What's the best-selling car in the country? Easy, right? Toyota Camry.
But what's No. 2? Honda Accord? Ford Fusion? Hyundai Sonata? Good guesses all, but wrong.
It's the Nissan Altima. That's right, Nissan's best-seller is the car that people rarely factor into the midsize sedan equation. Even we'll admit the Altima is one of those cars that slips from our minds sometimes, that is until we drive one again. Then it's, "Whoa, this car is really good — and a serious hot rod. Handles well, too."
If this fifth-generation major makeover doesn't make the Altima pop instantly to your mind in the same fashion as the Camry and Accord, it probably never will. Because the 2013 Nissan Altima just got even better. Quite a bit better, in fact.
We could read straight from Nissan's playbook and tell you about the 2013 Altima's reskinned body that's stiffer, yet weighs 80 pounds less than before. Or how its continuously variable transmission (CVT) offers better fuel economy and acceleration.
Or we could go on about how the Tennessee-built Altima offers a hands-free text messaging assistant in addition to lane departure warning and rear moving object detection systems — both of which are segment firsts. And we could tell you the interior has been completely redesigned to the point that it's now on a level with the Maxima — especially our top-shelf, leather-clad 3.5 SL test car.
But none of that matters if this Altima doesn't feel better from behind the wheel. And after an extensive test-drive, we will tell you that this midsize, front-wheel-drive sedan is still as athletic as ever, with a little extra refinement thrown in for good measure.
A Bit of a Hot Rod
So how quick is the 2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL? Good question, especially since it only comes with a soul-sucking CVT while most of its competitors are now using six-, seven- and even eight-speed automatics.
How's zero to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds (5.9 seconds with a 1-foot rollout like at a drag strip) grab you? For perspective, that's over half a second quicker than the last Altima V6 we tested. It's also quicker than the 2012 Toyota Camry V6 and 2011 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T by 0.4 second. And it beats the 2011 Honda Accord V6 by a not-insignificant 0.8 second. The Altima continues on through the quarter-mile in 14.3 seconds at 99.8 mph. So in other words, it's pretty quick for a midsize sedan.
And this is with zero additional power. Yep, the 3.5-liter V6 remains unchanged from 2012, so it's still rated at 270 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 258 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm. Smooth and plentiful power is just a throttle jab away, even at highway speeds. It's nice to know the power is there, but we did notice that the throttle delivery can be a bit abrupt, especially when pulling away from a stop.
How Did the Altima Get Quicker?
It's lighter, for one. Our 3,358-pound test car weighed in 54 pounds lighter than the last Altima 3.5 SR we tested in 2010. It's more aerodynamic, too. Nissan says the coefficient of drag has been reduced by 5 percent.
But much of the credit goes to what's arguably the world's best CVT. Sure, there aren't that many, but it's still one of the few instances where we can remember a CVT that does what we want most of the time. For instance, upon leaving the line on a hard launch, the CVT almost immediately pegs the tach at an indicated 6,800 rpm for maximum power.
Out on the road, especially in Sport mode, the CVT never hesitates to bring on big revs without hunting for gears like traditional automatics. And the dreaded CVT rubber-banding has been greatly reduced. In fact, in regular drive mode, it almost lugs the engine too much in the interest of fuel economy.
That didn't surprise us much given the Altima's fuel mileage estimates. Compared to the previous Altima, the mileage numbers are up by 2 mpg in the city and 4 mpg on the highway (22 city/31 highway). We averaged 21.6 mpg during varied driving, much of which involved winding the engine out to test the limits of the CVT.
If those numbers aren't enough for you, there's also a reworked 2.5-liter four-cylinder available. It adds variable valve timing on both exhaust and intake camshafts along with an additional 7 hp for a total of 182 hp at 6,000 rpm. It's 11 pounds lighter than its predecessor and Nissan says it will return 27 city/38 mpg highway. Impressive numbers for a sedan of the Altima's size.
Still the Four-Door Sports Car
The Altima has built a reputation over the years for not only being the class hot rod, but also the class handler. But after our first stint in the new car, we had some reservations. It felt as if Nissan had put aside performance in favor of a cushy ride and a quiet interior.
But to our surprise, it turned in impressive track numbers that said otherwise. The new Altima snaked around the slalom cones much quicker than we expected of a car with such a compliant ride. Its 66.6-mph slalom run was not only a 0.5-mph improvement over the old Altima SR, but noticeably quicker than the last Camry, Accord and Fusion we tested. The Dunlop SP Sport 7000 all-season tires provide plenty of grip, helping the Altima generate 0.86g around the skid pad.
Even better than the numbers is the way the Altima's responsive steering and predictable chassis make it a fun tool with which to attack your favorite freeway on-ramp. Yes, there's still torque steer, but it's perfectly manageable and not intrusive.
NASA Knows Seats
A big part of the reason the 2013 Nissan Altima is such a pleasant place to spend time has to do with the front seats. They were inspired from NASA research on seating and posture, and Nissan says they reduce spinal loads and improve blood flow. Science aside, they really do deliver in the comfort department. In fact, they're probably in our top five for most comfortable seats ever.
The overall cabin space feels about the same, which came as no surprise, since this Altima has the same wheelbase as its predecessor. Up front, leg- and shoulder room are up slightly, while hiproom is down a notch. The rear seats have added about an inch of legroom, but the head- and foot room are a little tight.
Most of the major controls are easy to use, and everything looks high quality. Our top-of-the-line SL model was trimmed in leather, some sparse wood and a few metallic accents. It's classy-looking without being over the top. We were less impressed with the feel of some of the switchgear, though, as the radio knobs felt sticky and hard to dial in precisely, and the radio itself sounded only average.
A Future Number One?
The 2013 Altima 2.5 starts at $22,280 (including $780 destination), a $950 jump over the 2012 model, yet it's still cheaper than the entry-level Camry by $535. The cheapest V6 Altima (the 3.5 S) begins at $26,140, while our 3.5 SL started at $30,860.
The Tech package — which includes navigation with a 7-inch display screen, the aforementioned lane departure warning and rear moving object detection systems along with blind-spot warning — is a bargain at $1,090. They all work as advertised and provide another layer of safety on top of the car's standard wide assortment of passive safety features.
A few other small options (such as floor mats — seriously, how are they not standard on a car of this ilk?) brought the as-tested price to $32,620. Not cheap by any stretch, but as they say: There's a lot of car to love here.
Which leaves us with just one question: Is all this goodness enough for the Altima to overtake the Toyota Camry for top spot on the American Car List? For that to happen, John Q. Public will need to start including the Altima on any and all midsize sedan consideration lists.
And he/she should, because if you add up all of the Altima's parts and combine those with its more dynamic driving experience, it's a better car than the Camry, especially for anyone who has even an ounce of go-fast in their veins. And even if you're not interested in performance, the 2013 Nissan Altima still delivers impressive fuel economy, great seats and a compliant ride.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation..
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