Gutsy engines are an integral part of the Altima's persona. The 2.5 S has a 2.5-liter/175-horse four-cylinder whose output beats that of competitors' fours in both horsepower and torque, though it trails slightly in fuel economy. This potent four can be paired with a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic. The 3.5-liter V-6 that powers the SE and SL trim levels is another strong performer, with 250 horses on tap. Its need for premium fuel, however, is a pain in the wallet. SE buyers get a choice of the manual or a five-speed automatic, while the more luxury-oriented SL has the automatic as standard. For the SE-R, Nissan coaxes another 10 horsepower out of the V-6 and adds a sixth gear to the manual transmission. (SE-R buyers also can opt for the automatic.) All Altimas are front-wheel drive.
Behind the Wheel
The 2.5 S is quick for a midsize four-cylinder sedan. The engine is somewhat noisy, however, at least in part because the automatic transmission is only a four-speed. Those willing to do their own shifting with the manual transmission get a fifth gear and somewhat quieter cruising. The V-6 in the 3.5 SE and 3.5 SL makes these models very fast for this segment. Sending all that power through the front axle causes an occasional tug at the steering wheel, however, making traction control a worthwhile option for automatic-transmission Altimas. The system also improves launches in inclement weather. The SL chassis delivers ride and handling similar to that of the 2.5 S, which is reasonably comfortable but not as plush as a Toyota Camry's. The SE's firmer suspension, larger wheels, and lower-profile tires make the car more eager in corners, but transmit more ride harshness over bad pavement. The SE-R's suspension tuning is stiffer yet, and it rides on even larger wheels, which makes for a ride that's even more firm than the SE's. The SE-R's additional 10 horsepower over the other V-6 models isn't really noticeable--they're all fast--but its six-speed stick gives you an extra gear to play with. Even with the stiffer suspension options, the Altima is not as neutral or light on its feet as the Mazda6 and the Subaru Legacy. The car's driving position is comfortable, and the steering feels connected to the road. Overall, the Altima provides a more engaging driving experience than the Accord or Camry, though it does concede the fine refinements that have made those vehicles long-standing engineering benchmarks.
If you'd like more luxury than the fairly basic 2.5 S, but don't feel the need for the V-6 engine, Nissan offers several upgrade packages. At the top is the SL option package, which basically brings the four-cylinder car up to the equipment level of the 3.5 SL, adding such niceties as leather upholstery, automatic climate control, power seat, seat heaters, and alloy wheels. The 3.5 S is the mainstream Altima, and the least expensive V-6 version. Its powerful engine sets the tone for the whole car: This is the midsize family sedan that doesn't sacrifice fun on the altar of practicality. The sporty suspension tuning and expressive styling further back up that notion. In many ways, this is the best-realized version of the Altima. The 3.5 SL marries the six-cylinder engine with a more luxurious spec. (Buyers looking for a high-end luxury model likely would be better served by the Accord EX, Camry XLE, or a Maxima.) Finally, the 3.5 SE-R pushes the Altima's sports quotient up another notch, but at nearly $30,000, it's uncomfortably close to a far better sport sedan, the Infiniti G35.
The Altima is a very sound choice in the midsize four-door segment for buyer's looking for a fashionable sedan with an edge. Like its two major Japanese-brand competitors, the Accord and Camry, it's built in the USA (Tennessee, to be exact). Its quality, however, though improved, still lags behind those two vaunted nameplates. IntelliChoice research shows most Altima variants offer a Better than Average Cost of Ownership, placing it between the Averaged-rated Mazda6 and the mostly Excellent-rated Accord and Camry.
The Nissan Altima has become a stimulating alternative to the midsize sedan leaders Accord and Camry, with lively powertrains, modern styling, and a revamped interior.