Everyone wants to drive the top dog in a model lineup, the fully loaded car with the leather seats, sunroof and big engine. But what about the version that most people actually buy, especially in these times of rising gas prices? So here we have a 2011 Nissan Altima 2.5 S with its four-cylinder engine and cloth upholstery, not the athletic Altima 3.5 SR with its V6 engine and leather-lined interior. Gee, the 2.5 S must be rather disappointing compared to its more muscular, more posh sibling, right? Actually, not at all.
First off, this base model powertrain is fairly impressive. Usually a four-cylinder engine plus a continuously variable transmission (CVT) equals lots of noise and little performance. But Nissan happens to offer the best CVT in the business, and it makes this 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine surprisingly lively. The rest of the car's not too tough to take either — a quiet, nicely finished cabin, good seats and a generous standard features list. Hey, if you must have navigation you can always pick a nice one up for $150 at Best Buy.
Back in 2002, the then-redesigned Altima set itself apart from the ubiquitous Honda Accord and Toyota Camry with its notably sportier personality. The 2011 Nissan Altima retains that edge, as it still provides a more involving drive with its more buttoned-down suspension and superior steering feel than those two stalwarts. But now the Nissan has worthy rivals in the form of the similarly satisfying Ford Fusion SE, Hyundai Sonata SE, Kia Optima EX and Suzuki Kizashi SE. A tough segment indeed, but one in which the Altima still deserves a spot on your test-drive list.
The 2011 Nissan Altima's 2.5-liter inline-4 packs a solid punch with 175 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque, which is sent to the ground through a CVT. In the past, the combination of a CVT and a four-cylinder engine has been known to suck the life out of a vehicle (as in the Dodge Caliber and Mitsubishi Lancer), even though this technology with its infinitely variable "gear ratios" supposedly optimizes performance and fuel economy. Here, however, it works as promised.
Step into the gas pedal and the front-wheel-drive 2.5 S digs in and pulls smooth and strong, feeling up on its toes rather than flat on its feet. The car takes 8.5 seconds to accelerate to 60 mph from a standstill and then gets through the quarter-mile in 16.3 seconds at 87.2 mph, making the Altima one of the quicker cars in this class of midsize sedans with four-cylinder engines. Passing power is impressive as well, and even under our heavy throttle foot the Altima averaged nearly 26 mpg in about 1,000 miles of mixed driving.
Going the other way, the brakes of the 2011 Nissan Altima 2.5 S bring the car to a stop from 60 mph in 126 feet, about an average performance for this segment. The pedal feels firm and its action is linear throughout the stop.
One of the Altima's calling cards long has been its athletic handling. The steering is crisp and precise and the car stays buttoned-down when you run it through a set of your favorite curves. The limiting factor is the tire choice, as these Continental ContiPro Contacts seem calibrated for a quiet, comfortable ride, so they squeal pretty early when you push hard in the turns. But all in all, a very good all-around package keeps the Altima near the top of the class in terms of driving enjoyment.
Thanks to the generous range of adjustment of both the driver seat and the tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, getting a good driving position should be easy for drivers of all sizes. Although the front seatbacks are a bit flat (we would have liked more lumbar support), overall comfort is fine, as we proved with a couple of longer trips up the coast. The backseat is likewise pretty comfortable. Though passengers over 6 feet tall may be shy on headroom, most will find plenty of room back there. And even in this entry-level trim, a fold-down center armrest is provided.
Running over the crumbling, pockmarked pavement that passes for many of the roadways in Los Angeles, the 2011 Nissan Altima soaks up the jolts without upsetting the passenger compartment. Out on the open highway, the Altima delivers a serene ride, free of noticeable wind and road noise.
Anyone familiar with Japanese-label cars of the last couple of decades should find the Altima's sensible control layout familiar. The gauges are large and simple, as are most of the controls.
In addition to fancy wheels and a rear spoiler, the Special Edition package featured in this car adds a few nice perks including a steering wheel wrapped in perforated leather (plus audio controls) and automatic headlights. Rearward visibility is generally good, with large glass areas and relatively slim rear pillars.
Unfortunately, iPod integration doesn't come standard on this lower trim level, though it does on some competitors. But it is optional through the Premium Audio package, which also includes Bluetooth. The standard six-speaker system does have an auxiliary jack, so we were still able to play our iPod. The sound quality is clear and powerful enough for a base-model audio system, though really cranking it up loud brought the expected sound degradation.
Within the cabin, storage space is abundant, with a large covered compartment in front of the gear selector, a massive glovebox and a dual-compartment setup under the center console armrest. The cupholders are also generously sized, with three different sizes up front and a pair of large ones in the rear armrest. With 15.3 cubic feet of capacity, the Altima sedan's trunk easily swallows a couple of golf bags and a medium-size travel case. The 60/40-split rear seat allows more capacity should you need it.
Design/Fit and Finish
In profile, with its sweeping roof line and reverse-canted rearmost roof pillar, the 2011 Nissan Altima bears more than a passing resemblance to the Infiniti G37 sedan, its uptown cousin. Last year's midcycle refresh for the Altima brought a sculpted hood and fancier grille, but we still feel the taillights (as with the last generation) are too big and busy.
The cabin of the Altima 2.5 S is fitted with an abundance of high-quality soft-touch materials that you'd expect to see in a higher trim level, and overall fit and finish is likewise impressive. Even the covers for the front seat cupholders and the center stack compartment feel substantial and glide open smoothly. Another nice touch is the sliding feature for the center console's armrest.
Who should consider this vehicle
Although the 2011 Nissan Altima 2.5 S now has sporty rivals that it didn't face just a few short years ago, it still remains a strong choice for anyone looking for a roomy, economical sedan that is also well-trimmed and enjoyable to drive.
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