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First Drive: 2013 Nissan Altima

Although enthusiasts don't seem to pay much attention to the Nissan Altima, buyers in the fiercely competitive mid-size segment certainly do: the five-year-old sedan emerged as last year's second-best-selling car in America. But before you attribute the Altima's big sales numbers to Toyota's post-tsunami supply problems or to the Camry's model changeover, know that the Camry retained its best-seller crown.

Nissan's success was no fluke -- the Altima earned its sales fair and square by slowly edging into the spot once occupied by the Honda Accord: that of a reliable and comfortable, but more youthful, alternative to the venerable Toyota. With a new and vastly more appealing Camry in dealerships, the fight in this hotly contested segment will be even tougher this year.

The 2013 Altima is prepared for the rematch with a number of highly evolutionary changes. This class of vehicles has an established formula: do as Toyota does, and you'll be rewarded with sales aplenty. Thus, the Altima's wheelbase remains unchanged (it's identical to the Camry's), and, although the car's overall length grew by 0.8 inch, the only significant dimensional change is width. At 72.0 inches wide, the Altima is 1.3 inches wider than before and is now within a fraction of an inch of -- you guessed it -- the Camry.

The additional girth not only helps the Altima's exterior proportions, it serves up additional shoulder room inside. Most interior dimensions trail the Camry's slightly, but the Altima's cabin is very roomy and is equipped with surprisingly cushy seats. The rears are uncommonly soft, and the front chairs are pleasantly comfortable and supportive -- Nissan says their design was inspired by research done by NASA on "zero-gravity" seats. Practical touches abound, such as a wide pass-through to the trunk and a large center console offering lots of storage.

That's all well and good, but it's the Altima's bells and whistles that Nissan hopes will lure customers away from the Camry -- and this new Nissan is packed full of tech goodies aped from more expensive vehicles. All Altimas are equipped with a keyless push-button ignition, and most trim levels include remote starting. Bluetooth hands-free telephony and audio streaming is standard, as is the Easy Fill tire fill-up system, which beeps the horn as you approach the correct tire pressure. So simple, yet so ingenious. HID lights are available only on the top-of-the-line six-cylinder model, but in all but the base model, the headlights automatically turn on after four swipes of the wipers (a safety feature that we wish the government would mandate, along with automatic-on headlamps for cars with always-illuminated gauges). Speaking of gauges, the Altima's are highly legible. Between the speedometer and the tachometer is a bright, colorful 4.0-inch LCD screen that looks almost like it's holographic -- it's recessed and angled rearward. It can present all sorts of information to the driver, but unfortunately it can't be turned off and lacks a simple odometer screen, so it can be distracting.

The optional backup camera does a novel trick, performing blind-spot detection and lane-departure functions. Rather than implementing a slew of expensive radar sensors, Nissan engineers cleverly made use of the wide-angle camera to look for vehicles in the blind spots and to watch the lane markings. The camera on production Altimas will even have a wash/dry system that sprays washer fluid onto the lens and then blows it clean and dry with air. It's a smart solution -- although the camera didn't operate properly on our prototype test car. Nissan says that the system will be sorted out by the time the Altima hits showrooms (as this magazine goes on sale). We're especially curious to see how well it all works in the dark.

Our test car was a top-spec four-cylinder 2.5SL equipped with the navigation system, which is available either as a very reasonable $590 stand-alone option or as part of the $1090 tech package. The center-mounted 7.0-inch touch screen is large enough, but some of the buttons (such as the map zoom and the radio presets) are no larger than the tip of your finger, so it can be a chore to use while moving.

The SL also comes equipped with heated leather seats and that delightful option you never even knew you needed: a heated steering wheel. The top-of-the-line Bose stereo produces righteous levels of vibes if you ask it to, but unfortunately so does the engine.

Nissan has done a quick once-over of the mostly carryover 2.5-liter four-cylinder, which now produces seven extra horsepower. The fundamentals remain, so it's still a decidedly undersquare engine with the longest piston stroke this side of an 8.4-liter Viper V-10. The long stroke helps with low-end torque but is also a contributing factor to the engine's relative coarseness.

The CVT is now the only transmission available, as the six-speed manual was phased out during the last generation. It has been optimized for reduced internal friction and boasts a wider ratio spread than before. Nissan won't disclose the actual numbers but promises that the lowest ratio is shorter (for improved off-the-line acceleration) and the highest ratio is longer (for quieter and more efficient cruising). Together with a slight improvement in drag (its coefficient drops one hundredth to 0.30; the Camry's is 0.28) and a slight reduction in weight -- as much as 78 pounds, depending on trim -- the new 2013 Altima posts big gains in EPA fuel economy: the city rating jumps from 23 mpg to 27 mpg, and highway mileage goes from 32 mpg to a top-of-the-class 38 mpg.

For true fuel misers, there will be a hybrid version engineered in-house (the previous, limited-production Altima Hybrid used Toyota's hybrid system). For fans of torque steer, wheel spin, and speeding tickets, the previous 270-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 returns. Six-cylinder models use a chain-drive CVT in place of the four-cylinder's belt-drive unit, and although it's also been revised for reduced friction, it offers a smaller ratio spread. V-6 Altimas have steering-column-mounted paddle shifters, which allow the driver to select and hold one of seven predefined fixed ratios -- a helpful tool in the fight against CVT-induced bovine sound effects.

The 2.5's CVT, however, doesn't offer the ability to lock in a ratio, and in spirited driving, the vocal four-banger's thrum permeates the cabin with its continually rising and falling engine note. At full throttle, the tachometer swings to 6200 rpm and stays there. Our test car occasionally brushed against the engine's rev limiter as a further reminder that we were in a prototype vehicle with a new transmission whose programming wasn't yet perfect.

CVT-equipped vehicles typically exhibit shift-free, creamy-smooth manners in normal driving, and this Altima is no exception. The cost to sportiness might not be an issue except that the chassis is otherwise so good. Nissan chose an electrohydraulic power-steering setup in place of some of its competitors' fully electric systems, a best-of-both-worlds solution that provides the feel of a conventional hydraulic setup with the economy benefits of an electric rack. The decision pays dividends the second you start moving -- the steering communicates with the driver, loads up naturally, and suffers from minimal torque steer.

The strut-type front and multilink rear suspension is tuned more tautly than those of most big sedans, but with exemplary body control over bumps and around corners. Nissan redesigned the Altima's rear suspension to include compliance bushings that allow the rear wheels to assist in turning the vehicle in corners and has added a function to the stability control programming that gently drags the brakes on one or both inside wheels to mitigate understeer.

Back-road prowess generally isn't a primary purchase consideration for mid-size sedans, but at least the Altima's chassis is capable of hustling when it has to. In fact, the only place it really disappoints is in its looks. Nissan's goal was to "advance the segment's styling," but the Altima does no such thing. The exterior is a collection of disparate design cues, none of which match the others or come across as particularly original. The radiator grille seems two sizes too large and is shaped like the upper two-thirds of Lexus' new signature grille -- and it's punctuated by a Nissan badge so large it would look at home on a building. The headlights and taillights come across as caricatures of the lights on the 370Z and the Maxima, and the side profile recalls Acura and Infiniti more than anything else.

Then again, each of those cars and brands is positioned above the Altima, so maybe that's what Nissan set out to do. But by following in the Camry's footsteps with generation after generation of boring styling, the Altima has missed an opportunity to truly gun for the number-one spot. If Nissan could figure out how to make its sedans beautiful -- even if that meant poaching the entire Kia design staff -- we'd be looking at a contender with a real chance at finally beating the Camry at its own game.

On Sale: Now
Price: $22,280/$30,590 (base/as tested)
Engine: 2.5L I-4, 182 hp, 180 lb-ft (est. )
Drive: Front-wheel
Fuel Mileage: 27/38 mpg (est.)