A matter of months after the once popular Maxima slipped off the market, almost unnoticed, a replacement of a kind is available. David Thomson checks out the new Nissan Altima.
Is it, or is it not a replacement for the Maxima? Asked of the new Altima, that's a question that demands a complex answer: Nissan, like every other car company, is reconfiguring its lineup for a world in which the traditional large saloon is more likely to be a sales millstone than milestone, and so the Altima is pitched to cover two bases: that of both the large and medium-sized saloon.
Dimensionally it defies the medium tag, being appreciably longer and fractionally taller than both the previous Maxima and those cars - think Mazda6, Toyota Camry, Holden Malibu, Honda Accord - that Nissan sees as its main rivals; on the other hand, it is a decidedly medium car in a mechanical sense, with a 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine the only motor on offer for Kiwi customers.
Pricing opens at $43,990 for the Altima ST, while the topflight Ti (as tested) lists at $53,290.
Those who recall the somewhat staid lines of the old Maxima will be struck by the Altima's far sleeker, almost coupe-like pose. The Ti benefits from a little extra dressup kit in this regard: 18-inch alloys rather than the ST's 16-inch wheels, xenon headlights, and front fog lamps.
The plunging roofline does make for slightly restricted access to the rear seats, and taller folk may find backseat headroom tight. On the other hand, there's no arguing with the generosity of the boot, with its 488-litre capacity.
Up front a major talking point is the Altima's ''zero gravity'' seats developed using Nasa research into the optimal spinal posture of a person in a weightless environment. Leather trimmed and power-adjusting in the Altima Ti, these proved supremely comfortable on test, although more lateral support would have been appreciated during hard cornering.
That said, had Nissan intended positioning the vehicle as one with serious performance pretensions in New Zealand, we would have seen the flagship 3.5litre 183kW/312Nm V6 variant that is offered in Australia as well as the 127kW/230Nm 2.5-litre four-cylinder version.
It is better instead to think of the Altima as a well-appointed cruising saloon. As such, it majors in creature comforts and convenience features. Even in the ST these extend to Bluetooth connectivity for phone and audio devices, cruise control, dualzone climate control steering-wheel controls, and keyless entry and start.
The Ti earns its price premium with a host of extras, including satellite navigation, a seven-inch central colour touchscreen, a premium Bose audio system, blindspot monitoring and lane departure assist, rain-sensing wipers, a power-operated rear sunblind, and both rear-view and surroundview cameras. A system that detects and warns of moving objects around the car when it is stopped, reversing or moving forward slowly is also included, as is NissanConnect, which allows hands-free access to smartphone functions such as Facebook, Google and Twitter via the car's central display screen.
Settling in behind the wheel, one is immediately struck by how well the key instruments and controls are laid out. There's also thoughtful detailing in the storage areas around the front of the cabin, with an array of handy bins, a decent central storage area, and a big glovebox.
Nissan continues its commitment to continuously variable transmission (CVT) technology with the Altima. The efficiency of the CVT transmission brings inherent economy gains, and power delivery is smooth during everyday roundtown and open-road motoring.
Loafing along at a steady open-road pace, the Altima is a long-legged cruiser that feels and sounds refined: the suspension, which tends to the soft and absorbent in its settings, soaks up bumps nicely. There's very little wind noise, minimal engine noise, and road noise is well contained except on the worst of coarse-chip surfaces.
For those times when extra punch is required, the Altima's CVT setup includes a sport mode, which keeps the engine spinning higher in the rev range to access its power and torque more of the time. The extra performance this unleashes comes at the expense of refinement though, as the 2.5-litre engine becomes raucous when worked hard beyond 5500pm.
Handling is competent rather than sparkling, with good grip and a decent resistance to initial understeer. However, while it is much more accomplished dynamically than the Maxima, when really pressed the Altima's steering is too light and the suspension too soft to deliver the kind of incisive handling that will appeal to a really keen driver.
To have expected otherwise would have been to misunderstand the Altima's place in the Kiwi market. It's out there to appeal to fleet buyers in standard guise, and in Ti form to woo private customers who want a reasonably large, well-appointed family saloon.
That diehard enthusiasts may choose to look elsewhere will not worry Nissan a jot.
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