By Brady Holt @BradyHoltAutos
The essence of a midsize sedan is simple. It should have room for five people, a quiet ride, good gas mileage, plenty of safety features and a reasonable price.
By that mark, the outgoing generation of the Nissan Altima was hard to fault. It might as well have been designed to check precisely those boxes, and it resulted in sales volume that consistently rivaled the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
However, especially by the end of its life, the Altima was faltering compared to a host of rapidly improving competitors. Newer competitors were markedly better to drive, offered the latest smartphone connectivity features, and generally looked and felt more modern. Moreover, many competing midsize sedans could even match or surpass the Altima on its staple of spacious, quiet value.
To catch up, Nissan has fully redesigned the Altima for the 2019 model year. A brief preview drive suggests that the company made tremendous progress. New styling is contemporary inside and out, the car has become more pleasant to drive, and a greatly-improved infotainment system supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration. Nissan also added all-wheel-drive as an option on most models, a rare feature for an affordably-priced sedan.
At the same time, the Altima has remained a pleasant family sedan rather than a would-be luxury sports sedan — the approach taken by flashy, fun-to-drive competitors that include the Accord, Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu and Mazda6.
Think of the new Altima as more in the mold of the Toyota Camry and Hyundai Sonata: It’s neither cheap-feeling nor unpleasant to drive, but it excels at the midsize sedan basics rather than trying to bring extra pizzazz to the class. (Nissan has a second midsize sedan, the Maxima, that serves up extra performance and luxury.)
The Altima’s main flair for the dramatic is its large grille, a big trapezoid borrowed from Nissan’s SUVs. On this sedan, it fills the entire front end. But other cues are more muted and pleasantly neutral, including a rear end that borrows heavily from the Maxima.
Inside, the cabin is clean and elegantly simple, and its controls are user-friendly. Graceful curves break up the dashboard without becoming overwhelming design elements. The tested sport-themed SR model adds orange stitching to the seats, dash and door panels, but this cue also remains too muted to risk offending. An eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system is standard equipment.
The seats felt especially comfortable during the brief preview drive. As in a Camry, they’re thickly padded and supportive — and cushier than the low, extra-firm chairs in the sportier Accord. The rear seat has also improved in the redesign, adding some welcome knee clearance. The trunk remains about average for the class, with 15.4 cubic feet of space.
The interior doesn’t feel especially opulent, though, even in the top Platinum trim. It’s not due to shoddy design or workmanship; the only immediately evident flaw was some ill-fitting trim on the dashboard around the infotainment screen. Rather, Nissan didn’t design the Altima’s cabin to truly dazzle — it feels more like a well-executed mainstream car than an aspiring luxury model. Again, Nissan has the Maxima for that role.
This year, the Maxima is also taking over as the only Nissan sedan with a V6 engine. The outgoing Altima replaces its optional V6 for an optional turbocharged four-cylinder, which promises superior fuel economy but less of the rich, smooth sound associated with a good six-cylinder. That makes the Camry one of the last midsize sedans with a widely available V6.
The Altima turbo hits 250 horsepower, while the base non-turbo four-cylinder engine is rated at 188 horsepower. Last year’s Altima V6 had 270 horsepower, while the Maxima has 300. EPA ratings are an excellent 30 to 32 miles per gallon in mixed driving with the non-turbo engine (depending on trim level), and an even-more-impressive 29 mpg with the turbo — a clear step up from most competitors with similar horsepower. The 250-horsepower Altima even uses less fuel than some competitors’ base engines, and it runs happily on regular-grade fuel.
The Altima rides and handles pleasantly, with suitably quick reactions and a much-more-natural feel to its steering than last year’s model. That said, the 301-horsepower V6 Camry delivers more invigorating acceleration, the Mazda6 has more rewarding handling, and the top-level Accord is the winner in both ways.
But overall, it’s hard to find much to fault in the Altima. It doesn’t set out to stomp the competition into the ground, but in taking few risks, Nissan also opened itself up to fewer potential errors. The Altima is a spacious family car that drives well, doesn’t cost too much and minimizes fuel consumption. Unless you know you want your midsize sedan to elevate your heart rate, don’t buy a midsize sedan without considering the Altima. Prices start at $24,645, well-equipped.
Visit tinyurl.com/altima-sentinel to see more photos of the tested 2019 Nissan Altima.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.