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Road Test and Review - 2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL

Benjamin Hunting
by Benjamin Hunting
November 5, 2012
7 min. Reading Time

Making volume sales a prominent goal for a particular model can sometimes mean diluting a few of its past characteristics in order to please a wider range of drivers.  When Nissan set out to redesign its popular Nissan Altima mid-size sedan its target was the Toyota Camry, that bastion of mass market appeal that aims to satisfy as many potential buyers as possible while not offending anyone in the process.  The Camry formula is a successful one, as it has helped to make the Toyota the most popular family car available.

The 2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL marks a turning point for the brand, one that sees the company moving away from the engaging driver experience that has helped to define past versions of the car.  Instead, the Altima has been refocused to challenge the Camry when it comes to comfort, features, and ride.  The question becomes: how many current Altima owners will be on-board with the new program once trade-in time comes around?

2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL: Competition

As outlined in the previous section, the 2012 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL is aimed squarely at the top-tier edition of the Toyota Camry.  Of course, in the crowded and lucrative mid-size family car segment there is bound to be some unintended casualties when an all-new model is introduced, and for the Altima this means also facing down equally-fresh designs such as the Ford Fusion and the Mazda Mazda6.  The latter in particular is marketed as a driver’s car, which was once the province of the Nissan.  Vehicles such as the Subaru Legacy, the Hyundai Sonata, the Honda Accord, and the Chevrolet Malibu also figure as likely cross-shop candidates for Altima buyers.


2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL: Pricing and Trim Levels

The four-cylinder 2013 Nissan Altima 2.5 base trim starts at an MSRP of $21,700.  Stepping up to the 2.5 S trim adds $1,100 to the cost of ownership, while the 2.5 SV edition retails for an MSRP of $24,400 and the top-tier four-cylinder 2.5 SL demands an MSRP of $25,700.  The S, SV, and SL editions are also available with a V-6 under the hood, a drivetrain swap that tacks on between $3,000 and $5,000 on to the Altima's sticker.

Our test vehicle for the week was a 2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL with the Technology Package, which meant a final sticker price of $31,590 before destination and handling charges.


2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL: Exterior

The 2013 Nissan Altima’s sheet metal isn’t quite the same as it was for 2012, but the differences are more evolutionary than revolutionary.  The Altima offers a broader face than that found on the departed model, with a wide, inward-arching front grille and large headlights dominating the forward half of the vehicle.  In profile, however, the 2013 Altima compares quite favorably with the version of the car it replaces, relying mostly on a few key character lines and bulges to differentiate itself from its ancestor.  This is not a bad thing, as the Altima has always come across as a rather handsome sedan.  Aside from its narrow rear quarters and tucked bumper and trunk treatment, the Altima’s overall impression is one of increased bulk, which gives it a more substantial visual heft than it has ever previously offered.


2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL: Interior

The 2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL doesn’t just look bigger from the outside but also feels considerably larger once the doors are closed and one is buckled in to the driver’s seat.  The front of the car seems to stretch off into the distance when seen through the windshield, and the pilot’s position is an elevated perch that seems to float almost a touch too high off of the vehicle’s floor.  This sense of distance is further enhanced by the wide center console that separates the two forward occupants, and the sedan’s dashboard also takes up considerable space.  The overall impression is one of being seated at the center of Fortress Altima, an impregnable road-going stronghold made up of attractively-styled plastics and invitingly-simple buttons and switches.

Indeed, ‘simple’ is perhaps the most appropriate terms for the switchgear and gauges that have been outfitted to the Nissan Altima.  Our high-spec 3.5 SL model offered us numerous steering wheel-mounted controls for the stereo and hands-free Bluetooth phone system (a feature which worked exceptionally well), on top of rocker switches for our heated leather seats, flat buttons for the dual automatic climate control, and a large touchscreen for the vehicle’s navigation and entertainment system.  Nissan has managed to keep a good thing going with the latter, as the 2013 Altima continues the brand’s trend of delivering excellent user interfaces for its infotainment and nav functions – especially with regards to connecting mobile devices to the system.  We were also tickled by the ‘dialing provider’ message that appeared on the screen when we used one of its Google-linked features to check on an airline’s flight status, information we were provided with after only a short delay.

With simplicity, however, comes a certain styling compromise, and this aesthetic effect was seen on some of the vehicle’s switches as well as the generic design of the speedometer.  We also weren’t thrilled with the shiny, metal-appearing trim that framed the door pulls, the shifter, and a few other areas in the forward part of the cabin.  If something looks like aluminum or carbon fiber, but feels like plastic, disappointment is bound to follow.

Also puzzling was the vehicle’s one affectation towards uniqueness on the gauge panel immediately in front of the driver: an LCD rendering of the Altima whose paint job was selectable from the options menu.  We were never quite able to figure out exactly what the purpose was of the image, which was available across several screens including one which appeared to interact with the blind spot detection system – a feature that regularly flashed a warning light at us on the inside of the vehicle’s mirror mounts, but never indicated anything on the LCD screen itself.  Most of the time, the scale-model Altima simply pointed forward and soldiered down the road with us.

We’ve already mentioned that the interior of the Nissan Altima felt vault-like in terms of its removal from the surrounding road.  We should also mention that its passenger room is quite generous, especially for those seated in the rear quarters.  The Altima offers substantial legroom and enough shoulder room to seat three across the back without discomfort, an important achievement for any family sedan.  The trunk is equally gifted, as we were actually able to haul home a small ottoman as well as a full-size dehumidifier alongside a stack of grocery bags, which is a credit to the gaping maw that serves as the Altima’s cargo opening.


2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL: Powertrain and Fuel Economy

The 2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL is motivated by a 3.5-liter V-6 engine that has been tuned to provide 270 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque.  The only transmission available with the sedan is a continuously-variable automatic unit, which routes power exclusively to the front wheels.  The Nissan Altima, even with its six-cylinder power plant, is remarkably fuel efficient, boasting an EPA rating of 22-mpg in stop and go driving and 31-mpg during highway cruising.


2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL: Driving Impressions

From behind the wheel the 2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL comes across as a sedan that has sacrificed a great deal of its previous personality in order to successfully adopt a brand new identity.  What does this mean for pilots?  Unfortunately, it translates into a softening of the automobile’s suspension system and a disconnect from the driving experience that is meant to appeal to those who are mostly interested in a comfortable commuter car, or a way to get from point A to point B with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of comfort.

This explains the Nissan Altima’s steering feel, which does not really convey a sense of what is happening where the front wheels meet the pavement, and is compounded by handling which comes across as well-cushioned instead of responsive and which makes the sedan actually seem bulkier than its relatively lithe 3,300 lbs would suggest.  In fact, the Altima is a surprisingly ‘big’ vehicle to drive around town, a fact that was underlined by the difficulty some members of our test team had when parallel parking the vehicle.  Never before has a rearview camera been so appreciated.

To be sure, the Altima is a comfortable car out on the highway and also about town, with the stillness of its passenger compartment undisturbed by the frequent construction zones that all Montreal drivers are regularly tasked with navigating.  Power is also excellent from the vehicle’s 3.5-liter V-6 engine, which is perfectly paired with the Altima’s continuously-variable automatic transmission. 

The CVT features the ability to select individual ‘virtual gear ratios’ via steering wheel-mounted paddles (which are so large as to be impossible to miss sprouting off either side of the steering column), and while this feature worked well we found it more rewarding to let the tranny do its thing and keep the six-cylinder motor at the optimal RPM for the desired speed.  Once one gets over the novelty of seeing the tachometer pegged at the redline while under heavy acceleration, the CVT reveals itself to be perfectly attuned to distributing the Altima’s power.  Nissan has done an excellent job of producing a line of Xtronic transmissions that have largely banished the bugaboos complained about in earlier generation CVTs.

The Nissan Altima may no longer be able to count itself amongst the ranks of driver-oriented mid-size sedans, but in certainly meets the company’s desire to offer a competitive family conveyance.  In that sense, the vehicle is a dynamic success, and one which a vast swathe of buyers will be satisfied with.  Just don’t expect to wring too much fun from its chassis on the way home from work.


2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL: Safety

The 2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL comes standard with dual-stage forward airbags for driver and passenger, seat-mounted side impact airbags up front, and side curtain airbags that protect those sitting at all four outboard positions in the sedan.  Electronic stability control, traction control, and anti-lock brakes are also included with the vehicle.  Our tester was also equipped with optional gear such as the already-mentioned blind spot warning system and backup camera, as well as a lane departure warning system.


2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL: Final Thoughts

2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL: Final Thoughts

The 2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL is a perfectly honest family sedan, and it particularly excels when it comes to offering great acceleration and smooth-shifting from one of the best CVTs we’ve ever had the pleasure to drive.  Interior room is vast – as is the trunk – and comfort is assured by the vehicle’s suspension tuning and sound insulation.

What the Altima is not is also quite clear.  There is no real joy to be had in piloting the mid-size four-door automobile, which for almost all Nissan buyers will not be an issue.  For those who have clung to the Altima as a way to enjoy driving without sacrificing practicality, there will be a need to look elsewhere for your adrenaline fix.  In a sense, the Altima has matured into the kind of car that can legitimately compete head-to-head with the Toyota Camry and co.  In another sense, this is somewhat of a tragedy for fans of Altima platforms no longer with us.

What We Like About The 2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL

  • Excellent ride comfort
  • Huge inside
  • One of the most well-designed touchscreen interfaces around
  • Solid power from V-6 engine
  • Great performance and economy from CVT

We Aren’t So Hot On

  • Soft suspension system
  • Car feels bigger from behind the wheel than it really is
  • Detached driving experience
  • Somewhat generic switchgear and gauges
  • What happened to the fun?


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