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Car review: Nissan loads Altima with style, substance

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You're not going to see Lindsay Lohan crash a 2013 Nissan Altima into the back of a garbage truck. Your 10-year-old won't be hanging a poster of one on his bedroom wall next to a Lamborghini Aventador and Kobe Bryant. The car won't have a heavily scripted cameo in the next "Avengers" movie withRobert Downey Jr.'s character at the wheel.

Mid-size sedans don't get that kind of attention. This Nissan should.

The mid-size segment traditionally has the allure of a used toothbrush with none of the minty residue. Putting function long before form will have that effect on a car. But doing so also makes sense; cars such as the Toyota Camry, Chevrolet Malibu and the previous Nissan Altima are the bestselling cars the companies make. You don't sell 1,000 cars a day by offending the masses.

Yet the 2013 Altima 2.5 SV is so thoroughly conceived and executed, it might be the first time you've lusted over such garden-variety transportation since you took the training wheels off your bicycle. And this time, you don't even need a helmet.

One of the key elements to the new Altima's excellence is its inherent quality. Cars in the mid-size coterie are often an assemblage of compromises to keep costs manageable. Thus, doors sound hollow when you close them; interior panels are stamped out of hard, cheap plastic and an overflow of the world's noises (wind, road, compensatory Harley-Davidsons) seep into the cabin.

None of these problems plagued the Altima. Blindfold friends and take them for a ride in this Nissan and they'd swear you'd robbed an Infiniti dealership. The interior is one of the quietest and best-made in its class. Any button, switch or surface that occupants touch belies the car's economy, while the dashboard layout is clean and intuitive.

My solidly middle-class test car, a $24,880, pre-production Altima 2.5 SV, came standard with niceties like a backup camera, a color digital display in the instrument panel, dual-zone climate control and keyless entry. The most basic Altima 2.5 starts at $22,280, and all of them are put together by American hands in Nissan's plant in Smyrna, Tenn.

The new Altimas also come with NASA-inspired seats designed to reduce driver fatigue. Although Nissan has dubbed them Zero-Gravity seats, you should disavow notions of floating Jell-O or slow-motion back flips; they're still just seats.

But after my week with the car, I came away impressed with them; the chairs manage to squish and support at the same time. Unfortunately, the headrests are oddly positioned and hard as nails (maybe that's where they put the gravity). Interior room is average for this class, though rear headroom is a tad tight.

On the road, swaddled in your space seats and surrounded by the quality interior, the Altima's ride is comfortable but firm. Its predilections err more toward sporty driving than will other cars in this segment. This comes most sharply into focus when you toss the Altima into a turn and come out on the other side smiling rather than cringing.

This is possible largely because of a system on all new Altimas that will lightly feather the brake on the front inside wheel to reduce understeer. A well-balanced suspension design doesn't hurt; neither does shedding 80 pounds compared with the previous model.

Nissan is due kudos for giving the Altima impressive steering feel by way of an electronic-hydraulic power-assisted setup. Although it may be a smidge less fuel-efficient than the full-electric systems dominating many of today's autos, it's a trade-off you will appreciate every time you turn the wheel.

Unfortunately, the Altima does make a concession to fuel efficiency with its gearbox. Like its predecessor, the 2013 Altima comes with a continuously variable transmission. It's the sole detractor from the car's sporty demeanor and the general quietude of the interior.

A CVT, as these transmissions are known, gives a car essentially one gear with infinite ratios. This is instead of the five or six fixed ratios (normal humans call them speeds) on most automatic and manual transmissions. In theory, a CVT always has the engine running at optimum speed (rpm) relative to the vehicle's speed, and thus is more efficient.

But because a CVT is never shifting, it allows the engine to rev higher (and therefore louder) as you're accelerating than would a car with an automatic transmission. So be prepared for more engine noise than you might expect when really pushing the Altima.

This transmission also inhibits the four-cylinder model's sporting proclivities by not offering any manual shifting. A sport mode will mimic shifts for you, but there's no way to have absolute control over this gearbox.

Making amends for this privation is a rosy bouquet of fuel economy. The four-cylinder Altima 2.5 SV I tested is rated at 27 miles per gallon in the city and 38 on the highway. This means only hybrids and diesels beat it for efficiency in this class; it solidly thumps gas-powered competitors such as the Hyundai Sonata, Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. During nearly 300 miles of testing in mostly city conditions, I averaged 25 mpg.

The 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine makes 182 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque. Other than its occasional noisiness, this engine is a good one and will move the car from zero to 60 in 7.4 seconds, according to Motor Trend.

A larger, 3.5-liter V-6 will run you $2,000 to $3,600 more, depending on the model. It's good for 270 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Control freaks rejoice: Altimas with the V-6 have paddle shifters with the CVT.

Finally, Nissan did everyone a favor and covered all this in a new, silky, wind-swept exterior. Previous Altimas were never ugly, but they lacked the sleek, polished look this 2013 model has. The headlights and taillights now wrap around the Altima's corners, and then stretch up the car's sides toward one another. Meanwhile, subtle morsels of chrome on the grille, door handles and trunk lid give the look an upscale air.

2013 Altimas are starting to trickle into dealerships and they should have no trouble selling as well as the previous popular version. This bodes well for Nissan, as it gives the company a strong head start on the all-new and highly anticipated versions of the Honda Accord and Ford Fusion due this fall. In the meantime, the 2013 Altima will have its sights set on toppling the sales-leading Toyota Camry, a task it should have all the right tools to accomplish.

Just don't let Lindsay drive one.

david.undercoffler@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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