2011 Nissan Altima- Filling Some Big Shoes

Americans love the word “big”.  We’re a big country with big mountains, big rivers, big portions of food, and big people.  We invented the Big Gulp, Big Mac, Big Lots, Big And Tall, Big KMart, Bob’s Big Boy, and the Notorious B-I-G. If it’s not ridiculously large then it’s not worth wasting time over.

The original Nissan Altima faced this dilemma when it was introduced in 1993.  Its mission was to compete head-to-head with the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, and Ford Taurus of the time.  But it was more compact than its rivals and had tighter interior quarters.  Although it was a competent car, buyers stayed away in droves.  Nissan, not one to be bullied out of the market, rethought its strategy when it redesigned the Altima for 2002.  The car was not only striking in design, but was much larger in almost every dimension.  Sales skyrocketed and the Altima has consistently been one of the 10 best-selling cars in America since then.  Bigger really is sometimes better.

The Altima you see here is the fourth generation introduced in 2007.  It’s an evolution of the 2002 model’s design, but many of the complaints of that version’s build quality were addressed and corrected.  In the coming week, the all-new fifth generation Altima is set to debut at the New York Auto Show.  Nissan has been sketchy with the details so far.

If there were a theme to the current car- it’s just that magic word- “big”.  Compared to the 1993 model- this newer Altima is 10 inches longer and weighs a portly 350 pounds more.  Like many of us as we age, the Altima’s girth has expanded as the years passed by.

The Altima’s primary task in life is to be a family car and many will first notice how commodious the interior is.  There’s an overstuffed feeling to the car.  The seats are…(what’s that word?) big and have a nice, very plump feel to them, almost like that comfy couch at home.  Don’t get me wrong, they’re very supportive and are comfortable for long journeys .  They just feel like they belong in a 1970’s Lincoln.  The same goes for the rear  The bench seat is large, supportive, and can easily accommodate three adults, although some may complain that the bottom seat cushions are a tad too low.  Rear, leg, and head room at more than plentiful front and rear. 

The driver seat has a height adjustment, but I can’t imagine why anyone would set it to the lowest position- even with my 6’5” frame I could barely see over the steering wheel.  Once the seat is readjusted to a loftier setting, the driver cockpit is a pleasant and relaxing place to spend time.  The Altima is one of the few cars that I have to pull my seat further forward to reach the pedals.  There is some big space in this car.

Visibility is excellent all around with large windows, thin roof pillars, and a low cowl.  After driving the claustophob-inducing Malibu a week earlier, the Altima felt liberating.  Mirrors afford a good rear view as well- but do not fold, potentially causing expensive body repairs down the road.

All of the seating surfaces, along with generous portions of the interior door panels, are cloaked in a very tasteful mouse-fur velour that looks durable and feels very nice to the touch.  In an era of cost-cutting, Nissan has been very good at providing quality materials throughout much of its lineup.  The doors, dashboard, and console are covered in a rich looking, soft touch plastic and everything seems well screwed together.  The only complaint is that the monotone black interior can be dreary- aside from the chrome door handles there’s very little to break up the unrelenting bleakness.

Controls are very easy to use- the ventilation controls are operated by two very…..ahem…big dials accompanied by positioning buttons and the radio is simple and logical.  The [big] electroluminescent gauges are clear, crisp in a bright white font that can be read easily day or night.  The steering wheel is grippy and tilts and telescopes.  Overall, the ergonomics are near perfect.  Storage cubbies abound- including rear map pockets, door storage on all four doors, a two-tiered center console compartment, and potentially the most massive glove box I’ve ever encountered.  It’s depth is about the same length as the average adult’s arm reach.  That’s really big and one could lose a small dog in there!

Driving the Altima is also an enjoyable experience.  The 2.5 liter 4-cylinder emits a healthy 175 horsepower and always felt responsive.  The engine is well teamed to Nissan’s Xtronic CVT (Continually Variable Transmission).  The CVT is different from most automatic transmissions in that there’s no shift points and no gears- it is one constant stream of power.  Many manufacturers have yet to master non-intrusive CVTs, but Nissan has been using them for years and has basically perfected it.  No matter if it’s from a standstill, or when trying the climb a grade, throttle response is quick and impressive.  Cruising at highway speeds, the car was typically working at a relaxed 2100 rpm.  Never did the car seem out of breath and its engine performance felt more like a V6.  A V6 is offered on the Altima, adding an extra 95hp, but I feel the four-cylinder will please most drivers and is the more economical purchase.

The four cylinder also returned incredible fuel economy.  During highway cruising I averaged a very admirable 36mpg, but in mixed driving including around the city I averaged an astonishing 34mpg.  These figures would be very good for an economy car, but it is quite a feat for a full-size car.  The CVT is to thank for this.  The Altima has a [big] 20 gallon tank that offers a bladder-busting 600+ mile range.  After over 350 miles of driving around Ohio, I still had over half a tank remaining.  An Altima I rented last year returned comparable results- so this was not a fluke.

Handling is predictable and safe.  The steering feedback feels a little artificial on-center while cruising straight roads, yet it does communicate well in the twisties and the Altima is easy to control through corners.  Nothing thrilling, but it does feel smaller than it dimensions would have you believe and is more sporting than a Camry or a Sonata.  There’s little body roll and the car feels well planted.   Unfortunately, the stock 16” tires may not be up to the task and scream in the slightest of cornering.  The turning circle is small for a large car and parking is a breeze.  The speed sensitive power steering could seem a little too heavy in low speed manuevers for some drivers, but it’s fine during most other driving situations.

It’s not all good news though- the ride did seem a tad harsh.  Most road imperfections were felt and potholes were accompanied with a loud “thump!”  through the suspension.  And although wind noise was pretty well muted, road and tire noise were apparent at highway speeds.

Like the interior, the 15.3 cu. ft. trunk was large and well-shaped.  The liftover is a good height and the opening will allow for larger items. The seats fold down 60/40 easily using releases on the sides of the trunk wall.  Unfortunately, the trunk hinges intrude into cargo space and could crush taller items. 

The 2002 Altima’s styling was a bold departure from its predecessor when it was introduced.  It was quite daring and made all of its competitors suddenly seem dated.  I give the Altima credit for being the first full-size car to add some pizzazz to an otherwise staid market.  Ten years later the car is a common sight now in parking lots across the country and the freshness has worn off.  But the 2007 restyle has kept it looking good and it’s still an attractive car from all angles.  It may not turn heads like it once did, but the appeal is still there.

The base 2.5 model I drove carried an MSRP of $21,330.  Nissan’s selection of features is baffling.  Although the Altima comes standard with some high-tech features like push button start and stability control, features like trunk lid trim and a radio are optional.  That’s right ladies and gentlemen- a radio, any radio, was not standard on this car in 2011 or 2012. 

My Altima had 24k miles on the clock and seemed to be holding up well.  There weren’t any apparent squeaks or rattles.  The only wear was a plastic piece around the shifter that had dislodged itself.

It’s obvious I like the Altima.  Originally I had low expectations for it before driving one last year and then ended up walking away impressed.  It does everything a family car should- it’s roomy, comfortable, fast, and is well priced- and then does some more- returns excellent fuel economy, looks good, and handles well.  It really is the perfect compromise between having a sports car and a large car.  Maybe we’re onto something with this “big” thing.  Overall- 4.5/5.0 boomerangs


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: