Nissan's mid-size car is this year's big seller

October 22, 2011 - 12:15 PM

Nissan's American-built mid-size car, the Altima, is catching on with car buyers this year.

Through the first nine months of 2011, the pleasantly styled and well-powered Altima posted U.S. sales of more than 200,000 and outsold a perennial top seller, the Honda Accord. The Altima also was the fifth most popular car or truck in the United States in sales last month, and its September sales were just 495 shy of the month's total Toyota Camry sales.

The Accord and Camry traditionally are No. 1 and 2, respectively, in U.S. car sales.

The sales gains aren't just because the Nissan was able to resume production faster than Honda and Toyota after the big earthquake in Japan early this year and have readily available cars on dealer lots.

The five-passenger Altima, which made its U.S. debut in the 1993 model year, has been coming into its own for a while, Nissan officials said.

Buyers find the 2012 Altima largely unchanged from the 2011 version, which has been known for spunky performance, comfortable ride and easy-to-use controls and gauges. The 2012 models with four-cylinder engine also are competitive in fuel mileage, ranking seventh overall among non-diesel and non-hybrid 2012 mid-size sedans.

Adding to the appeal: The Altima, with above average reliability, is a recommended buy of Consumer Reports.

And the 2012 sedan earned four out of five stars for passenger protection in a frontal crash and five out of five stars for side crash protection.

Plus, it's built in not one, but two assembly plants in the United States — Smyrna, Tenn., and Canton, Miss.

The biggest change for Altima for 2012 is that the slow-selling, high-priced, gasoline-electric Altima hybrid sedan is no longer being produced.

Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for the 2012 Altima sedan is $21,170. This is for the base 2.5 model with 175-horsepower, four-cylinder gasoline engine and continuously variable transmission (CVT) that a driver operates like an automatic transmission. The upscale Altima 3.5 SR sedan, which has sport-tuned suspension and 270-horsepower V-6, has a starting retail price, including destination charge, of $26,190.

In comparison, the competing, mid-size 2012 Ford Fusion sedan has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $20,645 with 175-horsepower four-cylinder engine and manual transmission. The lowest retail price for a 2012 Fusion with automatic is $21,540, which is $370 more than the base Altima.

The 2012 Honda Accord sedan with 177-horsepower four cylinder and manual transmission starts at $22,150, or $980 more than the base Altima. With automatic, the 2012 Accord sedan starts at $22,950.

The Altima also is sold as a two-door, five-seat coupe with a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $24,360. This base coupe comes with 175-horsepower four cylinder and manual transmission. The lowest starting retail price for a 2012 Altima Coupe with automatic is $24,860.

The test Altima was the mid-range 2.5 S sedan that topped out at more than $26,000 with power driver seat, moonroof, Bluetooth connectivity, dual climate control and alloy wheels among the options. With standard curtain air bags, traction and stability control, the tester did not have leather-trimmed seats or navigation system.

The test Altima immediately impressed with its power. The 2.5-liter, double overhead cam four cylinder moved the car quickly and in sprightly fashion on city streets and country roads.

There was engine buzziness on uphill sections of highway, but the car still kept up with traffic.

The CVT worked well, without making passengers hear a lot of high-engine revving. In fact, it was one of the best experiences I've had with a four-cylinder and CVT working together smoothly to power a sizable car that's nearly 16 feet long.

The Altima's steering was nicely responsive, too, and better than expected. I appreciated that the car came with both tilt and telescope steering column, so I could adjust the wheel to the best spot for me.

The interior was quite quiet, and I didn't hear much from passing trucks or motorcycles. I didn't notice wind noise, either.

Fabric seats looked and felt good, and side windows in front and back were good-sized. But back-seat headroom was about an inch less than what's in the Fusion and Accord. All gauges, buttons and knobs were easy to understand and within reach. I was especially impressed by the huge Altima glovebox with nearly half a cubic foot of space.

Cubbies on the doors were large enough to hold 20-ounce drinks, and there were three cupholders in the console between driver and front passenger — a nice touch.

There also was a handy covered cubby at the base of the middle of the dashboard that was just right for storing a cell phone.

It is, however, easy to drive the four-cylinder Altima with gusto, because it powers along so easily. Often, I found myself going over the speed limit in the city, but I still averaged 26.5 miles per gallon in travel that was 70 percent city driving.

This was enough to go 530 miles on a single tank of regular gasoline, because the Altima's big tank holds 20 gallons. In comparison, the Accord's gas tank is 18.5 gallons.

For the record, the four-cylinder Altima is rated at 23 mpg in the city and 32 on the highway.

Unfortunately, there already have been two safety recalls of the 2012 Altimas. One, announced in July, was for certain 2011 and 2012 Altimas that had suspension bolts that weren't tightened to specification and could lead to vibration and possible loss of vehicle control.

The second recall, announced in August, was due to an air bag control unit not being assembled properly. This could mean the air bag wouldn't properly inflate in a crash.