First Look: 2013 Nissan Altima

The 2013 Nissan Altima is not dramatically different from the current car. It looks a lot like the old car, and even uses essentially the same inline-four and V-6 engines as the 2012 Altima. Even so, it's clear that Nissan has paid attention to evolving nearly every element of the Altima. The sedan is important not only because it is Nissan's top-selling car, but also because the Altima is the second best-selling car in the country.

The basic shape of the 2013 Altima is similar to the outgoing car, though nearly all the body panels have new lines and creases. Whereas some competitors have adopted sloped, coupe-like rooflines, Nissan kept a more traditional sedan profile to help maintain interior room. The car's nose is entirely new, with a curved-trapezoid grille, angular headlights, and a more aggressive fascia that reminds us of the 2013 Lexus GS. The 2013 Altima is 0.8 inch longer and 0.3 inches wider than the outgoing car, and it looks especially squat because the greenhouse tapers in above the flared fenders and body panels.

Nissan credits its "deep-draw" metal stamping technique with the abundance of different curves and sculpted character lines on the car's exterior. A swooping crease runs the entire length of the car and is a few inches below the door handles; it is not as sharp as the character lines of some other midsize cars because Nissan wanted the Altima to appear "luxurious." Out back, the taillights (optionally LEDs) adopt a boomerang-like shape that wraps onto the rear fenders.

Inside, too, the design hasn't leapt forward so much as evolved, but the materials look smarter and seem to be of a higher quality than in the outgoing model. As before, the Altima offers generous rear leg- and headroom and a wide, cavernous trunk. Piano Black trim contrasts nicely with silver-chrome accents on the dashboard and center stack. All the Altima's controls and gauges are clear, logical, and supremely legible. The infotainment system will have features like Pandora Internet radio and the ability to read incoming text messages. Bluetooth connectivity is standard.

Nissan says the new seats were developed based on data from NASA's research into the Skylab space station. Called "zero gravity" seats, they are designed to be very comfortable and, apparently, are scientifically proven to improve circulation and reduce fatigue on long drives by placing the body in a "neutral" pose. We'll certainly be testing this claim as soon as we get behind the wheel.

A 4.0-inch color screen called the Advanced Drive-Assist Display becomes standard in the instrument cluster. It has a 3D-effect that is meant to add depth to the image so it's easier for drivers to glance at; Nissan claims you can now read navigation prompts in just 25 milliseconds, compared to 265 milliseconds with conventional screens.

The ADAD can show an array of different vehicle information, as well as navigation directions and alerts from the Altima's new safety systems. Those systems include lane-departure warning, blind-spot warning, and obstacle detection when the car is reversing, all items unavailable on the old Altima. The systems function by digitally processing images from the backup camera, which has an extra-wide-angle lens. Image processing is apparently cheaper than adding the radar and sonar sensors typically used for these safety gadgets.

Mild Powertrain Updates

There are two familiar engines under the hood, starting with a 2.5-liter inline-four that produces 182 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque, an increase of seven horsepower. A smart alternator that only charges during deceleration, a lighter exhaust manifold, and a new starter motor help improve efficiency.

The upgrade engine is a 3.5-liter V-6 with 270 hp and 258 lb-ft, which is almost totally unchanged from last year. Continuing with a six-cylinder bucks the trend in this segment toward turbocharged four-cylinder engines, but Nissan believes the engine is necessary to preserve a sporty driving experience. The V-6 engine accounts for only about 10 percent of current Altima sales.

Both engines are mated exclusively to a continuously variable transmission that has a greater spread of gear ratios and 40 percent less internal friction than the previous CVT. Nissan says the CVT allows the engine to turn at just 1450 rpm when driving 60 mph. New software is designed to make the transmission more responsive, for instance by holding gear ratios during sharp cornering.

There was more innovation in the car's chassis, which Nissan benchmarked against the ride-and-handling balance of the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. The rear multilink suspension has special "connect bushings" designed to help maintain the tires' contact patches under hard cornering, while keeping enough lateral rigidity that the suspension remains nimble and responsive. The suspension uses the same Sachs dampers as are found in the Infiniti M37. "We think our car is fun to drive, and that had to carry on," says Nissan vice president of product planning Pierre Loing.

There also is a system called Active Understeer Control, which can apply the inside front brake to prevent understeer when cornering. The system apparently works pro-actively and, in many cases, can preclude the activation of the stability control. Nissan doesn't plan to make all-wheel drive available on the Altima.

Improved Efficiency

The vogue is for every new car to be more efficient than its predecessor, and the 2013 Altima is no exception. Fuel economy with the 2.5-liter engine is predicted to be 27/38 mpg (city/highway), while the V-6 should return 22/30 mpg. Those figures are huge improvements over the 2012 car's ratings of 23/32 mpg for the four-cylinder engine, and 20/27 mpg for the V-6. These numbers are predictions and have yet to be validated by the EPA, but a 38-mpg highway rating is mighty impressive for a midsize sedan.

One of the secrets to the economy figures was weight reduction. The 2013 Altima drops about 79 pounds purely from the use of aluminum (for parts like the hood) and high-strength steels. Curb weight is about 3100 pounds, which is least 80 pounds lighter than the 2012 Altima.

Numerous tweaks to the body drop the Altima's drag coefficient from 0.31 to 0.299, helping bolster the highway mileage figure. The head- and taillights both protrude from the rest of the bodywork to help improve aerodynamics; the former direct air over the mirrors, which also have been redesigned to reduce drag and wind noise. Nissan also covered more of the car's underside with panels to smooth airflow.

Pricing for four-cylinder models starts at $22,280 (including destination) for the Altima 2.5, rising to $28,830 for the Altima 2.5 SL. The V-6 model is priced from $26,140 for the Altima 3.5 S to $30,860 for the top-spec Altima 3.5 SL. The navigation system is a $590 option on SV trim levels and standard on the SL, while remote start is $325 on SV models and standard on the Altima SL.

Future Expansion

We can expect two other variants of the Nissan Altima to appear over the next few years. For one, Nissan tells us that the current Altima coupe will go on sale unchanged for 2013, which might mean a redesigned version of the two-door will arrive a year or so from now. In addition, we're told we can expect a hybrid version at some point in the future. Nissan has already shown off its new supercharged hybrid drivetrain in Japan, and it's a solid bet that setup will appear in an Altima within the next year or two. Given the lofty fuel-economy predictions for the current non-hybrid model, we're sure any new Altima hybrid will be extremely economical.

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