When we ask why the 2013 Nissan Altima uses essentially the same engines as in the outgoing model, Nissan vice president of product planning Pierre Loing sounds mildly annoyed.
"You don't just redesign an engine for the pleasure of doing an engine," he says. "You're talking massive amounts of money."
Point taken. Clarifying further, Loing explains that only minimal engine updates were needed because Nissan's second-generation continuously variable transmission, which debuts in the Altima and 2013 Pathfinder, provides significant fuel-economy improvements. Given that the existing engine 2.5-liter could return 38 mpg highway with the new transmission, it made little sense for Nissan to invest in a new as well as a new transmission.
About 70 percent of the CVT has been updated, and it now has 40 percent less friction and a greater spread of gear ratios. While this "FK"-series transmission is only for larger vehicles like the Pathfinder and Altima, it's likely that Nissan small cars might get similar fuel-economy updates to their CVTs, likewise improving economy.
The next new car in the pipeline is the 2014 Sentra. Although it has been confirmed by CEO Carlos Ghosn several times, Loing feigned surprise when we mentioned that a new Sentra was in the works.
Loing also talked about how technology has trickled down from luxury division Infiniti to Nissans. Lane departure warning was once only offered on pricier Infinitis, but now is available on the Altima. In the future, Nissan will be able to make these safety technologies even cheaper, so they can be rolled out to smaller and cheaper cars. We posit that the 2014 Sentra, for instance, could receive more advanced safety gadgets.
Aside from powertrain updates, there are two key ways in which Nissan can improve efficiency in future vehicles. One is by reducing aerodynamic drag, which especially helps highway mileage. Though it's relatively easy to reduce the coefficient of drag on modern cars, Loing notes that designers prefer wide and tall cars, which creates a larger frontal area and thus more overall wind resistance. Still, tricks like wind-deflecting headlights and mirrors, seen on the Leaf electric car and 2013 Altima, will continue on other products.
Secondly, Nissan will put its cars on a diet. By using as much high-strength steel and aluminum as budgets allow, the company should be able to make all new cars lighter than their predecessors.
"Let's try to stop this perpetual gain of weight," he says, because heavier cars are generally less fuel efficient.
It's confirmed that there will be a hybrid version of the Altima in the future, but a diesel version is unlikely. Indeed, Loing says Nissan currently has no plans to launch diesel engines in the U.S.
"We look at it regularly," he says. "But up to now, we've never been able to justify doing it."
Nissan has historically avoided selling diesels here because the fuel is more expensive than gasoline and of a lower quality. The various emissions controls and other upgrades needed would make a diesel engine more expensive than a gas engine, which could push away American customers whom Loing describes as extremely cost-sensitive. And above all, Loing says modern gasoline engines have become so efficient that there is very little economy gain in switching to a diesel.
Pushing the 2013 Altima to market is a high-stakes proposition because the current car is incredibly successful. "It's harder to replace a success than a failure," says Loing, although he thinks that now is the right time for the new Nissan midsizer. With gasoline prices cresting in the U.S., he says the car's 38-mpg rating should be very attractive to consumers.
American-spec Altimas will continue to be built in Canton, Mississippi and Smyrna, Tennessee. The car will, however, be built in six plants around the world, and will sell in Russia, China, and the Middle East. The Altima isn't offered in Europe because it is too big and doesn't offer a diesel engine, so Loing says it would be uncompetitive.
Nissan will save a bit of money by consolidating the Chinese-market Teana and the Altima. Previously the Teana sedan was slightly different than the Altima, but by combining the vehicles, the company can more easily amortize the development costs of new features.
For more on the 2013 Nissan Altima, check out our First Look here. For more on the 2012 New York International Auto Show, including videos, the latest photos, and more information, click here to visit our New York Auto Show homepage.