Desirable options are clustered in pricey packages, low rear-seat cushion penalizes longer legs.
So, first things first — don't let the new name fool you. The 2010 Nissan Altima 3.5 SR is basically the same as the outgoing sport-tuned 3.5 SE model, albeit with the refreshed styling and technology bits common to all 2010 Altimas. But at the same time, don't let this model's advancing years put you off. The 3.5 SE was the sports car of family sedans when it debuted for 2002, and the 3.5 SR carries on that tradition, even as the current-generation Altima enters its fourth year of production.
Of course, a few challengers have appeared in the intervening years. The Ford Fusion Sport provides similar power and handling. The Mazda 6 combines entertaining athleticism with American-size dimensions. The Subaru Legacy boasts all-wheel drive and a capable chassis. But with the exception of the manual-transmission-only Legacy GT, there's still no family hauler that's as gratifying to drive as the taut and tossable Altima 3.5 SR.
Yet there's much more to this Nissan's appeal than its appetite for tight corners. The powertrain is a revelation, a blissful marriage of broad-shouldered V6 thrust and seamless CVT (continuously variable transmission) oversight. The interior materials are Infiniti-grade — few cars in this class can compete. And the technology is top-notch, including updated optional navigation and sound systems with real-time traffic and Bluetooth streaming audio.
There are still nits to pick with the Altima 3.5 SR. The relatively low rear-seat cushion, for example, forces longer-legged passengers to ride with their knees in the air. Also, Nissan makes you pay through the nose for desirable option packages. But if you appreciate the Altima's sporting character, these burdens will be easy to bear. The 2010 Nissan Altima 3.5 SR is proof positive that family-minded consumers still have the option of enjoying the drive.
The 2010 Nissan Altima 3.5 SR is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 rated at 270 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. The CVT is now mandatory, as the formerly available six-speed manual has been discontinued for 2010. EPA fuel economy estimates are 20 mpg city/27 mpg highway and 23 mpg combined. At the test track, our Altima hit 60 mph in 6.8 seconds en route to a 14.8-second quarter-mile at 97.5 mph — healthy numbers for a V6-powered family sedan. Brake testing returned a respectable stopping distance of 123 feet from 60 mph.
The 3.5 SR's powertrain is quite simply one of the best in the business. A CVT doesn't have gears, so there's none of the occasional thumping and lurching while the right cog is selected. Instead, opening the throttle in this Altima sends the engine speed zinging up to 4,000 rpm — the beginning of the V6's sweet spot — at which point it slowly progresses toward the 6,500-rpm redline.
Nissan also provides a manual mode with six simulated gears, but we usually just left it in Drive and let this preternaturally smooth transmission work its magic. As for the VQ-Series V6, it pulls hard and sounds great here, with none of the coarseness that plagues the 370Z's 3.7-liter version.
On our slalom course, the Altima 3.5 SR's sport-tuned suspension contributed to an average speed of 66.1 mph, trailing only the gonzo manual-only Legacy GT (67.7 mph) and the Mazda 6 s Grand Touring (66.4 mph) in this segment. In the real world, the Nissan makes an even better showing.
Unlike the supersized Mazda, the 2010 Nissan Altima evokes a bygone era when family four-doors were compact enough to feel nimble. It tackles tight corners with sport-sedanlike grace, and its steering is extraordinarily tight and responsive. Only advanced (or foolhardy) drivers will encounter the understeer that surfaces as the 3.5 SR's limits approach.
The Altima 3.5 SR's cabin is hushed at highway speeds, but there's no doubt that the sporty suspension has an effect on the car's ride quality. Those looking for Camry-style cushioning over broken pavement should head straight for their local Toyota dealers. Still, this Altima's suspension is by no means harsh; it just provides less isolation from the road below, a trait that the target audience actually might appreciate. The rival we're most reminded of in this respect is the Honda Accord, though it lacks the 3.5 SR's overt athleticism.
The Altima's thin-rimmed leather-wrapped steering wheel fit our hands nicely, and we appreciated the substantial armrest padding all around. Our leather-trimmed tester's front seats provided good long-haul support, but their lateral bolstering was curiously conservative given the Altima's impressive performance envelope. As noted, the rear-seat cushion is mounted low, which may provoke complaints from lanky passengers. Average-size rear riders will have no gripes, however.
The Altima's primary gauges are crystal-clear, and the control stalks on the steering column move through their detents with uncommon refinement. Our 2010 Nissan Altima had the optional touchscreen navigation system, which proved easy to use and delivered sharp graphics to boot. This system includes 9.3 gigabytes of music storage and Bluetooth audio streaming for the digital generation. The 6.5-inch display also manages the iPod interface (part of the pricey Premium package), which our editors applauded for its straightforwardness.
The Bose stereo, which also comes with the Premium package, is one of the better-sounding factory systems to bear the audio company's name (we've been less impressed with its setups in Mazda's lineup). In the 3.5 SR, the Bose system delivers crisp highs and smooth lows. Don't turn it up too loud, though — the rear deck is rattle-prone even with the bass on its neutral setting, an issue we've noticed on other Altimas of this generation.
In real-world usability testing, the Altima's average-size 15.3-cubic-foot trunk made quick work of our standard golf bag and suitcase, and our rear-facing child seat slipped easily into the backseat.
Design/Fit and Finish
The Altima received a mild exterior styling refresh for 2010, and our staff is split on whether it's an improvement. In any case, the current Altima has always been a good-looking car, and nothing about the new tweaks changes that.
Inside, the Altima continues to boast segment-topping sophistication, from the extensive use of rich soft-touch materials to the classy and restrained aesthetic. Like the related Murano SUV's interior, this one wouldn't look out of place in an Infiniti. Build quality on our test car was without fault.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2010 Nissan Altima 3.5 SR is a top choice for family-sedan shoppers who like to drive but don't want to sacrifice the practicality and comfort for which this segment is known. If the Camry's appliancelike ethos isn't for you, Nissan has the antidote.