2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL road test: A lot more than just a pretty new face

2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL

2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL

As I was cruising around for a week in the all-new, fifth generation 2013 Nissan Altima, I couldn’t help but notice that it attracted more than the usual amount of attention expected from a mid-size family sedan.

No wonder. The sleeker, more modern shape is a welcome change from a design that had begun to look a little long in the tooth. Not only that, but the new car is more aerodynamic, 80 pounds lighter and more rigid than its predecessor.

Of course, design is only one facet of what has been pretty much a ground-up upgrade of the popular Altima.  Improvements include everything from a new rear suspension to a hybrid steering system.

Nissan Altima instruments

Nissan Altima instruments

Before we get into a more detailed discussion of the test car, though, a disclaimer is in order. The top-of-the-line, V-6 powered Nissan Altima SL I drove is not the one the bulk of buyers is expected to purchase.

Instead, most buyers will likely choose the Altima powered by a new 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine that is quicker and more frugal than the one it replaces. It produces 182 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque, and is rated at 27 miles per gallon around town and 38 on the highway.

Much of the credit for the performance in the four-cylinder Altima (and, you will learn, the V-6) must go to a new continuously variable transmission CVT) that features a reduction in friction of up to 40 percent, as well as a lower first gear ratio and a taller gear ratio for highway cruising.

Add to that a base price that starts some $8,000 less than the car I drove and it’s easy to understand the appeal.

But, now let’s back to the test car, most luxurious Nissan Altima available.

Nissan Altima trunk

Nissan Altima cargo space

The 3.5-liter V-6 engine in this sedan, unchanged from the last generation, can generate 270 horsepower and 251 pound-feet of torque. It will return an EPA-estimated 22 mpg in the city and 31 on the open road, and can scoot from a stop to 60 mph in a little over 6 seconds.

Surprisingly, to me at least, I did a bit better, averaging 22 mpg city/32 mpg highway in a week of driving on mostly level suburban and interstate roadways.

One thing that will make the V-6 Altima the choice of buyers willing to spend the extra money is that the smooth engine dispenses its power almost effortlessly. Whisper quiet at cruising speeds, it can unleash a wealth of power whenever it’s needed.

The continuously variable automatic transmission, which selects from a nearly infinite number of gear ratios to optimize fuel mileage and answer the driver’s acceleration demands, is particularly well matched to the V-6 engine.

That’s because the V-6 can provide brisk acceleration without charging into the higher engine speeds, thus minimizing the engine droning while it waits for the CVT to sort through the gear ratios until it decides on the ideal one.