2012 Nissan Altima Driving Impressions

In a class characterized by vanilla, the Altima adds a bit more flavor. With tauter suspension tuning than the norm, the Altima is fun to drive, a trait that is aided by a strong engine lineup.

In the grand scheme, Honda's Accords are a bit better balanced than the Altimas, with an outstanding mix of ride quality, good handling and smoothness. Toyota's Camry sedan is even more refined and more comfortable, but far less responsive. Nissan has managed to give the Altima an edge in performance and driving feel that might please car enthusiasts.

The 3.5-liter V6 is the preferred engine for drivers who measure a car's desirability by how quickly it gets away from a stoplight, or how readily it might attract the attention of cars with flashing red lights. The V6 makes a potent 270 horsepower, and it's a very close relative of the 3.7-liter V6 in the Nissan 370Z sports car. There's more than enough scoot here, and it's awesome for passing. If you get it up to its 6600 rpm redline, you're probably having a blast. The V6 also delivers 258 pound-feet of torque, which is very useful with the CVT automatic transmission.

The four-cylinder engine is the more prudent choice, given the reality check of today's gas prices. The Altima's four-cylinder engine delivers competent performance, so there's less reason to pay more now at the dealer and more later at the gas pump. The Altima 2.5 S models we drove had plenty of power, from our perspective. Modern and refined for a large four-cylinder, Nissan's 2.5-liter engine delivers 175 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque.

Of the two transmissions, the six-speed manual, available only with the Coupe, is the choice for fun driving. This manual is relaxed and manageable, but offers sharp, precise gear selection and tight shift patterns.

The CVT, or continuously variable transmission, works like an automatic and is intended to improve fuel mileage compared to a conventional, stepped-gear automatic. Regardless, EPA ratings only barely surpass those of Altima coupes with the manual transmission: 23/31 mpg City/Highway with the four-cylinder and manual, and 23/32 with the four-cylinder and CVT. The V6/CVT combination is rated at 20/27 mpg vs.18/27 for a V6 manual. Either way, the V6 requires premium fuel.

The sophisticated electronic system that manages the CVT attempts to keep the engine turning at an optimum speed that balances power output, fuel economy, and emissions. In doing so, the transmission can make the engine sound a bit noisy, or just funny, particularly with the four-cylinder. In full automatic mode, the CVT can seem lazy and ill at ease, leaving the engine wandering about its power curves and often sounding as if it's straining, even if it isn't – and most of the time it isn't.

For enthusiast driving, we found the CVT works better when it's shifted manually, changing its ratios in steps like a conventional transmission. Using the shift lever, this transmission responds quickly and consistently to the driver's commands. When we used it in the real world, shifting the Altima like a 370Z on the road from the Golden Gate Bridge northward to Stinson Beach, the CVT was beautiful. Downshifting to slow down worked well, complementing the brakes when rushing toward those downhill curves.

In general, the Altimas have a distinct fun-to-drive character. The chassis feels tight, and there is a minimum of noise and vibration passed on to the occupants. Powertrain sounds aren't intrusive, except for some roaming whine as the CVT wanders through its infinite ratios or during sustained hard acceleration. There's little wind noise, though thump from the tires may keep Altima occupants well informed of pavement quality.

The suspension delivers responsive handling. There's little or no swaying in switchback turns, so the steering stays true. Yet it isn't harsh over jagged parts of the road, and it takes some good punches from potholes without flinching. The tuning makes it more communicative than the norm, and some drivers may find that extra feedback to be distracting or read it as harshness.

Steering is respectably responsive in all Altimas, if not especially crisp, with competent turn-in and feedback through the steering wheel. Torque steer (a tendency for the steering wheel to tug side-to-side under hard acceleration) is well managed in all models, and that's saying something with the 270-hp V6.

The Altima Coupe drives like a well-tuned front-wheel-drive car. Like the Sedan, it has a major front-end weight bias, ranging from 60/40 front/rear in the four-cylinder manual to 63/37 front/rear in the V6 CVT. But its well-tuned tuned suspension does a good job of compensating. Coupe buyers shouldn't expect pure sports car handling, though. When pushed, the Coupe's dominant characteristic is nice, safe understeer (where the car wants to go straight instead of turning), which intuitively encourages the driver to ease up on the gas pedal.

The brakes are vented discs in front and solid discs in the rear. All Altimas come with four-channel, four-sensor ABS with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), which optimizes the front/rear brake balance depending on load condition (passengers and cargo). A variable-ratio-pivot brake pedal provides a rigid feel at freeway speeds and less sensitive, more controllable operation in city driving.

When fuel economy is the priority, the Altima Hybrid Sedan is the choice. Just remember that it will take years and years of driving to make up the $4,000-$6,000 price premium in reduced gasoline costs compared to a conventional four-cylinder Altima. The Hybrid is EPA-rated at 35/33 mpg.

The Hybrid uses a somewhat de-tuned version of the 2.5-liter four-cylinder, rated at 158 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque at 2800-4800 rpm. Mounted in tandem, its AC synchronous motor-generator can produce up to 40 horsepower and 199 pound-feet, both at 0-1500 rpm. Potentially, that totals a substantial 198 horsepower and 261 pound-feet of torque.

Such high torque at low rpm allows the Altima Hybrid to start from a dead stop using only the electric motor to accelerate. So, precisely where a conventional internal combustion vehicle is operating at minimal efficiency, the Altima Hybrid isn't using any gasoline at all. After the electric motor provides initial acceleration, the gasoline engine quietly starts and shoulders most of the load. Eventually the electric motor shuts off, and the gasoline engine does what it does best, which is constant-speed cruising. Then, when required, the electric motor restarts to give the gas engine some help in, say, a passing situation. It all works seamlessly, though it takes a fairly light foot on the accelerator to maximize the Altima Hybrid's operation in electric mode. Drivers who routinely mash that gas in most circumstances aren't likely to see the maximum improvement in mileage.

In the Hybrid, the CVT works with the master control system to determine which power source or combination of power sources will turn the wheels. The Hybrid uses regenerative braking to recharge its 245-volt nickel-metal hydride battery, turning the electric motor into a generator as the car slows down. You never have to plug it in.

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