Christian Wardlaw | April 28, 2020
Once dominant, the midsize sedan has fallen from glory. Prosperity, plentiful gas, a need for utility, and a want for all-weather and all-terrain capability has fueled a consumer shift away from cars and toward SUVs, which are typically more expensive and less efficient. Case in point: The Nissan Rogue compact SUV is the most popular of the automaker’s vehicles, and not the once-hot 2020 Nissan Altima.
But now, the world is different. In a matter of months, a global health crisis has battered economies, and as this review is written the pandemic is still playing out. What happens after this chapter of human existence closes remains to be seen, but a new frugality among consumers is one potential outcome. And the Altima stands ready to serve SUV defectors looking for a more affordable and nearly as practical a mode of transportation.
The 2020 Nissan Altima comes in standard S, sporty SR, mid-level SV, leather-lined SL, and plush Platinum trim levels. They all come with a 4-cylinder engine and front-wheel or all-wheel drive. A turbocharged engine is optional with SR and Platinum trim.
This year, Nissan expands its Nissan Safety Shield 360 suite of safety technologies to the Altima SR’s standard equipment list and makes it an option for the most affordable Altima S trim level. Piano-black trim pieces are standard in upper trim levels for 2020, and the Altima Platinum gains a mirror memory setting function.
For this review, J.D. Power evaluated an Altima Platinum VC-Turbo equipped with numerous upgrades. They included extra-cost paint, a rear spoiler, outside ground lighting, interior ambient lighting, illuminated doorsill kick plates, floor mats, a trunk mat, a cargo net, dual trunk hooks, and impact sensors. The price came to $38,840, including the $895 destination charge.
Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the 2020 Altima, it is helpful to understand who buys this midsize car, and what they like most and least about their vehicles.
Compared to the overall segment, Altima owners are more often women (41% vs. 37%), they are younger (51 years vs. 54), and they earn less money in terms of median annual household income ($79,792 vs. $85,976).
Price sensitivity is evident in Altima owners’ sentiments about vehicles and car ownership. For example, Altima owners are more likely to identify as Price Buyers (9% vs. 18% for the segment), are less likely to strongly agree that they’ll pay extra for a vehicle that is environmentally friendly (52% vs. 60%), and are less likely to strongly agree that they’ll pay extra to ensure their vehicle has the latest safety features (24% vs. 32%).
At the same time, Altima owners are more likely to agree that they like a vehicle that stands out from the crowd (79% vs. 70%), suggesting they seek affordable style. J.D. Power data also shows that 40% of Altima owners prefer to buy a car from a domestic company (vs. 48% for the segment).
Owners say their favorite things about the Altima are (in descending order) the exterior styling, seats, interior design, driving dynamics, and visibility and safety. Owners indicate their least favorite things about the Altima are (in descending order) the infotainment system, engine/transmission, storage and space, climate control system, and fuel economy.
In the J.D Power 2019 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, the Altima tied for the top ranking in the midsize car segment, along with the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.
In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own perceptions about how the 2020 Nissan Altima measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the APEAL Study.
Altima owners like the way this car looks, and it’s easy to understand why. There isn’t a line wrong on this car, though a couple of details could use some extra attention. For example, some might think the body-color rear valence panel between the exhaust outlets would look better in dark gray.
When the car is viewed in profile, you can see Nissan places the front door handles on a lower plane than the rear door handles. The reason is to integrate them with the sweeping character line that rises from the front bumper and extends to the taillights, but at the same time they look like they’ve melted in the hot sun and slid down the side of the car.
Similar to the exterior, the Altima’s interior exhibits tasteful, appealing design. The Platinum test vehicle represents the pinnacle of cabin tailoring for this model, featuring stitched soft surfaces, gloss black and simulated layered wood trim, and matte chrome accents.
All Altimas get a flat-bottom steering wheel, and, depending on the trim level, the car comes with cloth or leather upholstery. Unfortunately, the only color choices are black or light gray. A beige or tan color is unavailable, and Nissan offers no special colors for the SR or Platinum trim levels.
Nissan equips the 2020 Altima with its unique Zero Gravity seat designs, which are inspired by the neutral spine posture the human body adopts in the weightlessness of space. This sounds like a gimmick, but Nissan has been using this approach in many of its vehicles for almost a decade, and mostly to success as evidenced by Altima owners claiming the car’s seats are their second most favorite thing about the sedan.
Given the automaker’s emphasis on comfort, it is confounding as to why Nissan doesn’t include a front passenger’s seat height adjuster in the Altima. Because the person sitting there can’t raise the seat, leg support is not as good as it could be. Also, it’s harder to get into and out of the car because the Altima sits close to the ground and, by extension, so does the seat.
On the driver’s side, no such complaint exists. With the 8-way power adjustable seat raised higher, entry and exit are much easier, and the seat is supremely comfortable. Nissan even pads the side of the center console to ease long-distance leg comfort.
As far as comfort goes, the back seat is roomy and offers an effortlessly supportive seating position as long as you don’t mind the slightly reclined seatback. Passengers also benefit from two different types of USB ports embedded into the back of the center console.
Altima owners rank the climate control system fairly low on their lists of favorite things about the car, and on a hot day that’s understandable. On a warm, sunny afternoon with temperatures in the high 80s, the Platinum’s dual-zone automatic climate control system initially struggled to produce cold air. Plus, Nissan doesn’t offer ventilated front seats for the Altima.
But that’s where the remote engine starting system comes in handy. The climate system is tied in with it, so you can heat or cool the cabin before driving if you’d prefer. And on cold days, the car’s available heated front seats and heated steering wheel are helpful, though you cannot equip an Altima with heated rear seats.
Sitting proud at the top of the dashboard, the Altima’s 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system features two knobs and a row of shortcut buttons, which help to make the system easier to use.
Every Altima includes Bluetooth with text-messaging support, Siri Eyes Free, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and SiriusXM satellite radio. Upgrades include navigation, a Bose premium sound system, and NissanConnect subscription services. NissanConnect equips the Altima with Amazon Alexa, automatic collision notification, emergency SOS calling, roadside assistance, remote access to vehicle functions, and the ability to set alerts related to speed, curfew, and geographic boundaries.
By modern standards, the 8-inch touchscreen is a bit small but it is also easy to see and reference. The Bose audio components sound decent enough, and while the voice recognition technology requires the user to issue fairly specific commands, for the most part it proves intuitive to operate while driving.
The navigation system meets modern expectations in terms of response speed and graphics, though I had trouble using my fingers to zoom in and out on the map with any degree of accuracy. One thoughtful feature is the door-to-door navigation function, which is useful when you’re forced to park far from the actual destination and need to walk the last stretch. Just pull up the NissanConnect smartphone app and the navigation system continues to provide directions.
Nissan includes up to four USB ports in the Altima, including the newer USB-C connections. Still, this is no excuse for the car’s lack of wireless device charging.
Nissan does a good job of providing storage space for the driver and front passenger. The center console is quite accommodating and has an upper tray for smaller items, and the glove box is a good size. A tray is also located forward of the transmission shifter (would be perfect for wireless smartphone charging), and the door panel bins are reasonably large.
Around back, the Altima’s trunk offers 15.4 cu.-ft. of space. The test car had two optional grocery bag hooks on which to hang plastic or reusable sacks, and closing the trunk is a snap thanks to the interior grab handle. This feature means you won’t get your hands dirty when closing the lid. A hands-free function is unavailable.
It’s easy to see out of a Nissan Altima (especially when it has the available surround-view camera system) with only a couple of exceptions. The first is that the rear third brake light blocks the view of the car immediately behind the Altima, making it impossible to tell what’s right on your tail. Also, the washer jets on this car are quite weak, and on the right side the spray could barely clear the wiper itself in order to hit the glass.
In terms of safety, every 2020 Altima has forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking. Starting with SR trim, the Altima has the full collection of Nissan Safety Shield 360 equipment, enhancing the two standard technologies with pedestrian detection, rear automatic braking, automatic high-beam headlights, a blind-spot warning system, and a rear cross-traffic warning system.
ProPilot Assist is an option, a Level 2 advanced driving assist system bundling adaptive cruise control with distance management and stop-and-go capability, and a lane-keeping and -centering assist system. In use, ProPilot issues regular bings and boops as it clears and acquires targets ahead, and the system sometimes needs driver intervention and correction while at other times fights a bit against driver control. This is not uncommon with such technologies, though some automakers have leap-frogged Nissan with regard to accuracy, refinement, and subtlety.
If all of this technology can’t prevent an accident, know that the 2020 Altima earns a Top Safety Pick from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and an overall 5-star rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
With every trim level, the standard engine is a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine powering the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission (CVT). This engine makes 188 horsepower unless you opt for all-wheel drive, in which case it produces 182 hp. The CVT is geared to make best use of the power available, but this combination is no more than adequate in terms of overall performance.
With SR and Platinum trim, a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine is available. Dubbed VC-Turbo for its variable compression design, it whips up 248 hp on premium fuel (236 hp on regular gas) and 273 lb.-ft. of torque (267 lb.-ft.). It also uses a CVT, and AWD is not available with this engine.
First offered in the Infiniti QX50, the VC-Turbo is designed to offer the performance of a V-6 engine with the fuel economy of a 4-cylinder engine. It is well suited to the Altima, sounding good when revved and supplying ample acceleration. However, the CVT often gives the impression that it is too tightly wound, delivering sudden ‘snaps’ of power as the pre-programmed ratios change. I suppose this isn’t an accident as Nissan attempts to mask the fact that the transmission is, indeed, a CVT, but I’ve never experienced a traditional automatic or a dual-clutch transmission that behaved like that.
According to the EPA, the Altima VC-Turbo should get 25 mpg in the city, 34 mpg on the highway, and 29 mpg in combined driving. On my testing loop, the car returned 26.2 mpg, coming up a bit short of expectations.
Before we talk about the Platinum VC-Turbo’s ride and handling, some housekeeping is in order.
First, the Altima includes both Active Ride Control and Intelligent Trace Control. The former uses automatic brake and engine torque application to smooth out lumpy roads, while the latter is essentially a brake-based torque-vectoring system designed to improve cornering feel.
Second, only the Altima SR combines 19-inch aluminum wheels and larger tires with sport-tuned steering and suspension. The Platinum has the same wheels but is otherwise tuned like a standard Altima.
With that out of the way, the Platinum VC-Turbo provided a wonderfully supple ride quality and genuinely athletic handling, displaying an impressive balance between absorption of unwanted harshness and preservation of curve- and corner-tackling capabilities. As a result, the Altima is quite enjoyable to drive, offering terrific grip, responsive and accurate steering, and faithful brakes that are easy to modulate.
In the current universe of midsize sedans, the Altima is like a mashup between the Mazda Mazda6 and a Subaru Legacy. Good to drive, stylish inside and out, loaded with safety tech, and available with AWD or a turbocharged engine, it blends some of the best qualities of each of these models.
Compared to a Hyundai Sonata, the Altima isn’t as technologically advanced and Nissan doesn’t offer near the ownership perks that come with buying a Hyundai. Plus, the Sonata, and segment heavy hitters like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, are available with hybrid powertrains. The Kia Optima is a formidable competitor, too, and gets a complete redesign for 2021. A new Optima Hybrid is likely.
This positioning puts the Altima is an uncomfortable place, unable to match other segment leaders in terms of diversity, yet lacking the distinct character that sets the Mazda, Subaru, and even the Volkswagen Passat apart. And in that gray space, price instead of product is what ends up moving the metal.
The Nissan Altima deserves better.
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