Thursday, March 28, 2013

Test Drive: 2013 Nissan Altima S CVT

Update: See how the Nissan Altima did in our 2013 Mid-Size Family Sedan Comparison.

Less than a decade ago, Nissan got a second chance at life. After spending much of the 1990's struggling with some completely mediocre products, French manufacturer Renault swooped in and completely restructured the ailing Japanses automaker. Carlos Ghosn, who became Chariman and CEO, orchestrated a massive turnaround that not only saved Nissan from going the way of the dodo, but actually produced a number of major commercial successes in the form of a reinvigorated Nissan Fairlady Z and a completely revised Infiniti luxury brand.

However, over a decade after the near-death experience, it appears that Nissan has once again resumed some less than healthy habits. The time spent with the 2013 Nissan Altima S summoned up the familiar bile of mediocrity that nearly ruined Nissan before the alliance with Renault. This entry into what is easily one of the most crowded, though important, segments of the automotive marketplace should be a product that Nissan can be proud of, especially as it is likely to represent a large portion of Nissan sales in any given year going forward. Yet, if this is the kind of product that Nissan wants to put forward as being representative of the brand, then perhaps we should pull the plug now and spare ourselves further agony.

From the outside, the new Altima actually looks rather handsome, if somewhat nondescript. It is not likely to stand out in a crowd with its conventional shape simple design touches. Several brand specific design cues, such as the shape of the headlights and taillights as well as the overall swoopy profile are shared with its big brother, the Maxima and are intended to evoke the design
language of the sporty 370Z sport coupe. On whole, the look is inoffensive yet clean. Guaranteed to allow its owner the option of getting lost in the crowd if they so choose.

Open the door though, and the foul odor of decaying credibility drifts up to greet you. One look around and the horrendous materials that appear cheap to the naked eye are enough to bring even a grown man to tears. While other manufacturers have gone out of their way to at least visually hide their use of lower quality materials, Nissan seems to have made the decision to celebrate it. The mouse fur velour covering the seats looks like it came freshly off the back of some poor lab specimens and the plastics carry about as much luster as a polished turd. Honestly, I gagged a little getting into this car.

It is hard to tell from the photo, but the materials really are
some of the worst we have seen in this class.
Of course, if a quality interior is what you are looking for, you would most likely be looking at a Toyota or Honda anyway. You came to Nissan because you expected the thrill of a great driving car that shares some of its DNA with cars like the GT-R and 370Z. Unfortunately, Nissan managed to screw that up as well. If the GT-R is the son who was captain of the football team, then this Altima is the awkward middle child who bears more than a passing resemblance to Steve Urkel. The engine is a 2.5L inline-four that makes 182 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque. By itself, it should be more than adequate to move the rather svelte 3,100 lb. sedan. However, Nissan saw fit to combine this engine with a CVT, and not a very good one at that. This transmission completely and utterly saps the life out of this engine, making it feel as though there is hardly any power. Mash the throttle to the floor and the CVT selects what is supposedly the ideal RPM to deliver the requested thrust, but all you end up with is a whole lot of noise and not much forward progress. To make things worse, the CVT even makes failed attempts at being sporty by imitating a downshift and attempting to utilize engine braking while the car is slowing down. I certainly cannot fault Nissan for trying, but the execution leaves much to be desired.

At this point, you probably think that I am surely exaggerating how bad this car is, but we have not even gotten to the the on road experience because it gets worse. For starters, I suspect that holding a pair of dead fish in my hands would have returned more road feel than to utilize the steering wheel of the Altima. The power steering is so over-boosted on this car that it practically takes no effort at all to move the wheel. While I am sure there are buyers who would appreciate this level of steering assist, I also am sure that I am not one of those buyers. Worst of all, it is not as though the steering is light and communicative, but rather light and completely devoid of nearly any feedback whatsoever. The ride is also terrible, crashing over every bump in the road, sending a loud thud echoing through the cabin. NVH is better managed on most blenders in your kitchen than on this car. Add the wooden brakes to the horrendous ride quality and a cabin that reverberates constantly with the sound of  its buzzy CVT, the Altima is a mixture of fail that no family should be forced into accepting as their only means of transportation. Hell, taking public transportation with the terminally ill and highly contagious might actually be more pleasant.

The one area where the Altima is not lacking is its standard suite of technology, including a large color screen in the instrument cluster, which largely serves little to no purpose aside from being decorative. The car also comes standard with a color display in the center console, remote engine starting, and keyless access and ignition. And as bad as the CVT is, the car does return admirable fuel economy. However, all of this is really moot if the rest of the car is so terrible as to be downright tortuous.

In the end, the Altima feels a lot like Nissan investing in all of the wrong places. Instead of focusing its engineering efforts on making the car drive well and comfortably, they decided that swoopy bodywork and a subtle dash of style is more important. Instead of focusing on making sure that the interior materials look and feel nice, they decided that distracting the people locked inside with fancy color screens would be adequate. In many ways, it is starting to feel like the Nissan of old - the one that nearly went out of business before being rescued by its French ally.

I know that I have been particularly harsh on Nissan of late, but that is because I know that they can produce a fantastic product. In fact, the entire Infiniti line-up is a perfect example of an excellent product that has been developed during the post Renault alliance era. However, all of that brilliance has failed to trickle down into the more pedestrian Nissan brand and has me wondering why? Sure there are a few innovative vehicles like the Nissan Rogue and the 370Z is a solid performance buy, but those are not their volume sellers. Cars like the Sentra and Altima make up such a large portion of Nissan sales that you would think they would want to improve those models the most to make sure they represent the brand well. Alas, I fear that Nissan may spend yet another generation sharing the fate of the old GM and selling a lot of their cars to rental car fleets.