Nissan’s Altima a Strong Mid-Size Player

2013 Nissan Altima.

If you’re in the market for a new mid-size sedan this year, you’re in popular company. While we hear a lot about fun cars, muscle cars and compacts, the clear volume leader inU.S.passenger car sales is the good old four-door.

And, if you are in fact looking for a mid-sizer this year, your timing is pretty good as far as selection goes. An all-new Toyota Camry debuted last fall, as did a redesigned VW Passat. This year, a new Chevy Malibu has already arrived, and later in the year a new Ford Fusion and Honda Accord will each go on sale. Whew!

As of right now, the newest mid-size sedan on the market is the 2013 Nissan Altima, which recently began rolling off the assembly line inSmyrna,Tennessee. And it’s not just a contender, it leads the segment in a number of ways.

First, something many of today’s buyers have been paying greater attention to, the fuel economy numbers. EPA estimates for the base 2.5 liter four cylinder engine are 27 mpg in the city and a somewhat remarkable 38 on the highway. Keep in mind, this isn’t a hybrid or a model that employs trickery to get those numbers. It’s just really fuel efficient.

Part of the credit goes to Nissan’s latest CVT, or continuously variable transmission. The company has been carrying the banner for CVTs for some time, seeing the technology as a big piece of the miles-per-gallon puzzle. Essentially, the CVT is always in the right “gear,” since it doesn’t really have gears, but rather an infinite number of ratios within it.

Paired with the smooth and responsive four cylinder, the high-tech transmission keeps the power going smoothly to the wheels, with never any more engine speed than is necessary. At a 60 mph cruising speed, for example, the Altima’s engine is turning just 1450 rpm, which is just above a fast idle.

While buyers are looking for miles per gallon these days, they’re also looking for comfort. Here too the 2013 Altima delivers, with a new kind of seat that was supposedly developed with an assist from technology used by NASA for space missions. The foam cancels out firm or soft spots depending on the shape of the occupant’s backside, and essentially cradles the human form.

Nissan also went to great lengths to give the interior a more upscale look. Soft-touch materials dominate, compared to more hard plastics on the previous model. It’s also much quieter than previous Altimas, which makes for a more refined driving experience. As an everyday commuter car, the new Altima is hard to beat.

My test car was a mid-level SV trim, one notch above the S model. (There’s also a base model with no additional letter designation, though I suspect that one will primarily see sales to fleets and rental companies.) The top-line trim is SL, which includes more niceties, plus there are S, SV and SL versions of the 3.5 liter V6 model if you want the extra performance.

As for the SV trim (which starts at a pretty reasonable $24,100), it’s actually pretty loaded up. Dual zone automatic climate control, steering wheel buttons for the Bluetooth system, audio system and cruise control, and even a rear-view camera all come standard with its base price. It even includes remote engine starting via the key fob.

Right now, the Altima is the newest game in town, but in a sea of strong contenders for your mid-size car purchase decision. It’s very good, perhaps just a notch above its competition in some areas.

But don’t get too cozy, Nissan. Soon you’ll also be doing battle with a striking new Ford Fusion and a presumably very good 2013 Honda Accord. Let the competition begin. The winners will be the car-buying public in the long run

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave

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