Posted: October 11, 2011

Executive wheels: A so-so sedan

No complaints - and no raves - about Niissan's Altima

Jeff Rundles

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2012 Nissan Altima 2.5 S

I have to admit, right off the bat: I am not a big Nissan fan, and that includes the line's luxury division, Infiniti. My reason for this is that it seems to me over the past several years that the cars throughout the line(s) vis a vis the competition are quite noisy, as if they have far less insulation than the comparable Toyotas and Hondas.

But you have to hand it to Nissan for being a style leader and having some venerable brands. On the venerable end are the Maxima, around since the late 1970s (first as a Datsun 810), and the Sentra in 1982 (replacing the Datsun B210). That's staying power and it is a testament to the company that they have maintained these brands, and their sales, lo these many years. You see a lot of them on the road.

As for styling, Nissan went the extra mile in the 2002 model year to come out with the mid-sized crossover SUV, Murano (and its Infiniti counterpart the FX), a real departure at the time from what was available from the competition from a looks point of view. Lately they have added the edgy JUKE and cube, continuing the style revolution, and then last year the all-electric Leaf, which is a giant technological leap forward for a production car.

Nissan, obviously, isn't resting on its laurels and is taking some chances. Now, some might argue that Nissan has to take chances to keep up with the fortunes - and reputations - of Toyota and Honda, and if you look at Ford lately - well, all the Japanese are feeling the heat.

Still, the wisdom of the venerable stalwarts and the edgy envelope-pushers notwithstanding, back in the 1990s I thought of Nissan as the equal of its direct Japanese competitors - and all way ahead of the Americans - and I now longer feel that way. Indeed, when Infiniti debuted in 1989 to challenge the excitement Toyota and Honda had created with their own luxury labels, Lexus and Acura, respectively, I firmly believed and said at the time that Infiniti was the best line (None of the lines, including Nissan/Infiniti, has ever produced a car as distinctive, as nice and as nice looking as the Infiniti J30, launched in 1992 to compete directly with the Lexus ES, and discontinued after the 1997 model year. Too bad).

Anyway, in the early 1990s Nissan did a smart thing. They had the near-luxury Maxima to compete with the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry, and they had the lower-priced and smaller Sentra to meet head-to-head with the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla. And they did pretty well. There was another car in between in the line, the Stanza, which, for reasons I no longer remember, was much maligned. In 1992 the company discontinued the Stanza, and then using the same international platform reworked it into the Altima in 1993 (first called the Stanza Altima), and brought the production to US soil.

It seemed to me at the time that the Altima filled a need in the marketplace. You had your $20+k cars like the Maxima, and you had your $12k cars, like the Sentra, but there was nothing in the $15-$18k range and the Altima fit the bill. There was really nothing in the competitive lines in that price range, so it seemed to make sense. I very much liked the early Altimas and I especially liked its niche in the marketplace.

Over the years, however, the Altima has continued to grow in size to where it is essentially the same size as the Maxima. The 2012 Maxima has a wheelbase of 109.3", the very same as the Altima. The heights: 57.8" for Maxima; 58" for Altima. The length: 190.6" for Maxima; 190.7" for Altima. All Maximas have a 3.5-liter V6 engine with 290 hp, while the Altima has a standard 2.5-liter I4 with 175 hp, and in the SR a 3.5-Liter V6 with 270 hp. The Maxima is dressed up - a somewhat finer interior - but for all intents and purposes they are the same vehicle. Why? The Altima sells, base, from $20,410 to $25,430, while the Maxima ranges from $31,750 to $34,450.

There are styling differences between the two - the Altima features more bold, and more plastic, headlamp and tail light arrays - but again, they are way too similar. I used to say that Maxima - the platform for which was used on some of the models in the up-scale Infiniti line - was a great buy since they had to price it lower than the Infiniti, essentially for the same car.

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But that's all gone out the window. Even lower-priced cars these days feature or offer as optional all of the luxury gadgets and trim levels, so it's all really just a matter of which showroom you walk into and how much extra you want to pay to sport a particular nameplate.

Other than the noise factor (the Altima has too much road noise for a car in this price range, but then the same could be said for all Nissans/Infinitis), I don't have any major complaints with the Altima. I still think there is a niche in the marketplace for a car in a mid-size between the Sentra and the Maxima, but everything seems to be getting larger these days.

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There are three trims offered in the Altima - the 2.5, with a base price of $20,410; the 2.5 S (the one I drove) with a base MSRP of $22,570; and, the 3.5 SR, with the aforementioned 3.5-liter V6 with 270 hp, and a base price of $25,430.

I found the 2.5-liter I4 engine in the 2.5 S model, with 175 hp, to be just adequate. In lower speeds, from stop sign to stop sign, the car sorts of lumbers. It'll kick in if you punch it, gearing down and all, but nothing special. It is a very comfortable, very roomy 4-door sedan and obviously not meant to be a speed demon. I took it out on the highways of Denver and the foothills and it is a great cruiser car, with a little huffing and puffing necessary up the steeper grades.

The Altima is a handsome car, but then it looks like every other car on the market in this category so you'd really have to have a keen eye to decide that it wasn't a Toyota or Honda or Chevy Cruz for that matter. Inside, too, it is nicely appointed but nothing special. There's nothing to dislike here; it's just that as cars go it is middle-of-the-road, so to speak. As I said earlier, Nissan has been building a reputation for styling edge, inside and out, but they haven't put anything particularly distinctive in the Altima.

About the only thing that really impressed me about the car, what made it stand out somewhat from the competition, is the room. The front seating areas in pretty much all sedans in this category are roomy and comfortable, but few have the rear-seat room or the trunk space offered by the Altima. A very comfortable ride for the passengers, and plenty of room in the trunk for golf clubs, luggage and stuff.

As I mentioned, the base price on the Altima 2.5 S is $22,570, and on my test-drive model they added in nearly another $5k worth of stuff. There was a Premium Audio Package, for $990.00, with an excellent Bose power unit with 9 speakers (very nice, but you need 9 speakers and power to overcome the noise). This package also included a 4.3" display in the dash for all of the control menus and the like, plus a rear-view monitor for assistance in backing up and parking. There was also a USB port with iPod compatibility, XM Satellite Radio, and the ability to playback MP3 and CDs.

For another $1,350 they added in a Convenience Package, with power driver's seat, 16" alloy wheels, auto on/off headlights, illuminated vanity mirrors, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, steering wheel mounted audio controls, and a Bluetooth hands-free telephone system. They charged an additional $1,150 for a Convenience Plus Package, consisting of a power moonroof, dual zone climate controls, and outside side mirrors that can be manually folded in for tight garages like mine (they also have turn signals incorporated into the mirrors.

Nissan also charged $140 for splash guards, $170 for aluminum kickplates, and $760 in destination fees.

The bottom line came to $27,130 which, for my money, is a little much for this car. It lacks distinctiveness, is so-so in the power department and frankly just feels like another sedan. Besides, as I said, it's too noisy to compete.

Having said that about the noise, I truly believe that Nissan should borrow some pointers from its design and styling department and make some noise about this car. Give it some excitement - and some noise abatement - and there might be some buzz. Until then, it's ho-hum.

RATING: TWO WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR)

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Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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