AWD Al­tima? OMG!

Four-wheel power, stylish makeover takes Nis­san’s once-se­date sedan to new heights

The Detroit News - - Comics -

I vaguely re­mem­ber a time when I no­ticed the homely Nis­san Al­tima. It was some­time in 2006 and the mid­size sedan in­tro­duced cool, wrap-around rear tail­lights. The lamps in­side the cas­ing were col­or­ful, stag­gered, alive. But save for that de­li­cious chunk of choco­late-cov­ered al­mond, the Nis­san sedan has been pure vanilla. Un­til now. “That’s a beau­ti­ful car,” said Mrs. Payne as I pulled the all­new, made-in-Ten­nessee, 2019 Nis­san Al­tima into the drive­way this fall. Stop the presses. Un­like her car-mad hus­band, my wife is an auto ap­pli­ance shop­per. Give her a sedan with re­li­a­bil­ity, room, at­trac­tive looks and all-wheel-drive for win­ter and she’ll drive it. Brand be damned.

Nis­san has al­ways tested well on the three Rs — re­li­a­bil­ity, er­gonomics and room — and the Al­tima’s rear seat eas­ily ac­com­mo­dates my sprawl­ing, bas­ket­ball-player frame. Heck, the sub­com­pact Sen­tra I re­cently rented has more back seat room than many mid-siz­ers. That sim­ple for­mula has made it an ap­pli­ance main­stay in the mid­size aisle. But it’s the looks and all-wheel drive that are game-chang­ers for the new of­fer­ing.

No longer an ap­pli­ance, this Al­tima stirs emo­tion.

Good thing, too, be­cause sedans aren’t pack­ing them into the deal­er­ship like they used to. SUVs are the new, new thing — but they are also the new vanilla. Five-door box, tall stance, snooze. Nis­san knows this and has been on the cut­ting edge of cross­over design with spicy con­fec­tions like the Mu­rano (in­tro­duced in 2015) and its float­ing roof, sculpted flanks, and V-mo­tion grille.

The V-mo­tion design re­ally takes hold with Al­tima. The Mu­rano’s funky grille stands out like some­one hung a Ge­or­gia O’Keefe paint­ing on the front of the two-row ute. Its mul­ti­ple sur­faces are at­ten­tion grab­bing for sure, but not ev­ery­one’s cup of tea.

The Al­tima’s grille, by con­trast, is sim­pler, more el­e­gant — a nat­u­ral pool into which the sedan’s long, flow­ing lines flow. Un­like the bul­bous, monotonous Al­ti­mas of old, the ‘19 is a sym­phony of lines play­ing in har­mony. The wraparound lights and float­ing roof wa­ter­fall across snazzy, tire-wrapped pin-wheels to a low, clamshell hood. Los An­ge­les design stu­dio, take a bow.

From ugly duck­ling to swan in a gen­er­a­tion, the Al­tima — like com­peti­tors Honda Ac­cord, Chevy Mal­ibu, and my seg­ment fa­vorite Mazda 6 — of­fers sleek de­signs to com­pete against up­right utes.

It’s the all-wheel drive sys­tem, how­ever, that re­ally ex­pands the Al­tima sedan’s band­width.

Only Subaru’s Le­gacy and the (re­tir­ing) Ford Fu­sion of­fer AWD in the mid-

size sedan mar­ket. Want AWD for Michi­gan’s bru­tal win­ters? We have a Nis­san Rogue box over here — or you can have the Al­tima.

AWD paired to base en­gine

In­ter­est­ingly, the all-wheel drive sys­tem only comes paired to the base 188-horse­power, 2.5-liter en­gine. Nis­san ex­plains the de­ci­sion as a way to make AWD avail­able in all trims of the car right down to the base model — which is good news to Mrs. Payne, who could price the sporty AWD SR model com­pet­i­tively against her smaller, AWD Im­preza Sport hatch (alas, the Al­tima does not come in a hatch/ wagon). The AWD Al­tima is also at­trac­tively priced next to its sta­ble­mate, the Rogue SUV — com­ing in $1,000 cheaper at $25,995 (con­sis­tent with the FWD base model, too).

As Nis­san stud­ies AWD take rates in the sedan seg­ment, the pric­ing al­lows ex­po­sure of AWD to as broad a de­mo­graphic as pos­si­ble.

What it doesn’t do, how­ever, is pair AWD with the most ap­peal­ing en­gine op­tion — Nis­san’s new, vari­able com­pres­sion, 2.0-liter, 248-horse turbo-4 which re­places the out­go­ing, nor­mally as­pi­rated V-6. Vari­able com­pres­sion (or VC-T) en­gines are en­gi­neer­ing mar­vels. With­out scram­bling your brain with the tech de­tails, it al­lows the turbo-4 to stretch its per­for­mance legs while also max­i­miz­ing ef­fi­ciency. The pay­off ? A 3 mpg gain over the Al­tima’s ol’ V-6.

The Rogue doesn’t get the en­gine either, which means sedan cus­tomers get ex­clu­siv­ity to go with their de­signer wardrobe. Want the VC-T with AWD? You’ll have to cough up an­other 10 grand for the pre­mium Infiniti QX50.

The VC-T turbo-4 is a treat to drive around Metro Detroit, its torque surg­ing over 3,000 rpms. For all its fancy en­gi­neer­ing de­grees, the big­gest rev­e­la­tion might be its CVT (con­tin­u­ously vari­able trans­mis­sion) part­ner, which man­ages the feat of feel­ing like an 8-speed auto tranny while re­tain­ing the fuel economy of a CVT.

This was mu­sic to my ears af­ter driving a clas­sic CVT in a Lexus NX hy­brid which droned on and on like a Bob Wood­ward in­ter­view. The Al­tima’s elec­tron­i­cally stepped shifts not only sound good, but they are smooth when you stomp on the pedal for added low-end torque.

YUNK! Went the Volvo S60 au­to­matic I re­cently tested as it down­shifted un­der duress. Not the Al­tima.

Hap­pily, the CVT was also paired to the 2.5-liter four in my $30,175 blue tester. The Al­tima is no Mazda 6 or Ac­cord (the class ath­letes), but it’s per­fectly con­tent be­ing pushed through the twisties. Push too hard and it will, well, push — no fancy torque-vec­tor­ing tricks here — but it’s in Michi­gan win­ters that the AWD hoofs will pay their div­i­dend.

Clos­ing the lux­ury-class gap

Nis­san has fore­gone fancy, torque-shift­ing twin clutch packs like GM has out­fit­ted to its Buick and Chevy Equinox AWD mod­els — the bet­ter to shift torque away from a rogue wheel spin­ning in the snow. But the Ja­panese maker still claims that it can elec­tron­i­cally use anti-lock brakes to se­date that wheel and get your car mov­ing again.

In­side, the Al­tima closes the gap to lux­ury-class ve­hi­cles with a tidy, hor­i­zon­tal dash rest­ing on a “glid­ing wing” of wood. With the 8-inch tablet screen sus­pended above the con­sole, I could not only keep my eyes on the road while op­er­at­ing the touch­screen, but also throw my phone, fries, loose change in the am­ple stor­age bin be­neath. Stan­dard tech abounds from USB ports front and rear to smart­phone app con­nec­tiv­ity.

A new Nis­san wouldn’t be com­plete with­out avail­able Pro-Pi­lot As­sist which has be­come syn­ony­mous with Star Wars ads show­ing Nis­sans avoid­ing var­i­ous sci-fi crea­tures. Ap­pro­pri­ately, driv­ers should treat it as a sci-fi toy — a peek at the au­tonomous fu­ture, but a con­sis­tent road guide no more reliable than Jar-Jar Binks.

Keep your eyes on the road — and on an all-wheel drive Nis­san Al­tima, homely no more.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at [email protected]­troit­news.com or Twitter @Hen­ryEPayne. Catch “Car Ra­dio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Satur­days on 910 AM Su­per­sta­tion.

The 2019 Nis­san Al­tima is no Mazda 6 or Honda Civic, but at just 3,400 pounds with AWD, is plenty nim­ble over twisty roads.

HENRY PAYNE

On­line: View a photo gallery at de­troit­news.com.

Henry Payne / The Detroit News

The Al­tima de­serves a look in sport util­ity-crazy Amer­ica with its stylish looks, rear seat room and all-wheel drive op­tion.

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