Now in its fourth generation, with nearly 3.2 million units sold worldwide, Nissan’s ‘bread and butter’ Altima has some pretty stiff competition from the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry (the only mid-size sedans in the U.S. marketplace that outsell the Altima). The top-of-the-line 3.5 SR V6-powered Altima has always differentiated itself by offering plenty of performance and standard equipment at a price point significantly lower than a comparably equipped V6 Accord or Camry. The question is, will the mid-cycle refresh Nissan has given the Altima for 2010 be enough for it to continue its strong run as a value leader in its class?
|1. The Altima 3.5 SR is powered by a V6 engine with 270-hp and 258 ft-lbs of torque.
2. The CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) is standard equipment on the 3.5 SR and Hybrid models. It’s also an option on the 2.5 and 2.5 S models.
3. The top-of-the-line 3.5 SR is considerably less expensive at $24,520 than a similarly equipped Camry ($29,245) or Accord ($26,805).
4. 2010 mid-cycle updates include fresh exterior styling, refined interior treatments and a host of technology enhancements to its navigation and entertainment systems.
5. Fuel economy is rated at 20/27 mpg (city/hwy)
A CLASS OF ITS OWN?
The Altima in general, and the 270-hp V6 equipped 3.5 SR model in particular, inhabits a somewhat unique space within its class. That’s because Nissan has positioned it far enough below the V6 Camry and Accord in price that it’s able to attract value-minded customers looking for a well-appointed mid-size sedan with some V6 get-up-and-go. They’ve also positioned the Maxima slightly above the V6 Camry and Accord with respect to performance, luxury and price. So rather than attempting to compete head-to-head with the two best selling cars in America, Nissan has found a good home for its two most important vehicles at either end of the mid-size sedan spectrum. What makes the Altima 3.5 SR even more attractive is its impressive list of standard equipment, now including both traction (VDC) and stability (TCS) control for 2010. Other 2010 revisions include a new front fascia and grille, a few subtle interior tweaks like brighter beige cloth and meter cluster illumination that is white instead of amber, and more onboard technology thanks to a 4.3-inch color display screen and USB capability with iPod compatibility. There’s also an optional Technology Package that uses an HDD Navigation system and 9.3 GB music server, auxiliary audio/video input jack, Bluetooth Streaming Audio and DVD playback capability (while the vehicle is in park).
CONTINUOUSLY VARIABLE TRANSMISSION
Another option that helps differentiate the Altima 3.5 SR sedan from its rivals is the CVT transmission it comes standard with (a 6-speed manual is optional). Prior to a recent test of the Altima Coupe and now this sedan, I was not a fan of continuously variable transmissions. But unlike those earlier unhappy experiences – where I found this type of transmission provided an unnatural delivery of power that was both annoying and distracting – Nissan has done an excellent job ensuring the CVT provides adequate off-the-line response to go along with its seamless ability to vary engine speed according to throttle position. I’m not sure if it’s the mapping of the drive-by-wire throttle or the transmission control unit (or some combination of the two), but in either case Nissan’s CVT operates in a very unobtrusive fashion. When cruising at highway speeds, throttle response is instantaneous and the big V6 provides acceleration to match.
Another benefit of the CVT is that it helps improve fuel economy, specifically around town. The in-town rating of 20-mpg is excellent, topping both the V6 Camry and Accord. Highway fuel economy isn’t quite as impressive, however, losing just slightly to the Japanese competitors with a rating of 27-mpg. On average, the V6 Altima should provide almost identical numbers to the other two.
PRACTICAL PEOPLE MOVER
Thoroughly enjoying the 3.5 SR’s power delivery, its exterior styling is a little less captivating. With its “D” platform and sheet metal dating back to 2007, the Altima can’t be called cutting edge in style or design. Its squarish headlights, for example, are reminiscent of the 350Z, whereas the new Maxima and 370Z have much fresher organically shaped headlights.
Not that the Altima is unattractive – it is handsome if slightly bland, but then value-minded buyers in the FWD mid-size sedan market don’t tend to obsess over styling when it comes to choosing their family hauler. It’s certainly not as sporty or cutting-edge looking as the new Maxima, and although the suspension tuning is on the soft side (which is entirely suitable for a family hauler), that wonderful V6 I can’t stop referring to delivers a real sense of sportiness. Perhaps its fairly straight-edged styling is meant to impart a sense of practicality to the Altima, which is by any measure a very useful people mover. I was impressed by a friend’s Altima sedan a few years ago when its 15.3 cubic-foot trunk swallowed four large golf bags and its interior comfortably housed four large golfers. After spending a week hauling everything from groceries to a spare set of 19-inch’ wheels and tires in this 2010 3.5 SR, I’m still just as impressed by its versatility and ease of use.
INSIDE: A PLEASANT PLACE TO BE
Inside the Altima 3.5 SR, our test vehicle was equipped with the optional Leather package, meaning blond leather heated seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, auto-dimming rearview mirror, Bluetooth hands-free phone system, a thumpin’ BOSE audio system with iPod compatibility, XM Satellite radio, and a few other bells and whistles. The 3.5 SR also comes standard with some other niceties including a power sliding moonroof and 8-way power driver’s seat. All in all, the Altima’s interior is an entirely pleasant place to be, blessed with ample legroom front and rear, mildly bolstered but nicely cushioned seats, and just enough variety in color and texture to keep it visually interesting. I particularly like the new aluminum housing for the transmission gear lever and the digital readout on the temperature dials, but found the small buttons on the audio system a bit difficult to find while driving.
THE VERDICT: STILL A VALUE LEADER
With a starting sticker price of just $24,520, the Nissan Altima 3.5 SR continues to provide class-leading bang for the buck in the mid-size V6 sedan category. It may not have the cutting-edge styling of its big brother Nissan Maxima, but the Altima still has plenty of presence on the road. The combination of Nissan’s powerful VQ 3.5-liter V6 and impressive continuously variable transmission give the 3.5 SR seamless acceleration at any speed, and the spacious and comfortable interior means you can make some serious headway while the rest of the family catches a nap.
Having spent a week with the 2010 Altima 3.5 SR I can find very little to dislike about it. Perhaps my only complaint is that the suspension tuning is a little soft given just how lively the engine’s performance is. With a firmer suspension the 3.5 SR would feel like more of a true sports sedan. But hey, for less than $25,000 maybe I’m asking for the Altima to be too much of a good thing, because you’d be hard-pressed to find a more capable mid-size sedan for the money.
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