A change of scenery has reinforced some opinions about our Four Seasons Nissan Altima and has also elicited some new thoughts about how it weakens Nissan's own Maxima. Senior editor Joe Lorio piloted the red Altima from Ann Arbor to New York and, echoing many staff members, he praised the seats and the powertrain, complained about the backup camera and the blind-spot monitor, and commented on many other aspects of living with this Nissan. Here are his eastbound notes:
"Plopped myself down in the Altima's ample leather chair, which seems huge and soft, a veritable Barcalounger. You want to reach down for the lever that extends the footrest. I was ready for someone to put cucumber slices on my eyelids.
"In fact, for a mainstream mid-size sedan, this whole car seems impossibly plush; it's a veritable Mercedes-Benz S-class -- or at least a Lexus. (I had just driven our Four Seasons Dodge Dart 700 miles, though, so this perception might be colored by that experience.) The seat comfort held up pretty well on the ten-hour drive from Ann Arbor to New York. Ride quality is also quite good, and noise is low. I wish, though, that Nissan would do a better job of tuning the electric power steering. Although not bad on-center, the system doesn't build effort progressively as you dial in more lock. Idea: steal some engineers from Mazda.
"This test car is pretty well loaded up, but I was somewhat disappointed by the touchscreen interface. The graphics and layout are not as good as those in the best systems, and the touch points are very small and hard to use when on the move. It wouldn't be so bad if there were more physical buttons (for radio presets and navigation zoom, particularly). Nissan designers have only to stroll down the hall to Infiniti to see a much better touchscreen system. Also, as others have mentioned, the backup camera is so dark and murky as to be almost be worthless.
"I finally had to turn off the blind-spot warning system. It was about 50 percent false alarms, seeing cars where there were only trees or guardrails. Although I've come to find other cars' blind-spot warnings pretty useful, the Altima's is close to worthless. The $1000 technology package (blind-spot warning, lane-departure warning, and moving-object detection) seems like a waste of money.
"I came away from my long trip most impressed with the Altima's V-6 engine. In an era when nearly all of its competitors have given up on six-cylinders (only the Honda Accord still offers one), this 3.5-liter makes a strong case for itself. It's so potent in this application that you almost never need to floor it, so torque steer ends up being not much of an issue. And, perhaps due to the tuning of the engine mounts, this V-6 feels smoother here than it does elsewhere in Nissan's lineup. Mostly, though, it proves to be extremely well matched to Nissan's CVT, and its fuel economy is stellar. I got an indicated 32 mpg on my 663-mile, straight-shot highway drive home at an average speed of 69 mph -- that's 1 mpg better than the EPA highway rating."
Once Lorio had the Altima home for a few days, he noted that fuel economy and performance continued to be strong points. "I took the Altima on an airport run down to JFK," he said. "Again, it got an indicated 32 mpg, but this time at average speeds of just under 50 mph. This V-6 is a monster in the merging lane. With it, the Altima is more than ready to mix it up with the most aggressive drivers in Queens."
At the conclusion of his month with the Altima, Lorio was ready to bid the car adieu but had some more complimentary things to say:
"Overall, the Altima is not the driver's choice in the segment, but it may be the best choice for those who do a lot of chauffeur service. The rear seat is exceptional -- both in space and in comfort -- and the interior is quite plush. With its roomy cabin, strong V-6, and upmarket SL trim, the Altima delivers much of what people used to have to spring for a Maxima to get. No wonder that once-vaunted nameplate is struggling; the Altima is leaving it nowhere to go."
New York bureau chief Jamie Kitman had the Altima in his possession for only a few days before it went back to Michigan, but his concise conclusion was similarly damning of the Maxima.
"I've driven it only sixty miles in and out of New York City, but I can tell already that the new Altima is a step up. It feels like a better car, which isn't always the case. It rides better, handles better, and steers better. The fuel economy (27 mpg in and out of the city) is pretty good, especially for a six-cylinder, and the CVT is pretty unannoying. Creeping up not just in quality but in size and in price, the new Altima makes me wonder what role there is for the Maxima."
Indeed, the Maxima's year-to-date sales through May are down 5395 units versus 2012. We think it's no coincidence that Altima sales are up an almost-identical 5594 units over the same time period. Still, we welcome the fact that Nissan sells a variety of products that offer buyers different styling and experiences. Witness the Juke, the Cube, and the Maxima, which all sell in low volumes compared with mechanically related bread-and-butter products, not to mention the sporty 370Z and the GT-R. Not everyone wants cars as capable yet anodyne as the Altima.