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Rental Review- 2016 Nissan Altima 2.5S

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I travel a lot for work and rent cars 40+ times per year.  After several years of dealing with substandard rentals (calling most of them mediocre would be a complement….and a lie), I realized that reserving a “Premium” car was the only way to be guaranteed a decent vehicle.  The ‘Premium’ class can be anything from a Taurus Limited, Impala LTZ or Toyota Avalon to a Volvo S60.

 

Recently, I had to fly to Memphis (from Atlanta) for a few days and made my rental reservation the day before I was arriving.  I booked a Premium, but when I got to the lot (where I could usually pick a car using my Fastbreak card and be gone in a few minutes) there was nothing that fit the bill.  Usually, at least with Budget, that means a free upgrade to a Grand Cherokee or Volvo XC60…but this time I only had two choices- a Chrysler 200 or Nissan Altima.  My disdain for CVTs is only surpassed by my hatred of the Chrysler 200 (especially the 4-cylinder base models in rental fleets).  So the Altima was, by default, my only choice.

 

My only decision was whether to pick the hideous dark brown (Java Metallic) or medium-dark red (Cayenne Red).  The black interior of the red one made the decision for me because beige rental car interiors can be especially grotesque.  I’ve had some rentals in the past with beige or light gray interior that should have included a bottle of penicillin (use your imagination)!

 

My rental was a 2.5S model, which is effectively the base model.  Going off on a bit of a tangent, there is a trim level below the 2.5S simply called the 2.5.  It’s only $400 cheaper and it lacks cruise control, backup camera, NissanConnect infotainment system, the ‘request’ button to lock/unlock doors without fumbling for a remote/fob and even a cabin air filter.  It also loses two speakers (4 vs 6), illuminated visor mirrors, one seatback pocket, auto-on function for headlights, USB port and individual tire pressure monitor display for the TPMS.  Considering that the 2.5 only accounts for 1.2% of the 62k Altimas currently in stock at dealers (29.5% are the 2.5S, like my rental), it defies (my) logic that there’s only a $400 difference in price for so many features.  Just the manufacturing differences building such a small number (roughly 4000 using the 2015 sales total of 333k) of cars with different visors, no seatback pocket on one seat, different center control displays, etc. make no sense to me.  Ironically, the price of the 2.5 is $182 higher on TrueCar than the 2.5S (in Georgia, at least).  

 

But back to my review…

 

I’m not a fan of Nissan’s current design “language” and the Altima is no exception.  Car & Driver shares my opinion and noted, while it shares a family resemblance with the Murano and Maxima, “this styling language still seems awkward to our eyes…especially if there’s a Mazda6 parked nearby!”  It lands in third place, in my eyes, as the least attractive looking mid-size sedan following the Subaru Legacy and Toyota Camry.  But people rarely buy a car like this for looks. 

 

The interior was a mix of pleasant surprises and disappointments.  The trunk was huge and there was more than enough room for my 6’2” 240# frame.  The charcoal cloth seat fabric looked and felt nicer than expected.  The driver’s seat was comfortable during the 15-20 minute trips I drove to/from my hotel and the company I was auditing.  But I suspect the lack of lumbar support would be painfully obvious after an hour or so.  Those are the only positive things I can say about the interior.

 

The interior controls and layout weren’t horrible, but the Mazda6, Accord and Fusion all do it much better.  The car I drove had just over 12k miles on it and had more squeaks and rattles than I expected (possibly due to a previous accident?) On uneven pavement or even small bumps, the shuddering of the dash and squeaking plastics were disconcerting.  The materials looked and felt more appropriate for a Sentra than Altima (except the aforementioned seat fabric).  There were a few noticeable wide gaps between panels that only reinforced the ‘low quality’ impression.  A final note is the display for the audio system and backup camera in the center stack.  The image quality of the backup camera was fine, but the display for the audio system looks like it was from 10+ years ago.

 

The actual driving experience was significantly better than expected in most ways.  The 182hp 2.5L had plenty of power for this class, but the sound at higher engine speeds was not pleasant.  Then again, I’m biased because I used to redline my early-mid 90s Honda VTECs to redline just to hear them sing.  I doubt many owners push it hard enough to notice.  The truly surprising thing was the CVT.  In the past, most CVTs simply revved to the optimum engine speed for acceleration and efficiency, based on throttle input.  Under full throttle, that usually meant revving to around 5000rpm and staying there until you reached your desired speed.  In the Altima (and even worse in the Sentra and Versa), that meant enduring droning (to the point of being ‘ear rape’ in the words of my best friend) and vibration from the engine. So I was amazed when the CVT in this Altima revved up to 4-5k rpm, then “shifted” dropping the revs and starting the climb to 4-5k rpm again, feeling just like a regular automatic.  At the first opportunity, I had to check the Nissan website to make sure that they hadn’t suddenly realized that CVTs suck and started using regular ‘geared’ automatic transmissions again!  It still has a CVT, but it is now programmed to mimic the operation of a conventional automatic with specific, fixed gear ratios.  The result is surprisingly effective.  CVT performance is a major complaint from owners of most Nissans and it appears that they’ve taken note and, more importantly, taken action.

Ride quality was very good and it was very composed and comfortable on the highway.  Altimas prior to the 2013 redesign were sportier than most mid-sizers when it came to handling and steering feel.  But the current model has followed the example of the Toyota Camry, making the ride softer at the expense of handling prowess.  The steering was numb and provided no feedback and the tires squealed in protest in curves taken at even remotely aggressive speeds.  I have no doubt that my 2012 Mazda CX-9, despite being 1200lbs heavier with a much higher center of gravity, would beat it through a handling course.  But again, 99% of Altima buyers (at least at this trim level) won’t be concerned about the handling limits because they’ll never approach them.

 

The Altima wears the #3 sales crown among mid-size cars in the U.S.  The Toyota Camry is the best seller (429k in 2015), followed by the Accord (356k last year) and the Altima sold 333k units.  Those three models represent more than 1,000,000 sales last year!  BTW, I’m willing to bet that the Accord would be the top dog if fleet sales were excluded from the totals. 

 

But my point is that the Altima must be doing enough things right to sell as well as it does.  I’d actually like to drive the 2.5SR (or 3.5SR would be even better) because it would handle better, look better and improve on most areas where I found fault. 

 

Stay tuned for my review of the 2017 Ford Fusion Titanium AWD in the next week.  I’m heading up to visit my best friend in Pittsburgh this weekend and he just took delivery of his new company vehicle earlier this week.  We already have a 480-mile road trip planned and I’ll be doing the driving, so I’ll get a good feel for the ‘refreshed’ 2017 Fusion.  I’m looking forward to it….

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Very cool, look forward to hearing about the Fusion drive.

 

So for such a basic auto, what was the one major thing missing that you wished it had?

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That is a tough question to answer…..just one thing?  I’m assuming that you’re asking about a specific feature rather than a generalization (such as better handling, higher quality interior materials).  Even though it’s not expected in a car of this class and price, it is definitely a car that needs Blind Spot Monitoring! 

 

The Altima 2.5SV (base price $25,460) includes Blind Spot Warning (BSW) and Rear Cross-Traffic Alert (RCTA)…which I consider to be one feature since they use the same sensors and are usually packaged together.  It is becoming more common either as an option or standard feature on many new cars, but it is usually available only on upper trim levels and/or as part of an expensive option package.  Volvo pioneered the technology, known as the Blind Spot Information System (or by the acronym BLIS), but it is still a $925 option on even the higher trim levels of the Volvo S60. 

 

When I first heard about Blind Spot Monitoring (BSM), I thought it sounded like a ridiculous waste of money.  Technology just for the sake of making cars more complicated.  If you know how to properly adjust your mirrors, you don’t need a BSM….

 

After owning a Mazda CX-9 with BSM for just over 3.5 years and 58k miles, I will readily admit that I was wrong!  A lot of cars designs make it harder than ever to see the full ‘blind spot’ even with proper mirror adjustment.  The Altima is one of those cars.  My CX-9 doesn’t have the Rear-Cross Traffic Alert function, that was added the year after mine, but it is a great help when backing out of a parking spot or into a road. 

 

Even with BSM, I still check my mirrors (and usually glance quickly over my shoulder) before making a lane change.  Even so, it has saved me from a potentially serious accident at least one time in the past few years.  I was driving on a local highway just after dark one evening on my way home.  In my Mazda, a warning light illuminates on the exterior mirror when a vehicle is detected in the ‘blind spot range’.  In a split second, the truck ahead of me dropped a large piece of office furniture (a file cabinet, I think) into my direct path of travel.  I was in the right lane of two northbound lanes and my instinct would be to swerve to the left to avoid crashing into the obstacle.  BUT I had noticed the warning symbol illuminate on my driver’s side mirror maybe 20-30 seconds earlier, so I knew there was a car on my left side.  Somehow, I was able to process all of that information and swerve (while braking hard from a speed of 70mph+) into the ‘emergency lane’ on the right side instead.  I was able to maintain control of the car and come to a stop without a collision with another vehicle. 

 

So BSMs are an essential safety feature, in my opinion.  Even though I am a two-time Mazda owner and fan of the brand, I think credit should be given where it’s due.  Mazda has the widest availability of Blind Spot Monitoring of any vehicle brand.  All Mazda3s except the base ‘i Sport’ has BSM and Rear-Cross Traffic Alert standard.  On the ‘i Sport’ it’s offered as part of a $1000 option package that includes a lot of other features.  Honda has their own rather unique LaneWatch feature, which only monitors that left/passenger side of the vehicle and displays the view on the center infotainment screen.  It’s a more sophisticated system that most, but it leaves the driver side vulnerable.

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While I was going through the specs for the Altima 2.5S again, I just realized something that could partially explain the less-than-responsive handling.  The Altima 2.5S uses T-rated tires, while most other base mid-sizers (Accord LX, Fusion S, use H-rated; other Accords, Mazda6 and Fusion SE use V-rated).  Only the Camry LE used tires with a lower speed rating than the Altima, S-rated which I had never even heard of before.

 

Logically, you would think that S, T and V-speed ratings are higher than H…..but that would make far too much sense!  The ratings of tires used on regular cars start with S, followed by T, U, H and V…followed by Z, W, Y (although few ‘regular’ cars will have the latter three, as they are rated at maximum speeds of 149+mph, 168mph and 186mph respectively).  S-rated tires are capable of up to 112mph, T- up to 118mph, U- to 124mph, H- to 130mph and V- to 149mph. 

 

When I first learned about speed ratings and what they meant, my immediate thought was why the heck did my car come with V-rated tires (up to 149mph) when my car has a speed limiter around 119mph.  That was my 2006 Mazda3 and I’m just assuming that it was limited to 119mph….I didn’t learn that through actual experience…nope, not me….and that’s the story I’m sticking to! =)   But along with the higher maximum speeds, each higher rating has other attributes that determine how the tire performs.  As a rule, lower speed ratings are going to provide better ride quality while higher ratings will offer the best handling.  So even at 60mph, the difference between an S-rated and H-rated tire could be evident in ride quality and, at even lower speeds, in handling performance. 

 

The use of 16” wheels/tires is kind of dinky as well.  The Camry and Accord also have 16s on their base models, but Mazda, Ford and even Chrysler start out with 17s. 

 

So the Altima 2.5S had tires that were far from performance-oriented and they were on 16" wheels which looked undersized on the car.  The step up to the Altima 2.5SV adds 17" alloy wheels and V-rated tires, which improve the car's appearance significantly and should have a similar impact on handling.  The sporty 2.5SR goes ups that to 18" alloys also with V-rated tires. 

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    • By Cubical-aka-Moltar
      This past Fri-Mon I had a '15 Malibu LT for a rental, picked it up in Columbus, Ohio and drove to various places in Eastern Ohio and Western Pa, in and around Pittsburgh and east to Monroeville and the PA turnpike a bit.
       
      I'd driven a few of the previous generation Malibus ('08-12), but this was the first of the current generation I'd driven.
       
      Interior impressions: well equipped, all the expected cabin features in a midsize car.  Hard plastics on the doors and dash, but nice to look at--brown and light tan two tone. I like the brown.   Good HVAC controls w/ dual zone climate, etc.   Gauges well positioned and easy to read.  I liked the blue lighting behind the chrome trip strips in the dash. Tire pressure monitoring is a nice touch.  Still has the annoying GM unlocking of doors when you shift to park (never liked that feature). 
       
      Comfortable w/ plenty of legroom and headroom.  Since I didn't sit in the back, the typical complaints I've read about rear seat room in this car didn't matter.  Lots of room back there for empty water bottles and my coat (it was cold Fri/Sat in Ohio and Pa).   
       
      Exterior: familiar, kind of anonymous but pleasingly clean.  Looked very good in the dark red, I like the profile of this car, though the high tail makes for a bit of blind spot in backing up.
       
      I did a lot of freeway driving on I-70, I-77, I-79 etc this weekend as well as stuck in city traffic in Pittsburgh and enjoying the hilly streets and roads around the city, muddy Ohio back roads, etc.  
       
       Generally very quiet around town.  Noticed the start/stop engine shut off.  Some tire and wind noise at 70-75 mph on freeway, but not excessive.  The car felt very solid and tight overall.   Seemed to have more than enough power to get out of it's own way in merging and passing.   Did notice the transmission taking a while to shift up on long hill climbs a couple times, though.
       
      All in all, with the addition of a sunroof (I'd keep the cloth seats), I could live with one of these as a daily driver for a few years.  I'll admit I haven't driven many of it's contemporaries (had a rental Camry and an Avenger in the last 18 months), but it seems like a perfectly fine all around daily driver and road trip car.
       
      I'm looking forward to seeing where Chevy goes w/ the 2016 model.
       

       

       

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