The Nissan Altima Will Make You Disappear

If anonymity is your thing, the Altima is your car.

byJonathan Schultz|
Nissan Reviews photo

Prolechariot is a series about vehicular value. It's about slapping your needs and wants on a wall, grabbing a fistful of darts, cocking your arm back and trying to strike as many of your targets as possible. In other words, it’s about making the second-largest purchase decision most Americans face, and making it right. Prolechariots are cars for the rest of us, and Jonathan Schultz is driving them.

Check your wallet, America. Is there $33,845 in there? Hey, congrats! That will buy 75 Ben Nye professional disguise kits, 6,769 pints of Häagen-Dazs Vanilla ice cream, 35 transcendental meditation courses, or a new car at the nationwide average price. That sum also puts your pants in a generously kitted 2016 Nissan Altima SL, a blank passport disguised as a bestselling midsize sedan. Need a little anonymity in your life? Want to disappear? There may be no better vehicle in which to pull off the trick.

The Altima’s ubiquity doesn’t rouse passions; a Toyota Camry engenders a lot more player-hating. To drive an Altima is to notice, likely for the first time, just how many Altimas are hiding among us in plain sight. Nissan shipped over 28,000 in May, roughly two-thirds the typical monthly volume of the bonkers-dominant Camry. Impressive.

What the numbers don’t tell you, though, is what makes the Altima so appealing. Do buyers aspire to anonymous transport? Do they experience some rush of infatuation, unknowable until paperwork is signed and air freshener is clipped to the dash? What’s so damn special about Altimas that Americans have bought over five million of them in two-plus decades?

We wanted to pose these questions to Chris Rock, who famously pushed an Altima through the early Aughts precisely for the anonymity the car conferred. The A-lister’s gatekeeper wouldn’t let us. Prolechariot got Rock-blocked. Sigh.

Unbowed, we present the five things you need to know about the 2016 Nissan Altima SL.

1. It’s Not a Camry

Prolechariot’s view of the midsize sedan market is a little jaundiced. Blame the jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none thinking that goes into these cars, but at a glance, there’s little to diddle a Prolecharian’s skittle—unless it's the Mazda6.

But Mazda consciously conceded trunk volume, rear legroom, telematics sophistication, and semi-autonomous features to the 6's peers in order to prioritize a stupidly entertaining drive experience instead. Clearly, Prolecharians adore it. Have those decisions relegated the 6 to the sales basement? Not difficult to argue.

The car that most readily embodies the midsize gestalt, of course, is the Camry. Love it or hate it, the Toyota has dominated the passenger-car field for 14 straight years, and in so doing has become the baseline against which all mainstream midsize sedans are measured. The Altima SL, however, seems blithely conceived in a vacuum, where its competitor set doesn’t intrude.

How else to explain the willful pricing of this tested ’16 SL, at $32,115? A comparably equipped Camry is priced in the same range, but again, it’s the incumbent; it just has to continue improving on itself. The Altima, meanwhile, is burdened with the imperative of persuasion. It is not the Camry, the Aristotilean Prolecharian thinks, Therefore, it shouldn’t be priced like one. To wit, Prolechariot just took delivery of a 2017 Kia Optima. Its sunroof stretches to Seoul and back. Its roofline is a dead ringer for the Jaguar XJ's. It’s got Harmon-Kardon audio. And it costs just a skosh over 30 grand. Now that’s how to earn a second look.

Then again, Altima shipments outpaced the Optima’s in May by more than two to one, so don’t listen to us.

2. Black Is the New Black

Our Altima SL was painted Super Black, and people, Nissan isn’t lying by calling it "super." Prolechariot admired this shade on one of its tested Sentra SRs (not pictured), particularly how Nissan’s judicious application of chrome—on door handles, grille, and window surrounds—accentuated the black’s depth.

Offsetting the Altima SL's cold-blooded exterior was a cabin trimmed in credible beige leather. Proper, dead-heifer leather. Huggy seats, generous rear leg- and headroom, unimpeded sightlines fore, aft, and lateral, and an air conditioner that could freeze vodka . . . maybe there’s something to this Altima business after all.

3. Avoid Closer Inspection

Two curious trim pieces reinforce the idea that the Altima SL was conceived in a vacuum. On the glovebox and gear-selector tunnel, rendered in glossy plastic, is a simulated herringbone/palm frond motif that would cheapen the lobby of a Fort Lauderdale retirement home. It’s an inexplicable detail, a chintzy piece of flair for the Altima's lunch shift at Chotchkie's.

With the restyled Maxima sedan, Nissan's interior design squad has shown Infiniti-demolishing chops. There's some handsome boy modeling school work up in there, with rich materials and pleasingly conventional shapes. Don't look for any of the Maxima's good taste in an Altima SL, though, which owes more to a Rogue's or Murano's cartoonish swoops and ellipses.

More beef: At a time when the doors on $18,000 compact sedans close with a Vacu-Seal whoomp, the Altima SL’s shut home with an unseemly hollowness.

4. It’s Stupefying

Driving the Altima SL is . . . sorry, what were we talking about? Is the car quick? Nimble? Poised? Does its continuously variable transmission vary continuously? These considerations are smothered by the car’s sheer Altima-ness: idiot-proof operation combined with utterly unremarkable execution.

Thinking back to that Sentra SR—hands down the biggest surprise in Prolechariot’s run to date—there was a degree of pluck, of eagerness, of wanting to explode prejudices. The Altima SL seems content to let the world make of it what it will.

Well, Prolechariot thinks the CVT is floaty and thrashy, not unlike what you'd experience from a rental-lot Versa. Ride damping exhibits none of the collected, tarmac-taming poise of last week’s Prolechariot subject, the Hyundai Elantra Limited—a car $5,000 its junior. Steering is inexplicably weighty at low speed. The steering wheel shimmies and twists under the coercion of a lead foot, even though 180 pound-feet is hardly a recipe for torque steer. And where more modestly priced Prolechariots like the Elantra and Chevy Cruze have no trouble keeping the outside world at bay, the Altima SL lets a measure of highway road wash into the otherwise serene cabin.

5. It’s Not There

Some cars are so involving, so demanding of a driver's concentration, that they make the whole world fall away. Driving the Altima SL just makes the Altima SL fall away. It disappears around you until there’s nothing to grasp: not the wheel, not the sunroof, not the multimedia display, not the power-adjustable driver’s seat, not the oh-shit handles. Nothing. Is the Nissan Altima SL even real? The anonymity that Chris Rock appreciated so much about his Alty threatens to consume you whole.

That’s roughly when, sensing traffic ahead, the car's forward-emergency alert engages. You brake hard. Suddenly, the Altima SL feels alive—at the precise moment you’re almost not. It's the biggest thrill the Altima SL will afford you. Hope you liked it.


2016 Nissan Altima SL

PRICE (as tested): $32,115

POWERTRAIN: 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, 182 hp, 180 lb-ft torque; continuously variable transmission; front-wheel drive

MPG: 27 city / 39 highway