Challengers to the 2021 Nissan Altima continue to fall by the wayside with each passing year. For 2021, the Fusion officially takes its exit. The dwindling selection doesn't make it any less difficult for Nissan, though. Hyundai has charged back with the stellar Sonata, and Kia with the attractive K5. And that's before we even mention the updated Honda Accord and similarly refreshed Toyota Camry.
It's tough sledding out there, but the Altima's marquee features like optional all-wheel drive and the technologically impressive VC-Turbo engine help set it apart from others. Nissan's mid-size sedan is also pleasing to the eye with sharp styling and an upmarket-feeling interior. This generation of Altima is genuinely good to drive, too, but even the sportier SR VC-Turbo trim is lacking in driver engagement and handling versus an Accord or Mazda6. Being able to spec all-wheel drive is a big bonus, but it's dampened by similar capability from the Subaru Legacy and Camry AWD, both models we'd take over the Altima. There's no doubt the Altima is worth a look, but it's still overshadowed by the long-time winners from Japan and Korea's latest.
Nissan pares down the number of Altima variants for 2021, eliminating several combinations of trim and powertrain: Platinum with VC-Turbo, the 2.5-liter Platinum with front-wheel drive, and the base S model with all-wheel drive. That makes the sportier SR model the only one available with Nissan’s 2.0-liter turbo engine, forcing the top-trim Platinum to make do with the base 2.5-liter naturally aspirated engine.
Removing the S model with all-wheel drive also makes the entry point for AWD more expensive (by $1,350), as you must step up to the SV trim for it in 2021. Besides this, the SV trim adds an available Premium package.
The interior is surprisingly appealing, especially in the premium Platinum trim, with interesting and quality materials. The flat-bottom leather-wrapped steering wheel looks good and feels better in your hands, while the leather seats feature contrast stitching that is replicated on the dash and door panels. The instrument binnacle is covered in a soft-touch material, as are the tops of the doors, while other interior surfaces are hard plastic that looks soft. The only detail that stands out in a bad way is some unconvincing wood-look plastic in upper trims. And as handsome as the interior is, we have found those of the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Mazda6 to be stronger overall.
In terms of its in-car technology, USB-A, USB-C, aux and 12V ports are easily accessible in the center console's phone cubby, beneath an infotainment screen mounted atop the dash. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are also standard. The car has a fairly simple interface for infotainment and navigation, and the layout of the 8-inch touchscreen is configurable. You may want to use a phone-based map program since we found the in-car navigation failed to find points of interest and the voice-recognition function to be poor — although the latter situation is hardly uncommon among car models. The available nine-speaker Bose audio system is middling for a premium option. We like that there are still physical menu buttons to make navigating the touchscreen audio controls easier. Ditto the HVAC controls clustered together in a bank of old-school physical buttons and knobs, rather than integrated or partially integrated in the infotainment screen. There's also a traditional shifter rather than convoluted push-button setup.
The Altima feels small to drive but is roomy inside. It is 193 inches long, 73 inches wide and 57 inches tall, with a 111-inch wheelbase. Each of those dimensions is within an inch of the Accord and Camry. Altima's curb weight ranges from 3,207 to 3,462 pounds, a little more than the weight range of the Accord, and a little less than the Camry.
Head- and legroom are sufficient for 6-footers sitting front and back, which is impressive, but actually now typical for midsize sedans. Parents should note that the Altima's fixed headrests may frustrate when trying to secure a child seat. As always, we'd recommend bringing the child seat along during a test drive.
At an accommodating 15.4 cubic feet, Altima's trunk space is a fraction more than Camry's, but the Accord and Sonata both trump it in the 16-cubic-foot range.
The Altima has two engine choices. For the 2019 redesign, Nissan introduced an all-new, naturally-aspirated 2.5-liter inline-four peaking at 188 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque with front-wheel drive. Optional all-wheel drive lowers output to 182 hp and 178 lb-ft. The SR trim gets the option of Infiniti's innovative turbocharged variable-compression 2.0-liter inline-four VC-Turbo, with 248 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque (when run with premium fuel). Those figures drop to 236 horsepower and 267 pound-feet when pumped full of regular. Both engines are coupled to a CVT and front-wheel drive, but only the 2.5 can be paired with all-wheel drive.
Fuel economy for the 2.5-liter S trim (FWD) is 28 mpg city, 39 mpg highway and 32 mpg combined, and falls to 27/37/31 in SR, SV and SL trims. With AWD, it's 26/36/30, and the heavier SR and Platinum trims bring each of those numbers down by 1 mpg. Finally, mileage for the powerful 2.0-liter VC-Turbo is 25/34/29. We saw it outperform the highway figure with as much as 40 mpg over long distances of steady state cruising.
The Altima delivers reasonably dynamic acceleration from the combination of the 2.5-liter four and the continuously variable transmission, a technology Nissan has been using for decades now and that works better than some other CVTs out there. On the road, the Altima comports itself well with increased roll stiffness and decreased longitudinal stiffness, fulfilling its goals of more responsive cornering and improved ride. (The SR model offers a firmer suspension tune, but that sporty trim can't be equipped with all-wheel drive.)
The electric power steering system is our least favorite element. On center it's completely anesthetized and has what feels like too much play when driving casually around town. As such, it makes the Altima feel distant and uninvolving. Effort and response ticks up should you find yourself on a winding road, especially in the SR model, but the Altima's competitors manage to provide a stronger car-to-driver connection at all times. We also found the steering to be a challenge at times on windy highways, as the on-center effort makes corrections difficult to gauge. It was hard to keep the car in the middle of the lane as a matter of second nature, with the electronic lane-departure nanny frequently buzzing to let us know we had drifted.
Our editors in Michigan test the base four-cylinder paired with all-wheel drive and the top-of-the-line Platinum trim level.