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Test Drive: 2016 Nissan Altima

Test Drive: 2016 Nissan Altima

By Christian Wardlaw, November 15, 2015

Nissan wants to own 10 percent of the U.S. automotive market, a long-time goal that has proven elusive thus far. The Altima midsize car is largely responsible for making that dream a reality, because one out of every four Nissans sold in America is an Altima. To say that it is important for Nissan to get the Altima right is an understatement.

Therefore, following a complete redesign for the 2013 model year, the Altima receives a substantial refresh for the 2016 model year, one designed to make the car more stylish, enjoyable to drive, and technologically sophisticated than ever. Has Nissan’s approach to the 2016 Altima resolved complaints voiced by owners of last year’s model, while enhancing those traits that owners liked most about their vehicles? I attended a media ride-and-drive event to find out.

Likes and Dislikes
Before assessing the new 2016 Nissan Altima, it is important to understand how Altima owners feel about the 2015 Altima, and who those owners are.

First, it is important to note that the 2015 Altima ranked second in its segment (in a tie with the redesigned 2015 Hyundai Sonata) in the J.D. Power 2015 U.S. Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study,SM just a couple of points behind the 2015 Mazda 6. This ranking indicates that people who buy the Altima really like their car.

Who buys them? According to J.D. Power research, compared with the midsize car segment as a whole, Altima buyers are more often female, more often members of Gen X[1], and are less affluent. They identify as “Price Buyers” to a greater extent, and are more likely to view a vehicle as just a way of getting from place to place. Otherwise, Altima buyer demographics align with the general composite of a midsize car buyer.

According to J.D. Power research, Altima owners like the following things about their vehicles (in descending order): storage and space, exterior, seats, interior, and driving dynamics. What Altima owners dislike about their vehicles are, in descending order: audio/communication/entertainment/navigation; heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC); visibility and safety; fuel economy; and engine/transmission.

What’s Fixed, What’s Not
Based on an afternoon of driving the updated 2016 Altima, Nissan has retained or improved upon those vehicle characteristics that owners like the most, while making small advances in terms of those things owners like least. However, there remains work to be done—work that likely won’t be addressed before the Altima is next redesigned, likely for the 2018 or 2019 model year.

Nissan has upgraded its NissanConnect infotainment system, adding Siri Eyes Free for all versions of the technology and offering subscription services for the premium version of the system. NissanConnect is more widely available, too, installed in every version of the 2016 Altima except for the most basic trim level that few people buy.

Unlike many competitors in the segment, the Altima’s NissanConnect system does not offer Apple CarPlay or Android Auto smartphone connectivity. Owners can use the system as a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, but only after upgrading with the dealer-installed 4G LTE connectivity. Furthermore, the upgraded version of the technology, which increases the touch screen from 5 in. to 7 in. and adds navigation with voice recognition, is available only for the SV and SL trim levels, omitting the sporty new SR version from eligibility. Finally, NissanConnect Services, which requires a subscription, is offered only for the top trim level—the SL.

NissanConnect Services is new for the Altima, supplying access to automatic collision notification, emergency calling, stolen-vehicle locator, remote engine starting from a smartphone app, and assistance in helping to find the car in a crowded parking lot. Parents of teen drivers can appreciate the speed, curfew, and boundary alert features. Other automakers offer similar features in their midsize cars, and sometimes without a subscription fee.

My test vehicle, an Altima 2.5 SR, did not have a dual-zone automatic climate control system, equipped instead with an air conditioning system with traditional knobs and buttons. On a cool fall day it was easy to keep the cabin at a comfortable temperature. Nissan has missed an opportunity to improve the Altima’s HVAC system, though, as the car remains unavailable with ventilated front seats or heated rear seats. Also, air conditioning vents for the rear-seat passengers remain reserved for the SV and SL trim levels.

According to a Nissan press release, the 2016 Altima benefits from added use of high-strength steel in the underlying vehicle structure, and especially for the windshield and center roof pillars. When asked directly if the company has made changes intended to improve the Altima’s crash-test rating, the answer was “Yes.” Representatives for the automaker declined to discuss the matter further, saying that new Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) test results would be available in January.

Beyond efforts made to strengthen the Altima’s underlying structure, new safety technologies debut for 2016. In addition to NissanConnect Services such as automatic collision notification and teen driver safety features, the 2016 Altima is offered with an adaptive cruise control system, predictive forward-collision warning system that can see two cars ahead rather than just one, and an automatic emergency-braking system. Nissan reserves all of these features for the SL trim level, requiring the purchase of the most expensive version in order to obtain it.

For the Altima 2.5 4-cylinder, fuel economy is also improved for 2016. A combination of engine enhancements and aerodynamic improvements bumps the official EPA highway fuel-economy rating to 39 mpg, in turn giving Nissan bragging rights to offering the most fuel-efficient car in the class when comparing to the standard engines in competing models. Both the Kia Optima and Mazda 6 can match that rating, but only with optional engines or powertrain technologies.

Nissan has also refined the Altima 2.5’s powertrain for 2016. The standard continuously variable transmission (CVT) gains new “D-Step” programming that is designed to make it sound more like a traditional automatic when the car is accelerating hard, such as when traveling down a freeway on-ramp to merge with traffic. It works, reducing the steady state droning that is characteristic of a CVT and making the 2016 Altima sound more like a “normal” car.

Additionally, Nissan has quieted engine noise thanks to new acoustic windshield glass, new engine mounts, larger muffler, and additional sound insulation. Again, the changes are effective, and in combination with improved aerodynamics the new Altima is quieter on the highway.

Thanks to its more expressive styling, roomy interior, excellent Zero Gravity seat designs, dramatically improved steering feel and response, and refined engine and transmission characteristics, the new 2016 Nissan Altima builds on its strengths, retaining or enhancing those elements of the car that owners like the most.

Nissan needs to step up its game in other areas, though. If the structural upgrades produce improved crash protection, that will prove a big win in the Altima’s favor. Making safety equipment that is proven to reduce accidents exclusive to the most expensive version of the car, however, is a misstep, even if that’s how most competitors package their vehicles.

Nissan also needs to offer Altima buyers the latest version of NissanConnect technology, as found in the redesigned 2016 Maxima, and NissanConnect needs to incorporate Wi-Fi, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto connectivity as soon as is possible. While Nissan is at it, making ventilated front seats and heated rear seats available for the Altima SL would likely be much appreciated by owners.

In order to increase market share, Nissan must conquest buyers. To conquest buyers, the Altima needs to go above and beyond the competition. Meeting standards, rather than setting the standard, simply will not help the company to achieve 10% market share without deep, unrelenting price discounts.

Come to think of it, given how Altima buyers identify as “Price Buyers,” perhaps such a strategy makes sense.

[1] J.D. Power defines generational groups as Pre-Boomers (born before 1946); Boomers (1946-1964); Gen X (1965-1976); Gen Y (1977-1994); and Gen Z (1995-2004).

Additional Research:

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