2009 Nissan Altima 2.5SL Sedan Review
By Chris Haak
Just below the Nissan logo and the words “2009 Altima 2.5 S” on the Monroney (window sticker) of the 2009 Altima that I just finished testing is the phrase “THE NEW BENCHMARK.” Not only is this true, but I also happen to be the new benchmark in automotive journalism. (Or was that the new bench-warmer?) Whatever the case, I find it a little presumptuous for Nissan – or anyone else, for that matter – to anoint themselves as the benchmark of anything. That’s for me, other writers, and more importantly, the buying public to decide, and not them. This is particularly worrisome since the 2009 Altima is on the third year of its design, while many of its competitors are newer (Malibu – 2008; Accord – 2008; Mazda6 – 2009). On top of that, when I reviewed the 2009 Accord EX-L, I anointed that car as the benchmark of the midsize sedan class. On top of that, when our writer Kevin Miller reviewed the Mazda6 i a few weeks ago, he was very fond of that car. There can’t be more than one midsize sedan benchmark, can there?
Continuing Nissan’s trend of the past few years of updating successful models with vehicles whose design could charitably be called “evolutionary” (and less-charitably called “not creative”), the 2009 Altima takes many of its styling cues directly from the previous-generation model, sold from 2002 to 2006. Nissan deserves credit for actually making the 2007 Altima slightly smaller and lighter on the outside than its predecessor model. It shed about an inch in wheelbase and about 2 1/2 inches in overall length with its most recent redesign, with interior measurements a split decision – the old car was bigger in front shoulder room, front legroom, rear headroom, and rear hip room, while the new car is bigger in front hip room, rear legroom, and cargo volume. Other dimensions are pretty much identical between the cars. The resulting styling, while clearly an Altima, has been modernized with headlamps and tail lamps that are more swept back; the C-pillar design is cleaned up (but manages to look more like a BMW’s than any other Nissan model), and fender flares are larger and more prominent. Aside from looking a little too similar to an old Altima, my only other criticism of the exterior of the 2009 Altima that I tested was that it was shod with puny 16 inch wheels. The small-diameter wheels meant that there was an unfashionably large amount of black sidewall showing when viewing the car’s profile. With that being said, its navy blue exterior, chrome trim around the windows, and dual exhaust outlets (even on a four-banger) made it probably one of the better-looking vehicles in its segment; while styling is subjective, it’s probably better-looking than the Accord, Camry, Fusion, or Sonata, but not as attractive to me as the Malibu and Mazda6.
During the beginning of Carlos Ghosn’s reign as Nissan’s CEO, when the company was desperate to save itself from financial ruin, some brutal cost-cutting was foisted upon the interiors of Nissan and Infiniti vehicles. Over the past half-decade, Nissan has taken this criticism to heart, and in my experience, vehicles from the Altima’s price class and up (such as all Infinitis, and the 2009 Maxima) have had better-than-average interior materials and design. My test vehicle was equipped very similarly to the way the Accord that I tested a few months ago was; a loaded four cylinder. This meant heated leather seats, navigation, Bluetooth, XM satellite radio, dual-zone climate-control system, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and power moonroof. The Altima added a backup camera, but did not include the Accord’s 17 inch wheels.
I was pleased with the abundance of soft-touch surfaces throughout the interior – at least in spots that I regularly came in contact with. The top of the dash, the top of the door panels, and the armrests would not have been out of place in an Infiniti. Indeed, the dash appeared to be made of the same material that the dashboards of several far more expensive Infinitis that I’ve tested was. The lower reaches of the dash and door panels were made of hard, roughly-grained plastic, but I had to make a specific effort to touch those parts. The doors and trunklid appeared to fit well, but – in spite of the Altima’s stellar NHTSA safety scores (five stars across the board, except for four stars in rollover likelihood) – the doors felt less substantial than they do in the Accord. Now, one of Honda’s strengths in the Accord is the perceived quality around the way the doors open and close, so the comparison is not really a strength-to-strength contest. Interior noise levels were a bit higher than I expected, particularly before the engine was warm. Controls were all intuitive in their operation; I particularly liked the simple yet effective HVAC controls with the temperature readout displayed digitally in the center of each side’s temperature knob. Another strong point in the interior was the smooth, well-damped operation of every button and knob. I might be weird for saying this, but I actually really got a kick out of how the turn signal lever engaged so smoothly with no audible click. Still, in spite of all the boxes being checked for the interior (soft dash, nicely-operating controls, Bose stereo, etc.), I couldn’t somehow shake my impression that the Altima’s interior did not feel as premium as an Accord’s does.
Depending upon the trim level, Altimas are available with either an XTronic CVT or a 6-speed manual transaxle. Conventional torque converter automatics are not offered anywhere on the model line. CVTs are strange animals; on the positive side, they are always able to be in the perfect ratio for performance or for fuel economy. On the negative side, they always give a sensation while driving that is unfortunately similar to a conventional automatic that is slipping. As you accelerate, the engine finds its way into its prime operating range (from an RPM standpoint) and just stays there. The Altima’s 2.5 liter four cylinder seemed to be more or less up to the task of moving the car with alacrity. One nice feature – if not probably one of little utility – is that the CVT’s manual shift mode has six fixed ratios that more or less emulate a conventional transmission. While my test vehicle lacked shift paddles behind the steering wheel, it also moved between “gears” amazingly quickly. I spent 99% of my time in the Altima in the CVT’s drive mode, and the fast kickdowns and keeping the engine in its power band allowed more or less drama-free passing on two-lane roads.
Brakes on the Altima had good pedal feel and provided adequate, predictable stopping power. I felt that its steering was nicely weighted and was accurate during cornering; basically, the car’s nose went in the direction that I expected it to. I prefer a car with a suspension on the firm side, and the Altima’s felt just right to me. Had the rolling stock been a bit larger, it might have had slightly more responsive handling, but I’m realistic in my expectations for a family sedan with 60-series 16″ tires.
I observed fuel economy of about 21 mpg combined (though mostly city/back road driving); the 2.5 liter four cylinder/CVT combination is rated at 23 mpg city/31 mpg highway, so it was one of the few vehicles I’ve tested that didn’t at least match the EPA’s city rating. The 2.5 liter/six-speed manual combination is rated at 23/32, the 3.5 liter/CVT combo is rated at 19/26, and the 3.5 liter/6-speed combo is rated at 18/27.
As noted before, my test vehicle had pretty much every available feature except for the 270-horsepower 3.5 liter V6 (by the way, the 2.5 liter four cylinder is rated at 175 horsepower), The base price for the 2009 Altima 2.5 S is $22,235 including destination. My tester had the $1,050 Convenience Package (power driver’s seat, auto headlamps, leather-wrapped steering wheel, redundant audio controls), $1,100 Convenience Plus Package (power sliding moonroof, 16″ alloy wheels), $310 fog lights, $1,460 SL Package (leather seats and shift knob, heated front seats, Homelink), $1,240 Connection Package (Bluetooth, Bose audio system, AM/FM/XM/CD changer, dual zone climate control, $175 trunk mat, $370 rear spoiler, and $2,200 Technology Package (navigation system with rear view camera and XM NavTraffic). The bottom line including destination was $29,940. Again, that’s Honda Accord money – and Hondas tend to hold their value better when trade-in time comes along – and depending on your priorities, the Nissan may push more buttons for you than the Accord does. Since I haven’t yet experienced a Mazda6 and have to take Kevin Miller’s word for it, I assume that the Altima would stack up similarly against that car as well. For a car to sell almost 270,000 copies in 2008, it must be pretty good – and the Altima is a very good car. I’m just not convinced that it’s the best car in the midsize segment.
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