It happens every year during our All-Stars evaluations: At least one car arrives anonymously. It garners little interest from most of our evaluators up front—relatively speaking, especially when there are six-figure supercars on hand. Yet it slowly raises its head above the proverbial waterline, eventually also raising eyebrows.
This time around, the 2019 Nissan Altima SR slotted into the zero-(initial interest)-to-hero role.
“I jumped into the Altima right after a wonderful spin in the Ferrari and knew it would just suck,” online editor Ed Tahaney said, unintentionally exposing that, despite our efforts, preconceived notions can’t always be eradicated. “When it proved to be the exact opposite, I was amazed and impressed. That VC-Turbo engine, used to less good effect in the Infiniti QX50 crossover, really is good for something, and this is it. Well played, Nissan.”
That powerplant is, of course, Nissan’s new 2.0-liter variable-compression four-cylinder. Thanks to a multilink design—think of it as a rocker arm inside the block—that increases and decreases the pistons’ reach, the engine adjusts its compression ratio from 8:1 (performance oriented) to 14:1 (efficiency tuned), depending on what the car’s driver or driving conditions call for. It’s a smaller, lighter unit than the previous Altima’s 3.5-liter V-6; it produces 248 hp at 5,600 rpm (22 hp less than the old V-6) and a strong 280 lb-ft of torque at 1,600 (an increase of 29 lb-ft). With a curb weight of 3,418 pounds for the front-drive SR, you might not expect much fun in the acceleration department, but the meaty midrange torque opened people’s eyes as our drivers realized the result of pinning the throttle wide open.
“Beware to those who underestimate this car,” said racing driver and contributor Andy Pilgrim, who to the bemusement of some of our editors quickly became one of the Nissan’s biggest proponents. “I kid you not, the engine was a really big surprise. It’s not buzzy, it sounds good, and it’s quick. How quick? I was in the Veloster N, blabbing over the radio to [executive editor] Morrison in the Altima about how speedy I thought the Nissan might be—so we did a couple of side-by-side acceleration tests from 40 mph to about 120 mph. I could pull maybe one car length ahead of him by the time we got to that self-imposed top speed; it was pretty amazing. I’m not sure who was laughing harder.” That said, no one was a massive fan of the Altima’s continuously variable transmission. You can catch the powertrain out as it tries to figure out the CVT ratio/engine-compression/turbo-boost level. In reality, though, it performs its duty benignly in the majority of driving scenarios.
The suspension setup (independent strut in front, multilink out back) is perhaps even more notable for a car in this class. When our drivers began to realize the powertrain/suspension combination’s redeeming qualities, the smile count picked up exponentially.
“No doubt, the surprise here is the suspension and how it soaks up irregularities, punching way above its weight,” contributing writer Basem Wasef said. “If you’re not a fan of the CVT, as I wasn’t, you can find solace in that suspension damping.”
Pilgrim agreed. “The chassis is exceptionally well controlled and sure-footed in quick transitions and under heavy braking,” he confirmed.
That proved to be the case as we drove the SR the couple hundred miles from Willow Springs to Death Valley, a route that threw all sorts of surfaces, dips, potholes, straightaways, and curves at our 2019 All-Stars. The Altima handled it all without much protest, though certain bump frequencies at times yielded unpleasant impact harshness. After spending several hours in its driver’s seat, we realized collectively, this is one solid and satisfying proposition for what you’ll likely refer to as a regular, everyday car. Driven in a typical manner, its ride quality and body control on average freeways impressed us.
Also in the everyday, more immediate regard, the car takes a step up from its predecessors and moves much closer to the existing competition from Honda and Toyota. The exterior styling is a massive improvement, probably the most attractive Altima for its time since the first-generation model debuted more than 25 years ago. You might say, as Noordeloos did, it resembles a baby Maxima with a somewhat cleaner and less severe design.
The interior delivers a clean, clutter-free environment and layout, as well as some nice leather-trimmed touchpoints—though we’d like to see those nicer pieces carry through the entire car and not just up front. The displays are excellent and controls simple. Additionally, the new Altima is the latest Nissan to feature the company’s ProPilot Assist, which when active keeps the car square between lane lines. Other similar features are available, including lane keep assist and adaptive cruise; most trim levels boast standard lane departure warning, auto high-beams, and blind-spot monitoring.
As a group, that latter feature would have been a good thing to have had installed directly into our skulls prior to All-Stars 2019—perhaps then we would have seen the Altima SR coming.
2019 Nissan Altima SR 2.0 Specifications
|PRICE||$30,035/$31,050 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||2.0L turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4; 248 hp @ 5,600 rpm, 280 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||25/34 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||192.9 x 72.9 x 57.4 in|
|0–60 MPH||6.1 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||145 mph|