Car Reviews First Drives

2019 Nissan Altima First Drive: Good Where It Counts

Driving the Other Rival of Camry and Accord

Driving the Other Rival of Camry and Accord

While the Accord battles the Camry for sales supremacy, the Altima now offers something its Toyota and Honda rivals don’t at any price—all-wheel drive. That distinguishing option is far from the only change Nissan made to the new 2019 Altima, which boasts a V-6-replacing turbo-four and an interior that will make last-gen Altima owners jealous. Perpetually the third car in a two-car sales race, the renewed Nissan Altima enters 2019 ready to challenge the midsize sedan segment.

The heart of Nissan’s redesigned midsizer beats more like a Camry than an Accord, as the Altima’s base engine is a 188-hp 2.5-liter naturally aspirated I-4 and not a small turbocharged powerplant. A CVT provides smooth responses on every Altima, except when the transmission occasionally mimics a conventional multispeed automatic at wide-open throttle. On the 2.5-liter I-4 and with the more powerful variable-compression 2.0-liter engine, a sport mode hides at the base of the gear stalk. Hit it, and the CVT understands you mean business as you pass another car or just want more responsiveness.

Despite the fully loaded car that Nissan will probably splash over its ads, the 2019 Altima poses its biggest threat in lower trims. When a car you want is out of reach financially, an extra $1,000 USD USD might as well be $100,000 USD USD—but that’s not a problem with the Altima 2.5 S. If you can live without LED headlights and 17-inch alloy wheels—both standard on a base-model Honda Accord—the $24,645 USD USD 2019 Altima 2.5 S offers a killer set of features.

The Nissan in that form may look like it belongs at an airport rental car lot, but the sub-$25,000 USD midsize sedan includes a power driver’s seat, a modern 7.0-inch display in the center of the instrument cluster, automatic emergency braking, four USB ports (one type A and type C, front and rear), comfortable front seats, remote engine start with a proximity key, and an 8.0-inch display with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. You won’t find those smartphone-based connectivity features on base-model 2018 Accords or 2019 Camrys. Also, a power driver’s seat is unavailable on the former, and four USB ports aren’t offered on either at that price point. When a 2019 Altima 2.5 S still lacks too many features for your tastes, check the option box for alloy wheels above the standard 16-inch steel wheels with covers. Or drive an Altima in any other trim; the more expensive models all come with alloy wheels and LED headlights.

As a commuter car with EPA-estimated 28/39 mpg (8.4/6 L/100km) city/highway for most front-drive trims, the 2019 Altima is a decent budget-friendly option with a long highway driving range. Expect much more, however, and that rock-solid value crumbles a bit. Two of the three Altimas we drove had steering that felt imprecise, with a vague on-center feel. The SR model performed slightly better, which makes sense considering that volume trim is designed to not just look sporty, but feel sporty, too, with retuned steering and suspension. At least the ride on 17-inch wheels and 215/55R all-season tires is cushy, though we can’t say the same about a loaded model we drove with 19s and 235/40R all-season tires. The Altima looks great on 19-inch wheels, but the highway ride of Platinum and Edition One cars could be a little more comfortable.

Even if you don’t get a loaded Platinum model, all Altimas benefit from a much-improved interior. The 8.0-inch touchscreen stands tall at the top of the center stack, with volume and tuning knobs as well as two large and helpful knobs below that to adjust temperature. The rear seat is spacious, and the Altima’s new exterior design translates to great sightlines on both sides and acceptable rear visibility over the trunklid. The 2019 Altima offers 15.4 cubic feet of cargo space, a tad more than the 15.1 cubic feet on most Camrys and less than the Accord’s 16.7 cubic feet.

Like the Toyota Camry, Hyundai Sonata, and Kia Optima, the 2019 Altima will receive a Top Safety Pick+ rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Nissan tells us. (The comparison-test-winning Honda Accord fell short of the “+” because its highest headlight rating is Acceptable instead of Good.) Although automatic emergency braking is standard on every Altima—thanks for that, Nissan—a full package of active safety tech becomes standard on the midlevel SV trim. The impressive suite of tech bundles blind-spot monitoring, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, rear automatic braking (helpful when you’re reversing from between two enormous SUVs), and ProPilot Assist, which combines adaptive cruise control with a feature that mostly keeps the car centered in its lane. When that’s not active, lane departure warning is on duty, though we’d recommend turning off the overly intrusive steering wheel vibration alert—stick with the audible warnings. One not-to-be-overlooked duo of standard safety features is the four-tire tire-pressure psi readout and Nissan’s Easy Tire Fill Alert. Together, they can reduce the uneasiness some feel about regularly checking a car’s tire pressure.

For those who consider the security of all-wheel-drive traction a safety feature, Nissan joins the Subaru Legacy and Ford Fusion in offering an all-wheel-drive midsize sedan under $30,000 USD. The Ford may be the prettiest of that trio, but its all-wheel-drive option is offered on the pricier 2.0-liter variant that only gets 20 mpg (11.8 L/100km) in the city. The Nissan’s all-wheel-drive powertrain is a $1,350 USD option on every 2.5-liter trim and, aside from making the Altima feel a tad slower, fades into the background in normal driving. When conditions become more severe, the system can send up to 50 percent of the torque to the rear wheels. With all-wheel drive, EPA-rated fuel economy dips from the front-drive’s 27–28/37–39 mpg (8.7-8.4/6.4-6 L/100km) to 25–26/35–36 mpg (9.4-9/6.7-6.5 L/100km) (the lower numbers correspond to SR and Platinum trims riding on 19-inch wheels).

For comparison, the four-cylinder 2019 Subaru Legacy is rated at 25/34 mpg (9.4/6.9 L/100km), which, incidentally, is also the eye-poppingly good fuel economy on the 2019 Altima’s 2.0 trims. With the new 2.0-liter turbo-four that produces 248 hp and 280 lb-ft on premium fuel, “Altima V-6” is relegated to history and the pre-owned car lot. But even though the Altima 2.0 handily outperforms Camry V-6 and Accord 2.0 in fuel economy, the car isn’t always responsive to wide-open throttle blasts from a stop without the transmission’s sport mode activated. Otherwise, you’ll definitely feel the extra 60 horses compared to the base engine. The VC-Turbo costs $4,050 USD above the front-drive 2.5 SR and carries a $4,000 USD premium on the Platinum trim above the 2.5-liter version; the 2.0 SR’s price is just over $1,000 USD cheaper than a 2018 Accord 2.0T Sport.

Spending $35,675 USD on a midsize sedan will sound absurd to some buyers, but loaded Altimas look good inside. A Platinum-level 2019 Altima with the VC-Turbo engine adds a surround-view camera system, accent lighting, and a driver memory seat. Unless you really need those features, the more powerful engine, or 19-inch wheels, try the less expensive but still well-equipped $30,735 USD 2.5 SL with leather seats and Nissan’s attractive faux wood trim. Until Nissan adds a head-up display or ventilated front seats to the Platinum model, other midsize sedans make more sense at the very top end of the segment.

But as long as the 2019 Altima’s steering doesn’t bother you, the Nissan fights for your money most effectively on its lower trims. The spacious Nissan is efficient and comfortable if you avoid the 19-inch wheels. Plus, the new all-wheel-drive option and updated interior elevate the Altima’s competitiveness in a class that also includes the fun-to-drive Mazda6 and value-oriented Hyundai Sonata. If your commuter-car search starts and ends with the segment’s Big Three, however, a smartly equipped 2019 Nissan Altima is worth a look once it goes on sale this fall.