No doubt about it—if you think the roads and parking lots are filling up with tall, view-blocking crossovers and SUVs, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. The four-door mid-size sedan, once the dominant form of family transport, has lost favor. Call it a sedan recession.
Nissan wants no part of that for its fifth-generation Altima—even if the sales surge of its own Murano, Pathfinder, and Rogue crossover SUVs is contributing to the sedan slide. The Altima is still the bestselling product in Nissan’s lineup, and so far this year, it’s just ahead of the Honda Accord for second-place sales honors in that segment (the Toyota Camry remains number one).
The fifth-gen Altima was all-new in 2013, so this update leaves the sedan’s bones largely untouched. The big change is the move to “Energetic Flow” styling, which consists of a more muscular front fascia, Nissan’s “V-motion” grille (which looks like a grille overhanging another grille), and boomerang-shaped headlights and taillights.
The likely theory being that if crossovers are selling like hotcakes, then adding some Murano visuals to the Altima should spur sales of the sedan. It doesn’t stop there: Energetic Flow design is now found on the newly excited surfaces of the smaller and soberer Sentra and on the more expressive and expansive Maxima.
All but the base Altima come with a 5.0-inch touchscreen for infotainment. The system has handy knobs for volume and tuning flanking the screen, plus a few virtual buttons on the display and hard buttons alongside. Even better is the 7.0-inch unit that was in our test car—it comes with the navigation package, which is a $580 option on the mid-level SV and range-topping SL. The larger screen gives easier access to all of the mobile apps available in the NissanConnect system. For those buyers who want the latest in connected tech, the lack of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay is a glaring omission, although Apple users can access their phone’s voice recognition through the vehicle, a function called Siri Eyes Free. Still, with a market bursting with 8.0-, 9.0-, and even 12.0-inch screens, the Altima’s seem small.
Last year’s port-injected, 2.5-liter four-cylinder returns with only minor changes, none affecting its performance. New engine mounts and a larger muffler help minimize engine drone, yet despite great-looking standard dual exhausts on all models, there’s no music coming out of them to quicken the pulse. In our testing, the 182-hp 2.5-liter’s 8.2-second zero-to-60-mph dash came up a bit short compared with the Chevrolet Malibu 1.5 LT (8.0), the Honda Accord Sport (7.6), the Mazda 6 i Touring (7.3), and the Toyota Camry SE (8.0). The 2.5’s mission is fuel economy, which improved to an EPA-estimated 27 mpg city and 39 mpg highway for 2016 thanks in part to aerodynamic tweaks and standard grille shutters. For more performance, Nissan still offers the 270-hp 3.5-liter V-6. Over two weeks of being subjected to our admittedly lead-footed editorial-staff evaluation, we averaged 26 mpg.
The Altima’s continuously variable automatic transmission, a key component to the car’s fuel-economy strategy, isn’t the complete downer these slushboxes once were. Nissan got into the CVT game early, and the Altima’s Xtronic CVT employs the third generation of its D-step Shift Logic, which under most circumstances simulates the gearchanges that happen in a traditional automatic transmission (up to seven “ratios”). There are brief moments when there seems to be little correlation between engine speed and throttle position, but much less droning is experienced than with CVTs of yore. Mostly, engine revs are exactly where they need to be to develop the power for any given road load and/or driving situation, with little or no delay. Drop the hammer from rest at a stoplight and the engine builds revs fairly naturally—it doesn’t just go roaring to redline and stay there until you lift. You’ll have to opt for the sportier Altima SR if you want shift paddles to manually row through the simulated gears.
The 2016 refresh also includes new dampers and rear springs, which provide a pleasing-enough ride quality. Body motions are reasonably well controlled, and the Altima’s electrically assisted power steering is nicely weighted. Nissan has retuned the steering this year for quicker response. Despite relatively smallish 215/55R-17 tires on our SV test car, turn-in was crisp, aided in part by the standard pseudo torque-vectoring system that pulses the brake on the inside front wheel in corners to improve steering response. The Altima tracks true on-center with little need for constant corrections, although there could be a better sense of the steering weighting up in corners.
Within the Altima lineup, think of the SV we tested as the sensible-shoes choice. It comes standard with most of the equipment buyers seem to want, such as aluminum wheels, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a power driver’s seat with power lumbar adjustment, a touchscreen audio system with SiriusXM satellite radio, a backup camera, dual-zone automatic climate control, and remote engine start. It also includes rear cross-traffic alert and blind-spot monitoring, advanced safety features that cost extra or are not even available in some competing mid-size sedans. All the better to spot those increasing numbers of crossovers and SUVs, closing in fast.