2019 Nissan Altima First Drive Review: A Major Leap Forward, With Room for Improvement
Nissan’s got a plan to get the kids out of crossovers, and it starts with an all-wheel-drive sedan.
The 2019 Nissan Altima, By the Numbers
Base Price: $23,750 (S), $25,100 (SR), $27,930 (SV), $29,840 (SL), $31,780 (Platinum)
Powertrain: 2.5-liter DOHC inline-four cylinder engine, optional 2.0-liter turbocharged variable compression inline-four; 188 horsepower/180 pound-feet of torque, 248 horsepower/280 torques; continuously-variable transmission; all-wheel-drive optional with the 2.5-liter.
Fuel Economy (EPA numbers): 28 mpg city, 39 mpg highway with the 2.5-liter; 25 mpg city, 34 mpg highway with the 2.0-liter turbo. Subtract 1 mpg for AWD figures.
Cargo Space: 15.4 cubic feet in the trunk with fold-down rear seats
Quick Take: The Altima picks up some features that truly stand out in the midsize segment, but this probably isn't the driver's car you're looking for.
Let's dispense with the customary hand-wringing about the death of sedans. Nissan certainly has; here at the supposed end of days for four-doors, the company's poured its biggest investment in any new model ever into developing the 2019 Nissan Altima. A nifty variable-compression turbo engine, all-wheel-drive, and an interior that looks like it was styled by someone named Heinrich finally zhuzh things up a bit for the perennial third-place contender. Everything from the sheet metal to the safety tech makes it a bit of a midsize marvel. The new Altima is playing all comers for keeps, and it has a strong game.
But it takes a slightly different approach than the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, both of whom recently underwent their own refreshes that took genuine steps to improve the normally-staid experiences behind the wheel. The Camry comes with an available 301-horsepower V6 engine, while the Accord keeps the manual transmission alive; the Altima, meanwhile, nods at the existence of driving dynamics with a sport-inflected SR model, but by and large this sedan isn't about proving three boxes do driving fun better than two. Rather, it's taking everything that's made Nissan and Infiniti crossovers so popular in this country and using it to give the Altima new life.
The 2019 Altima is incredibly comfortable, quiet, and packed with the company's ProPilot Assist semi-autonomous driving aid. It's larger and more spacious than the old model. It's only the second affordable midsize sedan to offer AWD, after the Ford Fusion (and we all know what's happening to that poor guy), but the first to do so on every single trim level. And the continuously variable transmission, bane of enthusiasts everywhere, actually makes a lot of sense for normal commuters.
At the car's formal debut for journalists in Santa Barbara, California, Nissan's marketing people made a lot of noise not about the death of the sedan, but its rebirth. The way they see it—and apparently they've got the focus group data to back it up—kids these days are starting to associate crossovers with their parents. No one wants what their folks drove—that's what killed the wagon, then the minivan—and apparently sedans are becoming the chariots of choice for Generation...whatever we're calling 18-year-olds these days. Can the Altima turn that statistical ripple into a growing sales wave?
Altima Gets a Fresh Face and a Clean Cabin
I'll say this—the new Nissan hits all the right notes visually. It's probably the best interpretation of the brand's "Energetic Flow" design language, and parked next to the outlandish stylings of the new Accord and Camry, it's got the most sophisticated look of the three. The Altima is about an inch lower, wider, and longer than the outgoing version, so it certainly makes no compunctions about not being a crossover. Much of its appearance was previewed in Nissan's VMotion 2.0 concept in early 2017—the V-Motion grille, the more aggressive stance, and the overall shape have all been realized with a welcome dash of restraint.
Things look even better when you move inside, where a wheelbase that's been extended by almost two inches creates a larger passenger cabin. Yes, it all looks like it might have been penned by a certain Bavarian automaker ("Hey, whatever it takes," a smiling Nissan spokesman told our Lawrence Ulrich about the similarity earlier this year), but there's no shame in aping BMW's modern, hexagonal motif to great effect. The squishy "Zero Gravity" front seats make a comfortable return, while the back row folds down in a 60/40 split. The whole package is cleaner; "sensible quality" may the operating term here.
In keeping with the times, though, there's a lot of fancy tech available underneath that minimalist skin. Every Altima will come standard with an 8.0-inch, Apple CarPlay- and Android Auto-compatible touchscreen infotainment system, as well as a 7.0-inch driver's display in the gauge cluster. And props to Nissan for stripping the infotainment OS down to its basics with a system that's intuitive, fleet-of-foot, and easy to customize. In particular, sound geeks will appreciate the easy access to the equalizer for the optional Bose premium stereo, which is brought up with a single press of the tuning knob. Then there's the standard quartet of USB connections, two of which are future-proof USB-C ports.
Most buyers will undoubtedly covet the advanced suite of driver aids and active safety features Nissan now throws in standard on the top three trims (SV, SL, and Platinum). ProPilot Assist is a solid hands-on system that combines adaptive cruise control and active lane keep assist to do a lot of the heavy lifting on the highway. It's more advanced than anything else at this price point in the midsize segment. Things like blind spot monitoring, adaptive high beams, and rear cross traffic alert fade away as you move down to the base S model, but even that still comes with forward automatic emergency braking. Nissan's also making a limited-production "Edition One" model that comes with some fancier visual touches, all the interior bells and whistles, plus a full concierge service enabling you to order whatever your heart desires that can be called up through the infotainment system. (You'll still have to pay for any items you buy through the setup, though, so don't go too crazy.)
V-CT, CVT, and AWD, Oh My
There are two big changes to the powertrain—the company's fancy 2.0-liter variable-compression turbo-four engine and the interesting addition of all-wheel drive. (For reasons that escape us, the former can't be equipped with the latter, which seems a strange oversight.) The engine is a truly impressive piece of technology, able to adjust compression ratios between 8:1 and 14:1 on the fly to deliver peak performance, efficiency, or anything in between depending on the demands being made by your right foot. In practice, it's impossible to divine all the mechanical magic happening underneath the hood.
It's a smooth ride, and also an expensive one: the engine is only available as a $4,050 option on the SR trim and a $3,000 upgrade to the top-level Platinum model. With 248 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque, its numbers come in below the V6 it's replacing, but it's far more punchy through the rev range, and does a better job of making you forget it's attached to a CVT. It's also more economical, coming it at 25 miles per gallon in the city and 34 on the highway. The base engine is a 2.5-liter turbo-less four cylinder that makes 188 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque. It's not nearly as exciting, but it's perfectly adequate and delivers even better mileage at 28 city/39 highway.
The all-wheel-drive system, borrowed from the company's crossovers, is capable of sending up to 50 percent of power to the real wheels and uses a brake-based limited-slip function maximize traction in tricky conditions. Crucially, AWD is available on every trim level—which undoubtedly will help the new Altima steal at least a few northern buyers away from Accord and Camry. (I still wish it was available with the better engine.)
That aforementioned SR trim is Nissan's nod to the driver in all of us, a sport-ish model that features stiffer springs, retuned steering, and 19-inch wheels. It's also the only one in the lineup to offer any sort of manual shift control at all over that doggone CVT, with eight ersatz ratios on tap from a set of steering wheel paddles. But every Altima benefits from the usual roundup of stiffer materials and suspension upgrades that come with an extensive redesign like this.
Driving the 2019 Nissan Altima
I had seat time in a Platinum model with the 2.0-liter VC-T engine, and an SR with the 2.5-liter free breather. Neither had all-wheel-drive, unfortunately—a fact driven home when we screeched the front tires from a stop in the turbo car. The engine is a great time—maybe the best companion for a CVT I've experienced yet. But in that time, I was confronted with another truth: the new rack-assisted electronic power steering is far too light and twitchy to make the car fun through a curve. It was almost easier to one-hand it on a canyon road; two paws on the wheel seemed to deliver twice the input for every tiny move.
The number of corner-carving Altima drivers out there can likely be counted on one hand, so that probably won't matter in the end. And the rest of the car is great, with the Platinum model's quiet cabin and and compliant suspension living up to the expectations of its mid-$30,000 price range. The SR model did feel a little more engaging, with a heavier wheel (though still numb) and sharper turn-in. Its sportier suspension provides a firmer, more confident ride, but it still doesn't quite verge on exciting. That base engine definitely feels out of place in something masquerading as a driver's car, though. It's not quite overworked, but there's no real spark.
Ultimately, the 2019 Nissan Altima is a mixed bag. There are definitely pieces here that will define the segment going forward: all-wheel-drive, a cleaner design, a genuinely fun turbocharged four-cylinder engine, and more safety features than you can shake a CVT's gearstick at. As companies continue to scrap for a dwindling group of sedan customers, the new Altima brings some key advantages to the fight. What we're not convinced with is whether it's also well-suited to complete Nissan's stated mission of in luring the next generation of sedan buyers, especially if its supposed to do so with an exciting time behind the wheel. Are these (alleged) three-box-loving kids simply repelled by the visual of a crossover, and not its inherent squashiness? It's possible. But if they're actually looking to live the punk rock life and not just buy the T-shirt, the Altima probably won't cut it as a driver's car.
Still, it sure beats another CUV. Vive la révolution!