2016 Nissan Altima First Drive Review

#hashtags: #SUVs #Accord #Camry #Nissan #Altima

Sure, the big news these days is that compact SUVs have knocked midsize sedans off their perennial perch on the sales chart, but the middies are still mighty important, and the jockeying for position atop that segment’s leaderboard is intense. Hoping to advance from its persistent No. 3 spot (behind Accord and Camry), Nissan is launching a major refresh of its top-selling Altima. We’ve already described the car’s major restyling (rear fascia, lamps, decklid, and everything forward of the A-pillars), which aims to imbue the workaday Altima with the Energetic Flow sporty design language of the Maxima and Murano. Now we’ve learned a lot more about what’s changed underneath to back up the visual swagger. Of greatest pertinence to this audience is a sporting new SR model that supports some additional visual drama (special 18-inch wheels, dark chrome headlamps, a rear lip spoiler, and foglights) with a bona fide sport suspension and column-mounted shift paddles that connect to a CVT with revised programming for seven manually selectable ratios. Suspension-wise, the enlarged tubular anti-roll bars—24.2mm front, 26.5mm rear, up from 22.2/20.0—are stiffer by 50 percent in front, 258 percent out back to reduce the roll angle by 20 percent, and tweaks to the damping rates limit the roll rate. Those 18-inch wheels are wrapped in aggressive 235/45R18 Dunlop SP Sport 7000 (or similar) rubber. The whole Altima lineup gets new front struts and rear shocks, and rear springs and bushings combine to trim body roll on the non-SR models without compromising comfort. New tires improve grip for shorter braking on other models, as well, and revisions to the steering improve feel across the entire lineup. The Altima uses a hybrid electro-hydraulic system, with hydraulics moving the rack (and sending road feel back up through the column to the wheel rim), pressurized by an electric pump. The steering-column spool valve that routes pressure to the rack was altered so that the effort ramps up a bit more quickly just off-center. The SR model is expected to draw sales away from similarly positioned competitive sport-oriented models, not all of which match Nissan’s sporting hardware but against which no Altimas have recently competed: the Camry SE (which claims 40 percent of Camry sales), Accord Sport (25 percent), Sonata Sport (25 percent), and Fusion SE (30 percent). As with these competitors, Nissan positions its sportster on the second rung of its mainstream model pricing hierarchy, above S (and the fleet-sweetheart “base”), below SV and SL. Unlike some, Nissan offers the SR with a choice of I-4 or V-6 engines. Other improvements of note: Active grille shutters and extensive underbody paneling combine to lower the drag coefficient from 0.29 to 0.26 on SL and SV models; this helps improve highway fuel economy by 1 mpg to 39. The 2.5-liter I-4 gets a compression bump from 10.0:1 to 10.3:1, an anodized low-friction coating on the pistons, a reduced-friction balance shaft, and a new variable-displacement oil pump that accounts for about 30 percent of the fuel economy boost. Finally, the Xtronic CVT gets third-generation D-step shift logic (like the Murano and Maxima), which ensures that during hard acceleration customers hear a reassuring vroom-vroom-vroom stair-stepping of engine revs. (The mono-vroom is the more efficient and faster accelerating way, but it prompts customer complaints.) Extensive application of sound deadeners, including a sound-absorbing laminated windshield, a firewall sound absorber pad that’s four times as dense as last year’s, new engine mount dampers, and a larger center muffler, dramatically lowers the din inside. The dash and console are subtly redesigned, with top SL models getting a black or ivory Wave tone that looks kind of like fossilized leaves and feathers. It’s great to try something other than fake trees, but this isn’t as appealing as the Murano’s bowling-ball veneer. Naturally, 2016 brings Altima fully up to date on all the latest active safety feature options such as forward collision alert with emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot warning with cross traffic alert, etc. So how does it drive? Back-to-back runs in mainstream 2015 and 2016 models reveal that the new car sounds a full price class quieter than its predecessor. We’re talking near deep-space quiet to match the NASA zero-gravity seats. Jumping in an SR next, the sound level jumps considerably, with tire noise dominating. Steering heft seems a bit greater on all new 2016s. Effort builds quicker, and it has more road feel, including mild kickback from mid-corner bumps. The added feel tracks the footprint and grip level of the tires, meaning the SL’s 215/55R17 Michelin Primacy MXV4s don’t prompt quite as much effort and kickback as the SR’s big Dunlops. Grip and body-motion control on the SR seem a noticeable step ahead of most of its “sport” competitors. Lean hard enough into a turn to find the understeer limit then lift, and the nose tucks in exactly as a proper performance car’s nose should. The shift paddles look and feel great, but twiddle them as you will, the engine won’t rev to the tach’s painted 6,600-rpm redline—all “shifts” occur at 6,000. Downshifts are also denied a lot, even when dropping down to the next virtual ratio would put the rpms nowhere near 6,000 rpm. Maybe nobody cares. Perhaps shift paddles in family sedans are just for journalists, customer test drives, and showing off to friends. Get on the gas hard in “DS” (the sport mode), and the four-cylinder accelerates nicely, making a satisfying snarl along the way. (A V-6 was not available at the drive event, but expect it to shave 1.5 seconds off the 60-mph sprint.) To these eyes the 2016 Altima looks better (I’d deem it the best Energetic Flow design because the budget didn’t allow for overstyling the body sides and C-pillars), it handles better, and it feels more refined. It even delivers better efficiency. Stay tuned for a proper Motor Trend comparison to determine whether the freshened Altima deserves to unseat second-place Accord or the best-selling Camry. 2016 Nissan Altima BASE PRICE $23,325-$29,395 VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan ENGINES 2.5L/179-182-hp/177-180-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4; 3.5L/270-hp/251-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6 TRANSMISSION Cont. variable auto CURB WEIGHT 3,200-3,450 lb (mfr) WHEELBASE 109.3 in LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 191.9 x 72.0 x 57.8-58.0 in 0-60 MPH 5.9-7.4 sec (MT est) EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 22-27/32-39/26-31 mpg ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 125-153/86-105 kW-hrs/100 miles CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.62-0.76 lb/mile ON SALE IN U.S. Currently