The Nissan Altima is a quietly competent vehicle. There's no flashy design, no fancy dual-clutch automatic transmission, and no high-performance pretensions here. But there's also nothing really wrong with the Altima, which is why it's always near the top of the all-important mid-size-sedan sales charts.
I can see the appeal in a quiet cabin, 32-mpg highway fuel economy, and decent interior appointments. I'm not as enamored with the continuously variable transmission, but Nissan has come closest out of all automakers to mastering the CVT. Perhaps more important is how roomy the Altima's cabin is. It's easy to see why the Altima sells - it does everything a mid-size sedan is supposed to do and doesn't pretend it will do things it won't.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
Sliding into this Nissan Altima is like stepping into a vintage clothing store, only this time they're dealing vintage automotive upholstery. The tan fabrics and carpet in this car remind me a lot of what was in my 1993 Plymouth Sundance Duster. The carpet is very thick, and the colors are very 1990s. I wish I could say that the Altima redeems itself by driving like it's 2012, but its driving demeanor is uninspiring to me as well. At least the car is comfortable and the powertrain is smooth, but it's nonetheless one of the least exciting cars on the market, as far as I'm concerned.
As Phil Floraday wisely pointed out, a comfortable interior and a smooth powertrain are solid selling features in the high-volume mid-size-sedan category. The next-generation Altima is due to arrive very soon; surely it won't transform into an enthusiast's dream, but it will have to be darn good to merely retain the Altima's solid place in the sales race.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
I happened to grab the keys to the Altima for a midday run to the dentist. It is very clear as to why, despite its age, the Altima continues to be one of the best-selling sedans in the U.S. It's spacious without feeling huge (like the Accord or the new Passat); it's peppy around town; and the controls are all very simple, clear, and well laid out. Compared to some of the other creampuffs in the class, the Altima manages to be soft without being floaty, something that I'm sure appeals to numerous buyers. An enthusiasts' car it is not -- as I drove back from the dentist all I could think of was how numb everything was: the brake pedal, the steering, and my face.
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
I'm of two minds when I drive the Nissan Altima. A part of me very much expects the Altima to deliver the spice and performance we've come to expect from Nissan's many niche offerings. There was, in fact, a time when driving an Altima meant you were more discerning and fashionable than the typical Camry owner. There's not much spice these days, only numb driving dynamics, aged styling, and interior aesthetics straight out of the 1990s.
The other part of me realizes that the qualms I elucidated above matter not a whit to the average midsize sedan buyer -- nor should they. The Altima's numbness translates to smooth ease of operation, with light and accurate steering, strong brakes, and a peppy powertrain. Drive a Hyundai Sonata -- a car we like very much -- and you'll find the controls are far less fluid and predictable. The interior is spacious and our test model's high-tech features -- Bluetooth, iPod connectivity, and voice commands -- work better and more intuitively than those in many competitors. The fact that the cabin looks like a plain-old car interior and not the high-end stereo aisle at Best Buy is another real-world strength, in my opinion. The styling, which for all intents and purposes looks the same as it did in 2002, at least isn't offensive. A Kia Optima or Chevrolet Malibu offers more visual interest but also may turn off more buyers.
None of these strengths change the fact that the Altima is nowhere close to being a sports car or even an interesting car. But I do understand why more than 200,000 Altimas have found owners this year.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
The Altima is Nissan's bestselling car. In fact, so far in 2011 it is one of the bestselling mid-size sedans in America. The fact that driving the Altima is a rather vanilla experience apparently doesn't hurt it in the sales sweepstakes. This is a completely inoffensive car, with lots of interior space, an uncluttered yet rather dull interior, a powertrain that is sufficient for most drivers, and decent fuel mileage. Having said that, there isn't much here that would excite an enthusiast driver. Still, if usability, fuel economy, and ease of operation are your thing, by all means give the Altima a look.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
With little more than 20 minutes of driving time, it's difficult to expand any further on what my colleagues have observed about the Nissan Altima. It's a roomy, user-friendly package, that doesn't offend or excite. From my limited experience, this Altima only seems lacking when you consider more subjective things like style. The exterior though not unattractive is due for a refresh and the interior while comfortable and straightforward lacks the modern appeal of those in vehicles such as the Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, and Volkswagen Passat.
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms
The Nissan Altima may be dull and may not quench our collective need for speed, but it's still a very good car. There is a reason why this is one of the top-selling cars in the country: plenty of people simply want a reliable, comfortable, spacious sedan that will get them from point A to point B. The Altima ticks all those boxes. While calling it "inoffensive" sounds like faint praise, the Nissan really excels at making driving a simple, no-fuss affair. I personally would never consider buying this car, but I can understand why hundreds of thousands of Americans do so each year.
Jake Holmes, Associate Web Editor
I've consistently found Nissan's continuously variable transmissions to be well suited to torquey V-6 engines but significantly less enjoyable when paired with a modest four-cylinder. This four-cylinder Altima proves the exception to that rule. The 2.5-liter engine is powerful enough that the car can move quickly without requiring stratospheric revs. Running between 1000 and 4000 rpm keeps the engine from feeling strained or bellowing like Chewbacca while squirting through traffic. The CVT also brings the benefit of supreme powertrain smoothness -- no surprise since there aren't any gear changes. In terms of handling, ride quality, and noise, the Altima drives quite well.
However, the Nissan Altima lacks character, which I consider synonymous with a reason to buy. The majority of mid-size sedans possess the same qualifications as the Altima with more compelling reasons to own them. The Volkswagen Passat has a massive rear seat and the option for an efficient, entertaining diesel engine. The Ford Fusion is actually quite entertaining to drive with great connectivity inside. The Kia Optima is the style leader in the segment with impressive fuel economy from the base engine. All three of these boast reasons to own that are more than rational justifications. They have character that reflects the lifestyles and personalities of the people that buy them.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor