Nissan Altima 3.5 SV: No gaffes, no zingers


Photo courtesy of Nissan
Warren Brown
Columnist October 5, 2012

President Obama should have studied the development of the 2013 Nissan Altima 3.5 SV sedan before taking the stage against Mitt Romney in last week’s televised debate.

Had the president done that research, he would have learned something about the limits of strategic inoffensiveness and, perhaps, avoided a mostly lackluster performance.

Warren Brown is a columnist who writes about autos for The Washington Post. View Archive

Here’s the problem: In both the car business and politics, it’s not enough to be passionate in pursuit of moderation. Something hotter can come along and knock you out of the box. That is the risk Obama is taking if he continues playing nice with his Republican challenger in future debates. It’s also the risk Nissan is taking with its completely reworked but oh-so-compromised new Altima.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Obama. I like the new Altima. But both of them share a frustrating habit of pulling punches when you yearn for them to go for the knockout.

I was excited when I saw a concept version of Nissan’s new Altima, the fifth generation of that midsize family sedan, on display earlier this year at the New York International Auto Show. It was stunning — radically angled front end with counter-opposed, arrow-shaped headlamps; muscular front fenders and side panels flowing nicely toward the rear end; a nice finish in the end with rear lamps complimenting those up front.

Interior materials were substantially better than any I had seen in previous Altima models. I knew that some compromise was necessary, such as Nissan’s carry-over use of a 2.5-liter in-line four-cylinder engine (182 horsepower, 180 foot-pounds of torque) in base Altima models. That engine, in combination with Nissan’s continuously variable transmission, would be nothing to get giddy about in terms of driving performance. But it would be decent enough with a bonus of 27 miles per gallon in the city and 38 on the highway burning regular-grade gasoline.

Besides, the new Altima would also be offered with Nissan’s 3.5-liter V-6 (270 horsepower, 258 foot-pounds of torque). That is the one I was waiting for with the anticipation of a hot presidential debate with my man Obama coming out swinging, jabbing his opponent with tough comments about flip-flopping on social issues and secretly putting down 47 percent of the U.S. electorate as self-entitled moochers.

But the Nissan Altima 3.5 SV’s performance on the road was as frustrating as Obama’s in that first debate. I found a wonderfully clear patch of highway in central Virginia — free of traffic and construction obstacles, a road that invites you to push the accelerator pedal just a little harder than usual. This, I did . . . with all of the satisfaction of listening to the president lamely respond to a sharp Romney jab with a professorial dissertation.

I pushed the Altima 3.5 SV’s gas pedal expecting it to leap to life — stupidly forgetting that I was driving a car equipped with a sample of Nissan’s continued experimentation with continuously variable transmissions.

An aside: CVTs are engineered to automatically transfer power to the drive wheels, the front wheels in the case of the Altima, using a system of pulleys. Fixed gears, as in traditional automatic transmissions, have been eliminated to help reduce mechanical friction and improve fuel economy. Technically, this is a good thing. And, yes, it makes perfect sense — when I’m not in search of the visceral thrill of the feel of a car’s response to a firm smack on the accelerator pedal.

The Nissan Altima 3.5 SV’s response to extra accelerator pressure was the mechanical equivalent of “On the one hand . . . on the other . . . ”

I wanted something more aggressive, although increased aggressiveness might not have made much sense. This is what is equally confusing in the current state of politics and the automobile business.

We want our national politicians to be uncompromising, smackdown warriors in taking on opponents. But we also want them to have the finesse and common sense to compromise, to play nice, if doing so is in the best interest of the country.

The same thing with cars, especially among those of us who love driving: We like sharp looks. We want cars to drive as well as, or even better than, they look. But we also want them to avoid and, failing that, survive horrific crashes. We want them to deliver maximum fuel economy and to do it all at an affordable price which, I suppose, makes wanting a car such as the 2013 Nissan Maxima 3.5 SV okay. It delivers on all those wants and needs.

But the inner, deeply flawed me longs for other things — a car with zoom, a president less given to politesse and more inclined to punch the lights out of the competition.

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