Meanwhile on the west coast, a completely different Altima was passing through. This one would be the sporty SR trim with Nissan’s new-fangled VC-Turbo 2.0-liter engine, good for 236 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque. It was paired with front-wheel drive in the car, and despite the engine upgrade and a substantial amount of standard equipment, this Altima SR still carries a lower price than the ritzier Platinum, ringing in at $30,655 versus $34,475. Nissan predicts it’ll be the most popular trim.
So, does a different sort of Altima make a stronger impression? The engine certainly does, as the VC-Turbo is smooth, sounds good, and pulls from the low end like a good, torque-rich turbocharged engine should. A worthwhile upgrade? You bet. However, whereas Nissan’s ubiquitous CVT helps the base engine feel peppier than it is and is perfectly acceptable for that “adequately powerful engine,” as Associate Editor Joel Stocksdale wrote, it’s really a joy killer with the VC-Turbo.
Essentially, the CVT is doing a terrible impression of a regular automatic. It simulates stepped gear ratios, as other CVT’s do, to create a more normal driving feel, but it does so in such a bizarre way that it makes you wonder just what the hell is going on down there. Accelerating feels like fixed gear – fixed gear – extended CVT slurring – fixed gear. This behavior might be fine in the base engine, where maximizing fuel economy is paramount and relaxed acceleration the norm. But with the more performance-oriented engine upgrade, it’s not appropriate. The 6-, 8- and 10-speed units of the competition are just so much more satisfying, without the weirdness, while still achieving excellent fuel economy.
I would also echo the Michigan squad’s thoughts on the steering. Around town, there’s so much mush and play that it doesn’t encourage you to drive at all. This is a shame, because as speeds increase and the road starts to wind, the steering improves and becomes quite good. Effort ticks up a bit but is linear and feels natural enough, remaining consistent with what the wheels are doing. It complements the Altima SR’s handling in general, which, aided by a sport-tuned (read: firmer) suspension, allows you to really hustle this midsize sedan along with fluidity and poise. It feels smaller and lighter than an Accord or Camry SE. The steering is a big part of that, and its on-center behavior on the highway is good as well.
The trouble is, you’re likely to spend most of your time driving around town. You shouldn’t have to seek out a winding mountain road to find the barest excitement or engagement with the car. The Altima is like finding out you have common interests with a person after you’ve walked away because meeting them was so damned boring.
On the other hand, the SR’s sport-tuned suspension and 19-inch wheels don’t fade away in mundane driving. There’s some busyness and overt firmness to the ride, and it just doesn’t manage the firm-yet-well-damped act of a Mazda6 or even the Camry SE. At least it doesn’t suffer from the impact harshness of an Accord Touring, which also rides on 19-inch wheels.
Inside, the SR features an all-black décor with orange contrast stitching – the Platinum has unconvincing “wood” trim. To these eyes, it’s an aesthetic improvement, but the materials are unremarkable for the segment. Putting aside their own fake wood, the basic cabin bits and pieces of the Camry, Accord and Mazda6 are stronger.
Nissan’s infotainment system is well thought out, and the touchscreen’s placement makes it easy to see and reach. Accompanying physical buttons and knobs are appreciated. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are included, and are serviced by a pair of USB ports adjacent to a smartphone-holding bin. One is the typical USB-A, while the other, distinctively, is a new USB-C (the smaller one).
As for the seating, the SR’s mix of cloth and simulated leather looks, and importantly, feels pretty good. The front seats are supposedly “unique sport seats” but they don’t possess a great deal of lateral support (if anything, I found the seat bottom a bit pinchy). The range of 8-way power adjustment and the tilt-telescoping steering wheel is ample (the wheel itself, shared with several Nissan vehicles is excellent). Back seat space is generous, as expected for a midsize sedan, but its fixed headrests may frustrate parents trying to use a child seat’s LATCH points.
In sum, this SR’s stronger engine, superior handling and more authentic cabin ambiance result in a stronger 2019 Nissan Altima than the Platinum version. It seems like a better foot forward, but it’s not enough of an improvement to vault the new Altima into the upper echelon of its segment. The Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, especially their hybrid versions, are more compelling for the average consumer, while the Mazda6 remains the go-to choice for the sort of driving enthusiast owner that might otherwise be attracted to the Altima SR.