entry-luxury stuff from BMW and Lexus, et al.
But wasn’t that the Maxima’s role?
WHAT IT IS
The Altima is Nissan’s mid-sized sport sedan.
Somewhat confusingly, it also happens to be Nissan’s largest sedan.
It’s about the same size on the outside — and roomier inside — than the current Maxima sedan.
Which is — ostensibly — Nissan’s flagship sedan.
And now, the Altima’s more expensive than the Maxima, too … at least if you order one with a V6 (which is basically the same V6 you’ll find under the hood of the 2015 Maxima).
The ’15 Maxima starts at $31,290 … $1,060 less than the ’15 Altima SL V6.
Now, part of the reason for this disparity in price is that an all-new 2016 Maxima is on deck for this summer/fall and Nissan probably wants to see the remaining inventory of ’15 Maximas find homes as quickly as possible.
But it’s still odd that Nissan’s top model costs less (and is slightly smaller inside) than the next-in-line Altima.
Of course, you can still get a base Altima with the four cylinder engine (not offered in Maxima) for $22,300 — and that’s about $9k less than the least expensive Maxima.
Beyond the in-house competition, you might also cross-shop the Honda Accord — which offers V6 power for $30,495.
Or, there’s the Mazda6 — a real looker and one of the best handling cars in this class. But the 6 no longer offers a six at all… at any price. It’s a four cylinder-only deal.
The ’15 Altima is mechanically and cosmetically the same as last year, but the trims and options have been shuffled a bit.
As noted above, the Under-$30k S and SV trims (with the V6) have been dropped, leaving only the SL trim available with V6 power. The price is higher — but the previously extra-cost Technology Package and the larger (7 inch vs. the standard 4 inch) LCD touchscreen that comes with it is now part of the SL’s standard equipment suite.
The SL’s V6 is also slightly more fuel efficient — 22 city, 32 highway vs. 22 city, 31 highway last year. It now features variable timing for the exhaust as well as intake valves.
Also new: The available remote-start system (standard in SV and SL trims) has been upgraded with a neat feature that automatically turns on the heater/defrost or AC, depending on how cold (or hot) it is outside.
Roomier inside in several key categories than the Accord.
Roomier in all categories than the Maxima.
Four’s performance is very good and its fuel efficiency (almost 40 on the highway) is exceptional.
Still available with a powerful V6.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Powerful V6 will cost you.
Take-it-or-leave-it CVT transmission.
Not as much personality as Mazda6.
UNDER THE HOOD
The Altima’s base engine is a 2.5 liter four generating an advertised 182 hp, about the same output as the standard fours in two of its rivals, the Honda Accord (2.4 liters, 185 hp) and the Mazda6 (2.5 liters, 184 hp). Unlike its rivals’ fours, however — which come paired with either a six-speed manual transmission or an optional automatic — the Altima’s four comes paired with a Continuously Variable (CVT) automatic only.
The upside is excellent fuel efficiency: 27 city, 38 highway (better than the four cylinder Accord’s 27 city, 36 highway; slightly better than the Mazda6’s 26 city, 38 highway) as well as quick (and more importantly, class-competitive) acceleration: Zero to 60 in about 7.7 seconds (virtually the same as the Mazda6’s 7.6 second run and slightly quicker than the four cylinder Accord’s 7.8 second run).
This performance, incidentally, is much better than that of diesel-powered sedans in this general class of car — for instance, the 2015 VW Passat TDI (which gets to 60 in about 8.6 seconds) while being not too far behind, MPG-wise and a lot less expensive MSRP-wise (the TDI Passat starts at $27,095 or about $5k more than the base-trim Altima).
The downside is the lack of choice. Honda and Mazda (and VW) give you two ways to go — manual or automatic.
Nissan just the one.
Optional — exclusively in the top-of-the-line SL trim — is a 3.5 liter V6. It carries the same 270 hp rating as previously but has been tweaked for the new model year with variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust side (the ’14s had variable intake valve timing) and new-design sodium-filled valves (lighter/dissipate heat more effectively) and an alternator that basically freewheels under acceleration, to reduce drag on the engine and thus, increase (if only fractionally) fuel efficiency.
This engine is also paired with the CVT automatic — in this case, a necessary thing to keep the MPG stats within politically acceptable parameters. The numbers are very good for a big six: 22 city, 32 highway. This isn’t quite as good as the V6 Accord manages, though. And the Accord manages 21 city, 34 highway with a conventional (it shifts through six forward gears) automatic as opposed to the Nissan’s shift-less (and somewhat buzzy) CVT automatic.
On the other hand, the Mazda6 doesn’t offer a V6 at all — and the V6 Altima’s acceleration (0-60 in just over six seconds) completely outclasses the four-cylinder-only Mazda’s.
ON THE ROAD
Over the past several years, the Altima gradually, almost imperceptibly, became what the Maxima used to be — Nissan’s sportiest four-door model. When the Maxima lost its manual transmission and evolved into a still-powerful but more luxury-minded touring car, 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 can still be ordered with) the same basic Z-car sourced/shared V-6 engine.
But most of all, you could get that sweet-sounding (and sweet-pulling) six in the sedan . . . and with a manual transmission.
Thusly equipped, the Altima became for all practical purposes, the new Maxima . . . . just with a different name.
I’m not sure what the Altima is now.
Or rather, what its role is in Nissan’s lineup.
It is still an athletic car — even with the base four-cylinder engine. With the V6, it will outrun (or at least, keep pace with) most of the other cars in this class.
Handling is excellent, too.
An interesting feature — standard in all trims, including the entry-level S — is something Nissan styles Active Understeer Control. It counteracts the built-in tendency of a front-wheel-drive car (which is inherently nose heavy, due to the weight of the engine/transaxle being up front and not much weight over the rear wheels) to feel as though it’s plowing toward the outside of the curve rather than tracking with your steering inputs through the curve. The system lightly applies braking pressure to the inner wheels (front and rear) during cornering to keep the car settled and — more important — feeling to the driver like a rear-wheel-drive car. This all happens automatically — with no physical sensation it’s happening.
But, slightly boring.
As in the Maxima, there’s not much for the driver to do anymore. Push the accelerator and the car goes — swiftly, quietly.
Turn the wheel — and the car goes exactly where you point and will hold almost any line, too — provided you’re not operating at Ludicrous Speed.
But, without a clutch to push in — without gears to row — something intangible but important has been lost. What’s the difference between the Altima V6 and the Maxima in terms of how each car drives, rides and handles?
The answer, Alex, is… 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 V6 Altima. They’re neck-and-neck past the checkered flag, despite the Maxima’s on-paper power advantage — because the Maxima is heavier by several hundred pounds.
Handling (and ride) wise, they’re also very close — because they’re so closely related.
Perhaps too closely related.
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 prompts the follow-up question: Why buy the Altima?
Because it’s roomier than the Maxima, feels/drives a lot like the Maxima . . . and because it costs less than the Maxima.
Well, it does if you skip the V6… .
AT THE CURB
The current Altima is the biggest Altima so far.
Bigger, in fact, than the Maxima.
The wheelbase is the same as the previous generation Altima (109.3 inches) but the current car is about an inch longer (191.5 inches vs. 190.7 inches) and both the front and rear track (distance between the wheels) has been significantly increased to 62.4 inches in front and back vs. 61 inches before.
Visually, this gives the Altima a wider/hunkier stance. Functionally, it 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 bit more legroom in back, too (36.1 inches vs. 35.8 before). Shoulder room is noticeably more generous: 56.4 inches in front and 56.1 in the back seat vs. 55.7 up front and 55.5 in back for previous-generation Altima.
This — interior roominess — is an area where the Altima smokes the Honda Accord. It 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) 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 shifting emphasis toward practicality (roominess, 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. the previous Altima’s seats but vs. the seats in other cars in this segment, such as the Accord. The doors in my test car were also softly padded with a cushy looking and feeling velour-type material — including the arm rests.
A neat new option is Intelligent Climate Control (bundled with Remote Engine Start). Temperature sensors in the car tell the AC (or heater) to kick on so that the car is either warmed up — or cooled off — by the time you’re ready to get going.
The available “curve warning” system — bundled with Advanced Drive Assist — needs some work.
Not one but two annoying electronic chimes assault you — the first an owl-like sound as you approach a curve, followed by a sharper beeping noise as you enter the curve. A little warning icon indicating “curve ahead” — and distance to curve — appears in the lower right corner of the LCD display.
On a curvy road, the literally incessant eruption of obnoxious beeps and chirps is more distracting than a pair of eight-year-olds fighting in the back seat. Thank god, the system is optional and — I assume — it is possible to turn off the curve warnings. (I was unable to figure it out; there’s no obvious “off” button — and Nissan didn’t provide an owner’s manual with my press car test car.)
Other questionable “safety” features include Moving Object Detection and Lane Departure Warning. These are not unique to Altima (or Nissan). They’re becoming very commonplace in cars of all types, actually. But — to my way of thinking — they are no replacement for an alert, attentive driver… and a good pair of eyes.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The four cylinder Altima’s competitive price, excellent performance, outstanding fuel economy and overall pleasantness ought to earn it a place on anyone’s shopping list — who’s shopping for a car in this class and price range.
But the V6 Altima’s harder to make the case for. It’s still very nice — but it’s arguably too expensive, both relative to competitors like the Accord V6 and its own brethren within Nissan.
It’ll be interesting to see what the ’16 Maxima’s like — and whether it’ll be different enough from the V6 Altima to justify its MSRP.