Reliving past glories
You want to talk about mayhem? Imagine being a product planner responsible for family sedans in Detroit, Tokyo, or Seoul six or seven years ago. The future looked promising then. Gas was expensive, the global economy was starting to recover, and consumers were hanging onto their cars longer. Those cars would need to be replaced right around the time your new family sedan was slated to go on sale.
MotorTrend’s March Mayhem is here! As part of our quest to find the best family car, we invited eight vehicles to compete in a winner-take-all bracket. Representing midsize sedans in the first round are the 2019 Nissan Altima SR and 2019 Toyota Camry XLE.
Turns out that future you were planning for wasn’t to be. Gas prices dropped, and consumers replaced their sedans with crossover SUVs. With sales plummeting, Detroit’s automakers dropped sedans like a panicked freshman confronted by a full-court press.
In planning our face-off, we debated passing on sedans, too, but Asian automakers are gladly absorbing the sales that Detroit left behind. Our two picks to represent sedans, the 2019 Nissan Altima SR VC-Turbo and 2019 Toyota Camry XLE V6, both debuted within the past two years and are among the best-selling four-doors on the market. (We’ll call the Accord, an MT favorite, a victim of playing in a strong conference; only so many Hondas could make the field.)
The average consumer might mistake an Altima for a Camry, but from inside there’s a night-and-day difference. The Camry’s cabin is decidedly noncommittal. It goes through the motions; everything you expect is there, from an infotainment system to leather and metal accents. But there’s nothing that outright makes you feel proud about your purchase. The materials are down-the-middle average—neither nice enough nor bad enough to notice. The back-seat package is big enough for adults, but the rear doors’ narrow opening makes fitting a car seat a pain.
The Altima takes the opposite approach. The material quality isn’t much different, but the Nissan’s design is much more effective. That distinctive V-shaped grille motif carries over into a neat metallic accent on the dash, and the orange stitching and faux carbon weave are neat textural elements that liven up the cabin. The Altima’s seats are more comfortable, too, and as an added bonus, the back doors open up nearly 90 degrees, making it a snap to install a car seat. Ergonomics are well thought out, and all the controls are intuitive and within reach.
The two also have decidedly different driving dynamics. Calling the Altima “sporty” is probably a stretch, but it’s certainly more fun to drive. Its oddball variable-compression engine—a 2.0-liter turbo-four with 248 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque—works as advertised, providing V-6-like performance with four-cylinder efficiency. The engine’s torquey power delivery and snarl can be addicting, but its CVT can be erratic. Sometimes it’s all-conference player; others it’s a nervous walk-on that doesn’t want to leave the bench. The Nissan was also the better handler of the two.
The Altima surprised us, but the Camry drives exactly as advertised. In other words, you’ll get where you’re going but forget how you got there. Toyota’s 301-hp 3.5-liter V-6 is the most memorable part of the Camry; it has plenty of power and sounds sweet when accelerating, but its eight-speed automatic is unresponsive and poorly tuned. Its ride and handling balance isn’t impressive; the Toyota tends to feel sloppy while cornering, as if it were tuned on a NASCAR oval. The Camry also exhibits more body roll through bends and more motion from bumps.
We expected some of the early rounds to be close competitions with buzzer-beating finishes. This one, however, was no nail-biter. The Nissan Altima is the better family sedan by a long shot. The Toyota Camry gives you nothing more than what you ask and nothing less. Its wallflower styling hides an unremarkable cabin that’s fit for taxiing an expectant mother to the hospital but lacking the roomy back seat for bringing the new baby home.
If the Camry is a car that assumes no real position in the world, the Nissan Altima is a sedan that takes a stance—you might not like what it’s saying, but at least it’s saying something. It certainly wants to be seen as pseudo-sporty, and it generally succeeds in that goal. It’s engaging enough to make its driver feel something during another boring commute to the office, yet it offers premium appointments, comfortable seats, and plenty of space for the family.
The Nissan Altima proves there’s still lots to like about the traditional three-box layout. But how will it compete against the midsize crossover that has stolen sedan sales?
|2019 Toyota Camry XLE V-6||2019 Nissan Altima SR VC-Turbo|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$38,291||$31,060|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan||Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan|
|ENGINE||3.5L/301-hp/267-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6||2.0L/248-hp/280-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4|
|TRANSMISSION||8-speed automatic||Cont variable auto|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||3,644 lb (60/40%)||3,416 lb (61/39%)|
|WHEELBASE||111.2 in||111.2 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||192.1 x 72.4 x 56.9 in||192.9 x 72.9 x 57.4 in|
|0-60 MPH||6.0 sec||6.1 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||14.6 sec @ 98.4 mph||14.5 sec @ 98.9 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||125 ft||119 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.80 g (avg)||0.89 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||27.1 sec @ 0.64 g (avg)||26.5 sec @ 0.68 g (avg)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||22/33/26 mpg||25/34/29 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||153/102 kW-hrs/100 miles||135/99 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.75 lb/mile||0.68 lb/mile|