2015 Nissan Altima: Shifting Gears to Overtake

By Frank A. Aukofer, September 27th, 2014

For most of its life and despite its best efforts, the midsize Nissan Altima has played third fiddle to the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. But it arranges some new notes for 2015 in a powerful play to overtake the sales leaders.

Manufacturer photo: Altima's premium style and "class above" appeal continues in 2015 with its wide, aggressive stance and dramatic front end styling
Manufacturer photo: Altima's premium style and "class above" appeal continues in 2015 with its wide, aggressive stance and dramatic front end styling

One of the more interesting is the new Xtronic continuously variable transmission (CVT). Modern versions of these automatic transmissions are becoming increasingly popular because they can deliver better fuel economy than a manual gearbox or conventional automatic. Nissan is a pioneer in CVTs and uses them on many of its cars and trucks.

CVTs use a system of belts and pulleys to vary the engine's power to the drive wheels. Because there are no gears as such, the engine revolution changes are seamless, similar to what you would experience with a pure electric car. Although, the lack of shift points apparently has become an annoyance to some buyers, who are used to feeling the slight hesitations when conventional automatic transmissions shift up and down.

The other gripe about CVTs generally comes when a driver accelerates rapidly. As the engine rpms increase, the CVT often delivers a roaring engine sound, almost as if a conventional transmission were slipping. Enthusiasts hate it.

Nissan's CVTs are among the best in minimizing that trait. Now the company has taken its improvements farther with what it calls "D Step," incorporated into its new Xtronic CVT.

Manufacturer photo: Altima's premium style and "class above" appeal continues in 2015 with its wide, aggressive stance and dramatic front end styling

Using computer software, the D Step simulates the shift points of a conventional automatic transmission, which eliminates most of the sensation that the transmission is slipping.

A prominent example is the 2015 Nissan Altima SV sedan tested for this review. Under moderate acceleration its CVT shifts smoothly, without hiccups. But if you jam on the throttle, the engine rpms spool up to 4,000 or 4,500 rpms and then the transmission upshifts in a blink and drops the revs, just as would happen in a standard automatic.

There's also a quick kick-down passing mode if you press the accelerator pedal to overtake another car or merge onto a freeway. The CVT instantly jumps the engine to higher rpms for the needed power.

D Step, with its combination of CVT and regular automatic transmission sensations, contributed to a pleasant overall ride in the new Altima, which is available in seven models. Four of them -- 2.5, 2.5 S, 2.5 SV and 2.5 SL -- come with Nissan's 182-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. The other three Altimas -- 3.5 S, 3.5 SV and 3.5 SL -- are powered by a 270-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine.

The tested 2.5 SV delivers city/highway/combined fuel economy of 27/38/31 mpg. With a base price of $25,530, it arrives with a good level of standard equipment, including full safety equipment, rearview camera, Nissan's space age designed "zero gravity" front seats with eight power adjustments and lumbar support on the driver's seat, satellite radio, pushbutton starting, automatic headlights, cruise control and 17-inch alloy wheels.

Manufacturer photo: Altima's premium style and "class above" appeal continues in 2015 with its wide, aggressive stance and dramatic front end styling

Options on the test car included the Nissan Connect system with navigation and mobile apps, motorized glass sunroof, garage door opener, auto-dimming inside mirror, blind spot and lane departure warning, and Nissan's moving object detection system. That brought the total suggested delivered price to $28,180. If you want something more luxurious, the SL model starts at $28,900 and, with options, can reach $31,060.

The upholstery on the SV model is a plush, comfortable cloth. Front seats are big and supportive for long distance cruising, and the interior features soft touch vinyl surfaces, comfortable cloth covering on armrests and the console cover, piano black trim and easy to read white on black instruments.

Out back, there's decent knee and head room for 6-footers in the outboard seats. But the center position, as is common in many cars, has a high, hard cushion that truncates the headroom, and feet must be splayed on both sides of a floor hump.

On the road, the Altima SV feels solid, like a bigger car. The steering is nicely weighted and holds steady in straight line driving. Curves can be negotiated without much fuss, as long as you don't drive too fast. This is a family car, not a sports sedan. The ride is comfortable thanks to a compliant suspension system.

There's a fully carpeted trunk of nearly 16 cubic feet. However, the C-hinges are not protected so could damage luggage or squish a standing grocery bag.

Specifications

Base price $25,530 (as tested: $28,180)
Curb weight 3,206 lbs.
Displacement 2.5-liter
Epa mileage rating 27 mpg city, 38 mpg highway
Fuel capacity 18 gal.
Horsepower (net) 182 at 6000 rpm
Motor type 16-valve 4-cyl. w/SMPFI
Overall length 191.5 in.
Torque (lb.-ft.) 180 at 4000 rpm
Transmission CVT
Vehicle type 5-passenger midsize FWD sedan
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