A new SR model brings some driving fun back to the 2016 Nissan Altima, while preserving its mainstream family-sedan appeal.
The Nissan Altima has been many things over the years. It began as a compact with upscale pretensions, evolved into a mid-size family sedan with athletic handling and avant-garde styling, then settled into a reputation for outstanding fuel economy and a serene, comfortable cabin. In the process, it became one of the best-selling cars in its class—and for good reason—but we've missed some of the friskiness that went missing during its last full redesign, for 2013.
With a heavy update for the 2016 model year, however, and the addition of a sporty SR model, the Altima's performance-oriented credibility may be making a low-key comeback.
Revised styling for 2016 more closely aligns the Altima's front and rear fascias with the design language we've seen on the new Maxima sedan (with which it shares running gear) and the Murano crossover. Notable changes include a V-shaped grille, re-sculpted fenders, and the availability of LED headlights. In profile, though, the latest Altima's sheetmetal will look familiar. The cabin has also been refreshed in the spirit of the high-fashion Maxima and Murano with a dashboard that looks less conservative than in did from 2013 to 2015.
Nissan still offers a pair of engines for the Altima. The base 2.5-liter 4-cylinder makes 182 horsepower, and mated to a continuously variable transmission (CVT), is tuned for maximum efficiency. Its EPA city rating continues at 27 mpg, but highway mileage gets a single-mpg bump to 39. This means an Altima with the 2.5-liter engine is as frugal as some hybrids. Top-spec Altimas have a quick-footed 3.5-liter V-6 that generates 270 hp and 258 pound-feet of torque. The larger six isn't nearly as economical as the four, but still manages EPA ratings of 22/32/26 mpg. Six-cylinder cars also use the CVT—there's no escaping it in the Altima's universe—but they get standard paddle shifters with a manual mode that mimics the gear ratios of a conventional automatic transmission.
Nissan credits the fuel-economy gains to a set of aero add-ons, like an active grille shutter, smoothed underbody covers, and the reshaped front and rear ends. For better response, the CVT gets better programming, for quicker transitions and acceleration from lower speeds.
Electrohydraulic steering has new programming for what Nissan claims is better steering feel and response. During our initial drive of a pre-production SR, though, steering felt too light under any circumstance—it necessitated nearly constant correction at highway speeds, and lacked on-center feel even when cruising down boulevards at 45 mph. This may be the fault of a tire design chosen for optimal fuel efficiency.
The SR's performance is otherwise impressive. Our test car had the smaller 2.5-liter engine, but felt much more eager than its sub-200-horsepower rating would suggest. The CVT still isn't a conventional automatic or dual-clutch, but it's gotten nearly as good, and does an excellent job of wringing power from the engine, especially in sport mode.
The Altima rides on an independent suspension, with Sachs shocks for better ride control and a more luxurious feel. For better handling, Nissan has swapped out its shocks, springs, and bushings, and offers new tires on all models. The Altima SR—which can be specified with either the four- or six-cylinder engine—gets thicker stabilizer bars and stiffer dampers. The SR we drove handled with authority in the everyday situations encountered by the typical driver of a mid-size family sedan—feeling nicely planted in the swift curves of a freeway on-ramp, or when entering and exiting a tight right turn at a traffic light. The SR is a family car that feels like a near-sport sedan.
With its retuned suspension and revised electro-hydraulic steering, the 2016 Altima SL we drove was smooth, quiet and comfortable. It's a pleasant car for commuting, especially on rough highways. While the first-generation Altima was sporty, it rode hard and was rough around the edges. Conversely, the 2016 Altima is relatively refined, tuned for easy cruising. There is nothing sporty or entertaining about it. It's more about comfort, competence and convenience.
The Altima remains a five-seater, riding on the same 109.3-inch wheelbase it has for many model years, and it's 191.5 inches long in all. This isn't a problem since the Altima was already big enough for most families. Nissan's spent quality time on the seats, and it's paid off in very comfortable chairs that hold up for hours on end, at least for the front-seat passengers. On base models, the front seats are adjustable six ways for the driver, four for the passenger. A power driver seat and heated front seats are optional. The rear seats are split 60/40 and fold down to expand access to the trunk. This year, Nissan has added acoustic glass and more sound deadening to quiet the cabin.
Safety is just as important as fuel economy when choosing a family car, and Nissan offers all the advanced features currently offered by suppliers. These include: forward-collision warnings with automatic braking; a rearview camera; blind-spot monitors; and lane-departure warning systems. The IIHS has given the Altima its Top Safety Pick+ accolade (with top scores in all categories), while the NHTSA has given it five stars overall for crash-test performance.
Finally, on the infotainment front, the Altima catches up to the competition with new bundles of features connected to audio and Bluetooth, which now comes standard on the sedan, as does audio streaming and incoming text-to-voice translation, along with a CD player, an auxiliary jack, and a 5.0-inch color audio display. The Altima's infotainment system also permits streaming from Pandora, and accepts mapping information from Google Maps, too. A central display in the instrument cluster brings together all this information for the driver to monitor while on the road. All but the base model now come with Siri Eyes Free, which offers voice control for Apple devices. A larger 7.0-inch color touchscreen comes on pricier models, along with navigation and real-time traffic data.
Other available features include automatic headlights; LED taillights; heated rearview side mirrors; a USB port; Bose audio; satellite radio; navigation; dual-zone climate control; keyless ignition; remote start; a wide-view rearview camera; and a glass sunroof.
The Nissan Altima's frugal 4-cylinder powertrain delivers 27 mpg city, 39 highway, 31 combined, according to the EPA. On the sporty SR model, however, it drops to 26/37/30 mpg. With the V-6 and CVT, the Altima is rated at 22/32/26 mpg.