Textbook car

As far as midsize sedans go, a lot has changed in recent years.

The formerly boring Toyota Camry is one of the most aggressively styled cars like it on the road today. The slant-roofed Honda Accord is now a budget Audi A7, at least in terms of its styling, while the Ford Fusion and Chrysler 200 are no longer in production. Something that hasn’t changed much, however, is the Nissan Altima. Just as it’s been since the nameplate first arrived in the early ’90s, Nissan’s mid-sizer is a sensibly styled, traditional three-box sedan.

Granted, there have been enhancements and improvements over the years, like the addition of all-wheel drive, but the 2021 Nissan Altima remains what you’d expect: a sensible, easy-to-live-with commuter car.

Styling: 7.5/10

Style-wise, the Altima looks the same as it did when this sixth-generation model first launched in 2018. Its shape can best be described as classic, with its conventional three-box design – rather refreshing these days – accented by a handful of nice details. The front end in particular is a nice touch, which looks aggressive but not in a way in which it’s trying too hard, unlike the uncharacteristically aggressive Camry. It’s also a lot less awkward than the chrome-unibrowed Accord, more exciting to behold than the Subaru Legacy, and may or may not age better than Hyundai’s fancy catfish-faced Sonata. The Altima almost looks like a more chiseled Mazda6 – high praise given that’s easily one of the best-looking sedans in the segment.

This sportier-looking SR trim distinguishes itself with a slightly darker grille finish, 19-inch alloy wheels, black mirror caps, a lip-style trunk spoiler, and a more aggressive rear diffuser. The interior is similarly fine and functional, while the orange stitching in the Altima SR is a cool touch and so is the spinning Altima animation that plays in the gauge cluster screen every time the car is started.

Safety: 7.5/10

The Nissan Altima boasts a healthy amount of standard active safety features, like forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring, and reverse automatic braking – a feature that, in the interest of full disclosure, saved both mine and the Altima’s butts when backing into a parking space.

The lane-departure warning system confidently and consistently vibrates the steering wheel should the sedan drift out of its lane of travel (or commits the cardinal-yet-common sin of changing lanes without signalling), while the blind-spot system places a big orange light on the inside of the door rather than on the mirror itself, making it easier to see at a glance.

Nissan’s semi-autonomous adaptive cruise control system was absent from our SR tester but can be had on the top-shelf Altima Platinum.

As for the basics, outward visibility is mostly decent, as are the headlights, but the third brake light manages to take up an above-average amount of space and partially obstructs the view out of the back window. The Altima performed decently in United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) crash tests, scoring a four-star overall frontal crash rating and five stars for side crashes and rollovers.

Features: 7/10

Standard Altima amenities include heated front seats with eight-way power adjustability for the driver’s chair, as well as an eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system with wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connections. That screen is placed high within the driver’s sightline and is reasonably responsive.

Opting for this SR trim throws in a heated, leather-wrapped steering wheel, dual-zone automatic climate control, air vents on the back of the centre console for the rear passengers, and a sunroof. Convenience features noticeably absent from the Altima, even the top Platinum trim, include ventilated front seats, rain-sensing wipers, a head-up display, and wireless charging.

The heated seats and steering get mighty warm but I couldn’t help but notice that some spots on the inside of the steering wheel remained cold, like a leftover meal that’s been microwaved instead of reheated in the oven.

User Friendliness: 8.5/10

Hopping inside for the first time, I didn’t have to teach myself anything new to operate the Altima’s infotainment, climate control, or steering-wheel controls. All of this car’s buttons, switches, and knobs are completely straightforward to use because, well, by modern standards there just aren’t that many of them. And the ones that are there are large, clearly labelled, and logically placed. One small annoyance, however, would be the Altima’s remote entry system that requires a button press on the door handle rather than a touch-sensitive handle to lock and unlock without the keyfob in hand.

Practicality: 7/10

Sitting up front, the Altima feels appropriately spacious, but headroom in the back is noticeably tight thanks to a bench that feels higher than normal. According to the spec sheet, the Altima has 932 mm (36.7 in) of headroom and 894 mm (35.2 in) of legroom in the rear – less real estate than rivals from Toyota, Honda, or Subaru. Meanwhile, this midsize Nissan’s 436 L of cargo capacity is a mild win over the Camry and Legacy (both 428 L), but a good amount short of the front-wheel-drive Accord’s 473 L.

The front-row cup holders, under-armrest storage, and glovebox are all decently sized, although I’m not sure the dedicated phone cubby is quite big enough to accommodate today’s biggest phablets.

Comfort: 9/10

First seen on the previous-gen Altima, Nissan’s so-called zero-gravity seats might just be this car’s greatest selling point. Their design is supposed to provide a neutral driving position, a unique shape, and proprietary pressure points that all combine to result in supreme comfort over long drives, and after spending a week behind the wheel I can report first-hand that the hype is real. They may look unassuming but are very comfortable and remain so for quite a while. They aren’t especially well-bolstered or lined with exotic materials, but quietly do the job of being a seat extremely well.

Independent suspension all around does a good job of smoothing over bumps and cabin noise is well-managed, making the Altima about as quiet as any other car in this class.

Power: 7.5/10

The Altima is only available in one drivetrain configuration: a 2.5L naturally aspirated four-cylinder under the hood hooked up to a continuously variable transmission (CVT) and all-wheel drive. The engine makes 182 hp and 178 lb-ft of torque, so those looking for a midsize sedan with more output and/or cylinders will just have to look elsewhere, although this Nissan’s standard all-wheel drive is definitely a plus.

Like pretty much every base four-cylinder in this class, the Altima’s four-pot won’t win many races but is perfectly adequate for most normal driving scenarios. The CVT simulates traditional gear changes and actually does an alright job of it, too, even allowing for paddle-controlled (though wholly imaginary) up- and downshifts if you feel so inclined.

Driving Feel: 7.5/10

Let’s start with the good: the Altima’s brakes are strong and easy to modulate and use smoothly. Steering is almost surprisingly responsive and quick, while body roll is well-controlled and kept to a minimum in tight cornering scenarios. Steering weight, however, leaves room for improvement. The Altima’s electric power-assisted rack does adjust its heft according to vehicle speed but arguably doesn’t do it enough. Snaking around parking lots, the wheel feels a tad heavier than it should while higher-speeds could use a bit more resistance. Couple that with a chassis that just doesn’t feel as buttoned-down, sophisticated, or confidence-inspiring as those of the Accord or even the Toyota and the new Altima, despite surely being a marked improvement over its direct predecessor, falls short of the competition.

Fuel Economy: 7/10

According to Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), the 2021 Nissan Altima SR AWD gets 9.3 L/100 km in the city, 6.7 on the highway, and 8.1 combined. After a week of mixed driving in cold, early March weather, I saw 8.9 L/100 km reported by the in-car computer.

For comparison’s sake, the 2021 Toyota Camry SE AWD is government-rated at 8.2 L/100 km combined, while the non-turbo 2021 Subaru Legacy and its standard all-wheel drive achieves an official 7.9 L/100 km combined.

Value: 7.5/10

After destination and a $300 upcharge for the snazzy red paint, the 2021 Altima SR Nissan provided for this test rang in at $34,128. That’s comparably priced against rivals with similar specs and equipment. The base Altima is $2,500 cheaper, while the top-of-the-line Platinum is $3,500 more.

The Toyota Camry SE Upgrade comes with most of the same bells and whistles like blind-spot monitoring, dual-zone climate, a sunroof, and a heated leather steering wheel, but adds wireless charging to the mix and a slightly bigger nine-inch touchscreen, not to mention adaptive cruise control.

The same is true of the Accord and Legacy, which both include robust safety and driver-assistance suites – though the former isn’t available with all-wheel drive.

In a vacuum, however, the Altima SR is fairly well equipped and will still feel like the future if you’re coming from, say, an Altima you’ve been driving for the past 15 years. But compared apples-to-apples with its most direct competitors, the Altima is fairly middling when it comes to bang for your buck.

The Verdict

Taken as a whole, the 2021 Nissan Altima feels like what you’d get if you simply searched the word “car” on Amazon and bought the most popular, reasonably priced result. It looks nice enough, and works and feels fine (good, even), but you can quickly tell when you get up close that it was built to a strict price point.

I recently purchased a pepper grinder this way and, in all honesty, it’s fine. It grinds pepper and looks good sitting on the kitchen counter. Could I have gotten a better, nicer grinder if I did a little more research, spent a little more money, or bought from a dedicated kitchen equipment retailer? Sure, but who wants to do all that?

Rather than a backhanded compliment, though, there is enough to like about this midsize sedan from Nissan. The comfortable seats, standard all-wheel drive, and a pleasing aesthetic make the Altima all the car you need.

Specifications

Engine Displacement 2.5L   Model Tested 2021 Nissan Altima SR AWD
Engine Cylinders I4   Base Price $31,998
Peak Horsepower 182 hp @ 6,000 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 178 lb-ft @ 3,600 rpm   Destination Fee $1,830
Fuel Economy 9.3 / 6.7 / 8.1 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $34,228
Cargo Space 436 L  
Optional Equipment
$300 – Scarlet Ember Tintcoat Paint, $300