2013 Nissan Altima 2.5 SL first drive review: From nice to nifty

2013 Nissan Altima 2.5 SLThe 2013 Nissan Altima sedan isn’t a nice car, at least not like its predecessor. We said, in our review of the 2012 Nissan Altima sedan, that it was a nice car, but we were hardly damning it with faint praise. The 2012 Altima, the best-selling car in the Nissan lineup, was ranked number two in U.S. sales in 2011 calendar year. The 2013 Nissan Altima goes beyond nice, however, to-nice-with-extra-spice, not to mention features not available on even much more expensive cars.

For example? The 2013 Nissan Altima with the reversing camera has not only a squirter that, using washer fluid from the windshield washer reservoir, hoses off the rearview camera, but also a blower to dry it off. That’s an industry first.

2013 Nissan Altima 2.5 SLParlor tricks aside, the 2013 Nissan Altima, new from the ground up, takes a great leap forward in everything from styling to chassis and suspension, and to overall quality and quiet operation.

Start with design. The 2013 Altima won’t be confused with its predecessor, which compared to its recently updated competition had become fairly bland. The new Altima’s face is more pronounced with bigger headlight clusters, wider wheel flares with a wider stance,  along with a Coke-bottle shoulder line and a fashionably tapered roofline with a trunklid with—and Nissan engineers are particularly proud of this—“the deepest draw trunk in Nissan history.” Translation: The curvature of the trunklid, forming a spoiler effect, is greater than any other Nissan model, event the Z-cars.

The chassis is stronger and lighter than the previous Altima, with stiffer rear suspension components and new special bushings for a for more accurate rear suspension location which results in better handling and a more stable ride.

Nissan has also made “active understeer control” standard equipment on all 2013 Altima trim levels. Instead of reacting to an imminent loss of control, as stability control does, active understeer control is designed to intercede before the car gets to that point, braking the inside front wheel when the car is being cornered vigorously. Front-drive cars are notorious for understeer—pushing the front tires and wanting to go straight in corners—and active understeer helps reduce that. The Altima feels stable in corners…but the system can’t be felt working, which is exactly what Nissan wants.

Nissan has gone overboard with the noise insulation and damping with the new Altima, with substantially more sound damping material than its competitors. It’s overboard, of course, until one rides in the new Altima. It’s noticeably quiet for its class, which is easy to say but in the case of the 2013 Altima, it’s also true.

All 2013 Nissan Altima sedans will have an automatic transmission, and for Nissan, that means a continuously variable transmission. The CVT has not been universally popular, traditionalists complaining about a rubber bandy or motorboaty connection between engine and wheels. The Altima introduces a new Nissan CVT, however, that by component count is 70 percent new. Nissan claims a 40 percent reduction in friction for better gas mileage, and a wider gear ratio, with a lower low for a quicker start and a taller high ratio for lower engine speed when cruising at speed for improved highway fuel consumption.