2019 Nissan Altima Review: All-Wheel-Drive, ProPilot Assist Revive a Sedan

New technologies make the 2019 Nissan Altima midsize sedan a serious challenger to the long-time sales dominance of the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. The technology includes optional all-wheel-drive, an available variable-compression engine that adjusts for performance or high-mpg driving, a suite of driver and safety assists called Safety Shield 360, and Pro Pilot Assist, a slick Level 2 semi-autonomous driver assist system.

The new 2019 Altima is a very good car and deserves wider availability of its driver and safety assists. But half the Altimas on a dealer lot will have just part of the new safety tech. In comparison, on the newest Honda to ship, virtually every car has the full safety and driver assist package. Nissan is in a risky position if Altima shoppers rate safety as a key buying criterion.

The Nissan VC-Turbo changes its compression ratio through a multi-link system, continuously raising or lowering the pistons’ reach to change the compression ratio from 14:1 to 8:1. A high compression ratio gives greater efficiency (but you risk premature combustion or engine knock). A low compression ratio allows for more power at the expense of fuel economy. (Photo: Nissan; main photo: Bill Howard)

A Dazzling Array of Technology: Variable Compression Engine

The newest generation of both the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord debuted in 2017 as 2018 models. The Accord won multiple awards, including the North American Car of the Year and ExtremeTech Car of Year. The Camry is the best-selling sedan of any size in recent years. The Altima arrives this month with technology that’s a year newer and better. Nissan says the Altima represents the “most extensive platform change in over two decades,” the highest investment ever for a powertrain, and the first time a model gets two new engines.

Nissan variable-compression, VC-Turbo, engine. (Photo: Nissan)

Most impressively, the Altima offers a premium 248-hp, 2.5-liter turbo engine with variable compression. The engine can change compression ratios on the fly: high-compression for max fuel economy, low compression for max power. Maximum torque, 280 pound-feet, comes on at a super-low 1600 rpm. It replaces the Altima’s old 270-hp 3.5-liter V6 engine, allowing for a more compact engine bay. This is a big step up from engines with variable valve timing. Nissan already offers VC engines within its premium Infiniti brand.

The base engine is a 188-hp 2.5-liter liter four with direct (into the cylinders) fuel injection, no turbocharging. Nissan says it’s all-new as well and has 9 more horsepower. Both use Nissan’s conventional variable transmissions. The haters gonna hate, but for many, this CVT will function just like an automatic with fixed gear ratios. [Are you calling me a hater? -Ed.]

Nissan offers all-wheel-drive or front-drive on the simpler engine, while the VC-turbo is front-drive only. Nissan says AWD will come to the signature engine if there’s demand. AWD will be a key selling point in snow country. Toyota and Honda are front-drive only, as is the No. 5 midsize sedan, the Chevrolet Malibu. The No. 4 Ford Fusion offers all-wheel drive, but Ford is killing the Fusion circa 2020 to concentrate on crossovers.  Nissan rates the base engine at 28 mpg city, 39 mpg highway, 32 mpg combined, 1 mpg higher than the previous. The AWD engine is rated 26/36/30. The VC-turbo is rated at 25/34/29 versus 22/32/26 for the V6. That’s better than most competitors with V6 engines or turbo fours, but it carries an upcharge of $ 3,000-$ 4,500. In a day driving the VC-turbo, I couldn’t quite match the EPA ratings, but press drive mileage often comes in below the EPA measurement.

Nissan Safety Shield is on upper trim lines. (Graphic: Nissan)

ProPilot Assist Plus Safety Shield 360

Base safety across all trim lines includes automatic emergency braking, a rear door alert that holds the door shut if you try to open it while traffic approaches on the street side, and a driver-alert monitor that Nissan calls Intelligent Driver Alert. There’s also a rear camera, now required on all cars.

The Altima gets really interesting starting with Altima SV, the third trim line up. There you get semi-autonomous driving, ProPilot Assist, and Nissan’s Safety Shield 360 (graphic above). ProPilot Assist combines adaptive cruise control and lane centering assist to guide your driving on the highway. With well-marked lanes and no heavy rain (0r snow) that forces you to raise the wipers beyond the low setting, it drives for you as long as you keep your hands lightly on the wheel; if your hands are off for more than 5-10 seconds, you’ll get an alert and then ProPilot Assist hands control back to you. When I first drove ProPilot Assist two years ago, it had a tendency to follow highway exits unless you overrode the steering. That’s no longer the case. If you have reasonable expectations, PPA is amazing. And a great tool for long-distance driving.

Nissan’s Zero Gravity seats are as comfortable as it gets in the midsize class. The interior has been dressed up, especially on higher trim lines. (Photo: Nissan)

Nissan Altima on the Road

The turbo-four in the Altima Platinum was powerful enough for a family sedan, with lots of torque (power) at low rpm. It shares one common trait with the now-departed V6: That’s a lot of power for just the front wheels to handle if you tromp the throttle. Do so and you’ll get to 60 mph in just over 6 seconds.  It drives quieter and more smoothly than the first generations of Altima.

A brief drive in the Altima SR at the press intro in Santa Barbara gave a ride that was definitely sporty. With its stiffer springs and shocks, the ride is firmer than other Altima, so make sure your partner or spouse rides in or drives the car, too, especially over bumpy pavement.

The Zero Gravity seats are especially comfortable. Nissan says the side bolsters are raised and more supportive but it’s not that noticeable, and certainly not so people of girth will feel squeezed.

Compared with the outgoing model, Nissan made the new Altima an inch longer (now 193 inches) and wider, with a wheelbase two inches longer, and an inch lower. The engines were designed with height in mind so the hood and cowl could be lowered for better visibility and for a swoopier style.

The Altima center stack display moves to the top of the dash and increases from 7 to 8 inches diagonal. (Photo: Nissan)

Bigger Display, More USB Jacks

The center stack display is now 8.0 inches diagonal and Nissan includes knobs and buttons to make infotainment easier to manipulate. You get three years of free map updates. Bluetooth works better, Nissan says, and audio and navigation boot faster. The homes screen can be customized. Both the front and rear have both a traditional Type-A USB and a USB-C jack, four total in the car.

The Bose audio on upper trims is very good without weighing down the final price. Onboard telematics, Nissan Connect, is also offered. Amazon and Google worked deals so NissanConnect services can accept Amazon Alexa Skill and Google Assistant Action commands. Compatible phones and watches, through Nissan Connect, can issue commands such as remote start/stop, door lock/unlock, and valet alert.

Nissan Altima has been a solid third in recent years among midsize sedans. From their peak, 2017 Altima sales were down 24% in 2017, Accord down 17%, Camry down 18%. Nissan says sedan sales will bounce back because Gen Z, born mid-1990s to early 2000s, won’t buy their parents’ rides: SUVs.

Nissan Says Sedans Will Be Hot With Youthful Buyers

Nissan moved its US headquarters California to Tennessee in 2006 because it’s business-friendly. You might think Tennessee is cannabis-friendly, too, when you hear Nissan execs say sedan sales are due to move up. Conventional wisdom and sales stats say sedan sales are tanking. They’re down to 35 percent of US sales (the rest SUVs, pickups and the occasional minivan), and you can see a clear trend in the chart above.

Gen Z, those born since the mid-1990s and now entering adulthood or college, have a significant preference for sedans, Nissan says.

But hear Nissan out: Children often grow up with interests the opposite of what mom and dad appreciated. The last of Generation X, those born in the late 1960s through early 1980s, plus Generation Y, born mid-1980s to mid-1990s, were branded for life by the experience of growing up in minivans and (less embarrassingly) SUVs. Thus Generation Z, those now in their 20s or in college — this year’s college freshmen constitute the first class mostly born after 1/1/2000 — show a 44 percent intention rate to buy a sedan versus 29 percent to buy a two- or three-row SUV. Gen Y in comparison shows a 30 percent intention rate to buy a sedan versus 45 percent to buy an SUV.

If Nissan’s data is right, the Altima has Nissan well-positioned. If not, there’s plan B.  Nissan Rogue compact SUV, whose sales were dwarfed by Altima a decade ago, last year outsold the Altima by almost 60 percent: 403,465 to 254,996. But where Altima is the third-best-selling midsize sedan, Rogue is the second-best-selling SUV of any size, behind only Toyota RAV4, and the fifth-best-selling vehicle of any kind.

The 2019 Nissan Altima is an attractive car and the only major midsize sedan offering all-wheel drive other than Ford Fusion (soon to die) and Subaru Legacy (a brand more adept at selling SUVs). But it won’t be easy to outsell the reigning car of the year (Accord) or a brand known for reliability and marketing funds earmarked to match or beat competing deals (Camry). (Photo: Bill Howard)

Should You Buy an Altima?

If you’re interested, there are six 2019 Altima trim lines (model variants). The base Altima S gives Nissan a list price under $ 24,000, actually $ 24,645 with the $ 895 shipping charge you can’t reject. It includes both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as well as Bluetooth, drowsy driver alert, and a 7-inch multi-information LCD within the instrument panel; Nissan calls it the Advanced Drive Assist Display.

The Altima SR is the sporty model and Nissan says it may be the best-selling trim line at $ 25,995 for the base four, $ 1,350 more ($ 27,345) for all-wheel-drive, or $ 4,050 more ($ 30,045) for the VC-Turbo and front drive. It has blind spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert (but not rear braking), and LED headlamps. These two are almost half of sales, Nissan says.

The Altima SV, $ 28,825, is where you get ProPilot Assist, rear automatic braking, automatic high beams, rear HVAC vents, heated front seats and steering wheel, and 17-inch alloys. The Altima SL, $ 32,085, adds leather, Bose premium audio, navigation with extra services, three years of map updates free, and traffic sign recognition. The Platinum jumps up to the 19-inch alloys and adds the surround view cameras (Intelligent Around View Monitor), and cockpit accent lighting. It’s $ 32,675 with the non-turbo engine and front drive, $ 34,045 with AWD, and $ 36,675 with VC-Turbo and front drive. At this point, you’re at the same price level as Nissan’s upscale midsize sedan, the Nissan Maxima.

19-inch alloy wheel on Altima Edition One. (Photo: Nissan)

There’s a limited-run, 3,900-car Altima Edition One, $ 36,645, effectively VC-Turbo Platinums with three paint choices, extra badging, a spoiler, ground lighting, and three years of concierge services.

Nissan has built almost six million Altimas and still, it’s chasing Toyota and Honda. If you live in snow country, the all-wheel-drive Altima is your best choice among these three. Period. AWD plus winter tires are fabulous. Comparing front-drive models, Honda Accord has a lot going for it. There are good reasons why the Accord is Car of the Year. The Toyota Camry is also highly competent.

The sweet spot of the Altima line is the SV, where you get the full force of Nissan’s safety skills. The sporty SR should sell well but make sure everyone in the family old enough to comment on ride quality once you own a car goes to the test drive. The ride is not Nissan GT-R stiff, but it is notably firmer than other Altimas.

Nissan’s biggest challenge, in our opinion, can be repaired with the stroke of a marketer’s pen: Make the core of drive/safety assists standard across the board to match and raise Honda. If you go to a Nissan dealer, you have a 50-50 chance the Altima you settle on does not have Nissan’s fullest array of assists. The S has nothing special beyond the drowsy driver alert. The SR has blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert. The Altima SV then bypasses good and goes straight to fabulous with ProPilot Assist, which effectively incorporates adaptive cruise control and lane centering assist. You still must go one step higher to get surround view cameras, which are partly safety and partly cost saving (never scrape your car again while parking).

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