New Car Reviews

First Drive: 2019 Nissan Altima

Making a statement in a shrinking, but still important segment

SANTA BARBARA, California – There are a handful of midsize sedans out there whose names have become ubiquitous in the modern era, with the Altima being one of them. In its quarter century on the market, the made in America Altima has grown into a huge sales success for Nissan and a credible foil for the likes of the middleweight title holders Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

But while it’s all well and good to have name recognition, that’s certainly no guarantee of success in today’s bread-and-butter sedan segment—one that has been getting crushed in favor of crossovers. The Ford Fusion is essentially on life support, and the likes of the Hyundai Sonata, Mazda6, and Volkswagen Passat have all seen their share of the sales pie shrink. If you want your sedan to survive in today’s landscape, you better bring it when you bring out a new model like the sixth-generation, 2019 Nissan Altima.

Though Nissan is outwardly bullish on the Altima’s future, it’s clear that it wanted—in some ways needed—to make a bold, aggressive exterior design statement to draw notice to a car that in recent years had become relatively anonymous. While it cribs elements from recent Nissan efforts, most notably the Maxima, you’re not going to miss its new V face. You can argue with some of the details like its horse-collar of a grille (Edsel, anyone?), but it’s a cohesive design overall that’s as attractive and distinctive, possibly more so, than the new Accord or Camry—depending on your aesthetic viewpoint, of course.

On the inside, as you’d expect, the 2019 Altima is far more improved and refined. The most noticeable upgrade is its new prominent center touchscreen, which now measures at 8.0-inches and has large volume and tuning knobs. (Take it from Honda, you have to have those knobs.) Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard and the system can cope with the speed both software systems need to operate. The fruits of Nissan’s Amazon Alexa partnership can also be experienced in the Altima. None of the materials inside felt terribly cheap, although there was still a quality disparity between the scratchy fabric and the plusher leather upholstery on the 8-way power driver’s seat. At least they were both comfortable. In highly-equipped trim levels with attractive materials and color combinations, the Altima is a nice place to be. All passengers are also likely to appreciate the four USB charging points scattered around the car.

Under the hood of the new 2019 Altima you’ll find two engine options. Nissan’s 2.5-liter, naturally aspirated four remains the base engine. It’s essentially a carryover design, but Nissan says it has more than 80 percent new parts and uses direct injection among other refinements to deliver 188 horsepower, nine more horses than before. Every 2.5-liter model of the new Altima is now available with an optional all-wheel drive system with a 50:50 torque split in most situations, a first for a Nissan sedan and something that remains a relative rarity in this segment short of a Subaru lot. Front-wheel drive 2.5-liter models are rated at 27 mpg city/39 highway—up one in both categories. Adding all-wheel drive knocks those numbers down by 1 and 2 mpg, respectively.

The big powertrain news for the 2019 Altima though is the addition of a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. Normally, that wouldn’t be much of a blockbuster as seemingly every car and crossover under the sun these days has a boosted four of the same displacement. But this isn’t just any old 2.0-liter turbo four; this is Nissan’s all-new VC-Turbo engine, which recently made its debut in the Infiniti QX50 crossover. While it’s down on power from the 3.5-liter V-6 it replaces, it offers more torque and the unit itself is lighter—putting less weight at the front of the car. Nissan has engineered the engine to be able to adjust compression ratios from 8:1 to 14:1, depending on whether the greatest performance or the greatest efficiency is needed.
It also bests the old V-6’s EPA figures by as much as 3 mpg. One bummer though, the VC-Turbo isn’t available with all-wheel drive.

Underpinning the 2019 Altima is the same Renault-Nissan D platform as the outgoing model. The company’s engineers say it’s been extensively redesigned to make it more rigid and refined, to accommodate the all-wheel drive system, and to improve efficiency.

Despite all the boasting and the improvements and the promise of excitement, when it comes down to it we found the 2019 Altima drives a lot like the old model. Yes, there is a bit more refinement, and it’s certainly not offensive in any way, but no new ground is broken. Models equipped with the 2.5-liter and the CVT drive like, well, Nissans with CVTs and 2.5-liter engines. Power is relatively smooth and Nissan continues to refine its CVT, but you have to wonder how good the Altima might be if it were offered with a six-speed automatic that you still get in a Camry, or a small-displacement turbo and six-speeder as the Passat has. It’s worth noting both of those cars post similar fuel economy figures.

Most of our time however was spent in a top tier Altima Platinum with the new VC-Turbo making the power. While the old V-6 could be a fun engine when pushed, one could never really call it hushed or refined. That’s where the VC-Turbo shines. While the CVT can make the base engine dull to rev in certain situations, it seems to keep the turbo constantly awake, eliminating pretty much any perceptible lag. The VC-Turbo can also be had in the SR trim, which gets changes to the steering and ride in pursuit of that ever elusive “sportiness.” We drove an SR with the 2.5-liter front-drive setup and none of our sporting senses were turned on by the car. While the wheel sizes jump from the base 16-inchers to 19s on the SR models, grip seemed to be about the same as the softer setup. Our takeaway? While you can have a bit of fun in the VC-Turbo-equipped car, the Altima is tuned more for comfort and refinement than anything else, no matter how you option it.

It’s also tuned to be a safe car. The 2019 Altima is the latest Nissan to get the marque’s Pro Pilot Assist assistance technology that can keep the car centered on freeway lanes. With available adaptive cruise control and blind spot and lane keep assists, Nissan’s self-driving assist system was up there with similar technologies from luxury automakers when I tried it on the current Leaf and Rogue models. This may be another draw for customers comparing cars in this class. Features such as automatic high beams, lane departure warning, and blind spot monitoring are standard on all but the base Altimas, too.

As for pricing, the base S model starts at $24,645 including destination, with the top-level Platinum with the VC-Turbo going for $35,675. All-wheel-drive is a $1,350 option on all models with the 2.5-liter. These numbers fall pretty much in the middle of the mainstream sedan market.

And that’s where the Altima continues to land: in the middle. Despite the styling and promises of an exciting time behind the wheel, it remains a pragmatic automotive appliance more than anything else with good fuel economy, plenty of space, impressive tech options, and lots of standard equipment. Given that the Altima is now in the middle of an ever smaller pack, there’s no reason to believe it shouldn’t continue to find buyers who value comfort and convenience over performance and handling. Honestly, that’s the majority of people in this segment, anyway.

At the Altima’s launch, the product representatives threw out the cringe worthy line, “not your parent’s car,” when describing their new baby. It has a little more truth to it now than it maybe did before—because your parents are more than likely driving a crossover. But we’re betting they at least know the Altima by name

2019 Nissan Altima Specifications

ON SALE Fall 2018
PRICE $24,645 (base)
ENGINE 2.5L DOHC 16-valve I-4/188 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 180 lb-ft 3,600 rpm; 2.0L turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4/248 hp @ 5,600 rpm, 280 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm
TRANSMISSION Continuously variable
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD/AWD sedan
EPA MILEAGE  25-28/34-39 mpg city/hwy
L x W x H 192.9 x 72.9 x 56.8-57.4 in
WHEELBASE 111.2 in
WEIGHT 3,212-3,462 lb
0-60 MPH 7.0-8.0 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 120 mph (est)