The new No. 1? That's how Nissan sees the 2013 Altima sedan that it's building here and, soon, at Canton, Miss.
The freshened model is meant to push Altima from second-best-selling car in the U.S., to first — displacing the Toyota Camry.
To accomplish that, Nissan says it benchmarked the new Altima in its development against luxury cars such as Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Altima's not meant to compete with those premium German cars, but Nissan wanted to see how close it could bring a mainstream family car to their quiet, crisp, classy personalities.
The 2013 Altima sits on a chassis similar to the 2012, for instance, and the drivetrains carry over — albeit with updates to the base four-cylinder that add seven horsepower and, along with changes to the CVT (continuously variable-ratio automatic transmission), increase fuel mileage.
About 70% of the CVT's parts are new and friction is cut, accounting for 40% of the mileage boost, Nissan says. The 2013 four is rated 27 mpg in the city, 38 highway and 31 combined, up from 23/32/27. Power is unchanged for the V-6, but mileage rating now is 22/31/25, up from 20/27/23.
Miles on Tennessee back roads and suburban boulevards in two V-6 models, plus about 660 highway miles and some suburban zipping in a four-cylinder model, leave this impression of the new Altima: terrific — except for wonky steering and base-model seats with cheap-looking cloth upholstery and no lumbar adjustment.
The steering and some other details could be due to the test cars being preproduction models. There's time to tweak some things before the car goes on sale June 26. But the subpar cloth? Likely stuck with it. Maybe it won't trigger your gag reflex as it did ours.
•Steering. Too stiff, especially on the V-6 models. It's as if you have to break it loose from dead-center to turn or maneuver. And once you do, it then seems too assisted, over-reacting to your moves on the wheel.
What's more, in all three test cars, the steering seemed to drift left, requiring corrections to the right.
The problems feel minor at low speed but are quite bothersome as speed rises.
•Seats. Not only is the cloth cheesy, but lower-level models lack lumbar adjustment, so there's no way to tone down the too-prominent bulge in your lower back.
The leather upholstery in the four-cylinder driven from Smyrna to Virginia was much better, and the upgraded seats have lumbar adjustment.
•Radio knobs. On two of the three test cars, they rotated as if through sand. Not so much on the third, so likely a preproduction inconsistency.
But Altima also has plenty to like.
The four-cylinder got about 37 mpg on the highway trip home, very close to its 38 rating, even though the drive was through foothills and involved wide-open throttle for merging and passing.
The four feels and sounds strong enough to be an engine of choice. It doesn't force you to pay for the V-6 just to get some scoot.
The V-6 is, of course, peppier, with 88 more horsepower than the four, but the four's 182 hp never felt insufficient, at least with one person and luggage.
The CVT has a setting labeled "Ds," which we'd like to think stands for "Drive, sensible," though Nissan considers the "s" a "sport" designation.
Like with the CVT in the new Infiniti JX35 SUV, the setting lets the transmission mimic a conventional step-ratio automatic to more or less satisfy anti-CVT folks.