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Prototype Drive: 2019 Nissan Altima

Look out Accord and Camry, Nissan is bringing its A-game

STANFIELD, Arizona — A year ago, I was at the Tochigi Proving Ground, Honda's test track and R&D facility in Japan, driving a camouflaged prototype of the new Honda Accord. The catch? We were to evaluate the engine and transmission only, filtering out all perceptions of the chassis, interior, and other aspects of the car. Just last week, I was at Nissan's Arizona Testing Center (ATC) for the same routine with the new 2019 Altima. It might have felt like deja vu if it hadn't been for the 100-plus-degree heat.

Of course, the cars themselves are different, too. Just how different, I'm not authorized to say just yet—check back this fall for more. What I can tell you, however, is that the VC-Turbo engine isn't the only brilliant four-cylinder Nissan's building these days.

If you're not familiar already, Nissan's new VC-Turbo engine is the first series production variable compression ratio combustion engine—ever. It uses a clever system of levers and linkages to range seamlessly from 8:1 to 14:1 compression ratio; working in concert with its turbocharged induction, the VC-Turbo engine offers a much broader span of power and efficiency than is normally possible. This translates to 248 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque while still netting better-than-V-6 efficiency. The same basic engine is offered in the 2019 Infiniti QX50, as well, though it gets a new tune for the Altima that lets it run on regular unleaded gasoline if you wish—though putting premium in does perk up the power for those days you're feeling a bit froggy on the commute.

For those who don't need such expansive abilities—or who prefer to save a little cash up front—there's the new base engine option, the PR25DD. Evolving beyond the QR-series engine it replaces, the new 2.5-liter four-cylinder rates a 1 mpg improvement in the EPA combined cycle per Nissan, which translates to 32 mpg combined—despite a 9-hp increase in power and 3-lb-ft gain in torque, for a total of 188 hp and 180 lb-ft.

It does this not by taking the big stabs the VC-Turbo takes, but by scraping together small but important gains from many places. A new glass-fiber-reinforced polymer intake system uses sleeves that extend into the cylinder head to reduce heat transfer to the intake charge—the PA6-GF30 material reduces thermal conductivity by 3.5x, and increases horsepower across the range, with a peak gain of 2 hp. Similarly, gone are the cast iron sleeves lining the cylinders, replaced by a "mirror bore" plasma-transfer coating. Electronics (rather than hydraulics) control the intake valves' variable timing profiles, a variable tumble control valve enhances intake performance, and the compression ratio has risen from 10.3:1 in the previous engine to an even 12.0:1 for the new PR25DD. The combined result of these small improvements is an engine that's noticeably peppier than the previous Altima's base four-cylinder, yet more efficient. It still won't spill your Big Gulp all over the interior as you rip out of the parking lot, but it won't leave you vapor-locked with fear on every fast merge either.

What's most notable about the new PR engine, however, isn't felt as you leave a stoplight or pull up to a fuel pump. In fact, what's most notable about the new PR four-cylinder is what you don't feel at all. This engine is phenomenally smooth, even compared to inline fours from luxury brands like Mercedes, Jaguar, and BMW. Nissan says it's 5 dB quieter in terms of NVH than the outgoing Altima four-cylinder, but it feels more like 50 dB, and that refinement helps to give the Altima a much more premium feel.

You may be wondering why I haven't mentioned the 2019 Altima's all-star feature: all-wheel drive. That's because we weren't able to test any AWD Altimas during our time at the ATC. Instead, we got to sample two VC-Turbo-powered cars and a single PR25DD-powered base-spec Altima. All sported front-wheel drive and a CVT that slickly mimics the shifts of a traditional automatic gearbox.

How do these engines fit into the overall big picture of the Altima and the mainstream sedan market as a whole? How does the Altima drive, turn, and ride? We have all of this info and more, but you'll have to wait until later this fall to find out. For now, we can say this: the answers may surprise you.

2019 Nissan Altima Specifications

ON SALE Fall 2018
PRICE $23,500 (base)
ENGINE 2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/248 hp @ 5,600 rpm, 273 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
2.5L DOHC 16-valve I-4/188 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 180 lb-ft @ 3,600 rpm
TRANSMISSION Continuously variable
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD/AWD sedan
EPA MILEAGE 32/40 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 192.2 x 72.9 x 56.7 in
WHEELBASE 112.2 in
WEIGHT 3,250 lb
0-60 MPH 5.8-7.0 sec