By Derek Price
After a completely new design for 2019 — including its first-ever all-wheel-drive system — the Nissan Altima is expanding safety feature availability this year.
The changes are modest, which is not surprising for a car introduced just a year ago, and they keep the Altima one of the most impressive and advanced sedans for sale today.
At a time when many manufacturers are cutting back on their investment in traditional four-door cars, this new-generation Altima seems to be an exception. It offers several advancements that make it feel like it’s stepping ahead of ho-hum family cars.
One is its innovative, variable-compression-ratio engine, an optional upgrade that replaces the venerable 3.5-liter V6 in Altimas of the past.
The first of its kind in a mass-produced car, this unusual engine design can smoothly change its compression ratio from 8:1 to 14:1, depending on how much it wants to emphasize high performance versus high efficiency.
The end result is a small, 2.0-liter engine that offers the power output of a big V6 but with four-cylinder fuel economy. It makes 248 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque, Nissan claims, while earning a federal fuel economy rating of 34 mpg on the highway. That’s noticeably better than the V6.
Nissan sweetens its content incentives for 2020 by making the Safety Shield 360 system — a package of sensors and automatic interventions including lane departure alerts, blind-spot monitoring, automatic emergency braking that can detect pedestrians and more — standard on the Altima SR trim. The only trim that lacks these features today is the base S.
Even more impressive is Nissan’s semi-self-driving ProPILOT Assist, which is standard on the SV, SL and Platinum models. It uses a camera, radar sensors and some smart software coding to reduce the driver’s workload in certain situations, keeping the car centered in its lane and flowing with the speed of traffic. I found it more intuitive to use than the similar systems on many of its competitors.
It’s also becoming the kind of feature I’d consider a “must have” on any 2020 car sold today. It’s becoming so ubiquitous, rolling out steadily on more affordable vehicles with each passing year, that cars without semi-autonomous driving modes will feel out-of-date very soon.
Aside from the all-important content offerings, how does the Altima stack up as, well, an actual car?
To me, it nails its goal of looking and driving like a premium vehicle at a reasonable price. It looks expensive, with heavily sculpted sheetmetal outside and plenty of soft-touch material and tasteful design inside.
From my perspective, its only glaring downside is the continued, stubborn use of a continuously variable transmission in an otherwise fun-to-drive car. The Altima’s CVT has gotten much better through the years, but it still leaves this car geek wondering how much better it would feel with a more visceral automatic or — we can dream — a manual gearbox for us weirdos who still prefer them.
Otherwise, the Altima blends fun and comfort perfectly, offering a nimble feeling in turns and a balanced highway ride. The Zero Gravity seats are especially nice, offering a soft-but-supportive feeling that makes long trips less taxing on the body. The seats are legit, much more than a marketing gimmick.
Pricing starts at $24,100 for the base S model, with all-wheel drive available for an extra $1,350. Once more common on pricey luxury cars, it’s great to see the benefits of AWD traction available on every single trim for people who live in cold or wet climates.
An Altima with the variable-compression engine starts at $29,750 and tops out at $35,180 for the near-luxury Platinum grade.
At A Glance
What was tested? 2020 Nissan Altima Platinum AWD ($33,530). Options: Carpeted floor and trunk mats ($300), interior accent lighting ($455). Price as tested (including $925 destination charge): $35,210
Wheelbase: 111.2 in.
Length: 192.9 in.
Width: 72.9 in.
Height: 57.4 in.
Engine: 2.5-liter four cylinder (188 hp, 180 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Continuously variable
Fuel economy: 39 city, 28 highway
Why buy it?
Handsome looks and an upscale cabin are just the start for this recently redesigned sedan. An innovative engine and refined semi-self-driving features help it stand out.