The 2021 Nissan Altima is a midsize, five-passenger, sedan that has been on sale since 1992. When launched, it was slotted to fit between the smaller Sentra and larger Maxima. Now in its sixth generation of production (last redesigned in 2019), the Altima has matured into a feature-laden sedan that has earned the title of Nissan’s best selling car by a wide margin. Pricing for the 2021 Nissan Altima starts around $24,500.
At first glance, Altima gives the impression of being low and wide, which gives it a sporty look. Numbers bear this out, as Altima has a coefficient of drag of 0.26. The sedan will experience much less wind resistance on the road than most SUVs (which usually measure above .35). Less wind resistance means the engine works less to move the car, and this can deliver higher fuel economy – good news.
Nissan has spread the signature V-motion grille across its lineup, tying the family of vehicles together. Altima sits in the Nissan lineup between Sentra and Maxima, and is an understated buffer between the two extremes. Like Maxima, it has a long overhang at front and rear. Like Sentra, it has a short trunk lid and floating roofline. Fit-and-finish are excellent all around, with sleek paint and tasteful chrome.
Altima’s dash is moderately attractive, uncluttered and intelligently laid out, with an eight-inch touchscreen display at the top (where it belongs) and an instrument panel shrouded beneath a cowl. The passenger’s view is rather ordinary and lacking detail, and the center console seems overly thick and a little clunky. This complaint is somewhat mitigated in the upper trim levels, where better materials and contrasting textures lend interest and dynamics to the dash overall. It’s a case of “you get what you pay for,” demonstrated before your eyes.
Seating is a Nissan strength. The front “Zero Gravity” bucket seats are very comfortable and adaptable to a wide range of body types, and as you step up through the trim levels, amenities move from cloth to leather, manual to power adjustment, and optional to standard heating. The second row is pleasantly spacious, with good head, leg, hip, and shoulder room for two adults and a smaller passenger. The trunk can swallow up to 15.4 cubic feet of junk.
Nissan always does a good job of including basic tech features as standard equipment. Nissan Intelligent Key with Push-Button Start is standard on all models, along with Remote Engine Start, Bluetooth, cruise control, HomeLink, rear-view camera, Siri Eyes Free, Google Assistant Voice Recognition, and more. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard on all but S models. The base center display is five inches (on S), 8.0-inch touchscreen on all others. Bose Premium Sound is standard on SL and Platinum.
Altima comes with a choice of two 4-cylinder engines. The base engine is a naturally aspirated (non-turbo) 2.5-liter gasoline direct-injection unit (188 hp/ 180 lb-ft of torque FWD, 182 hp/178 lb-ft of torque AWD). The premium engine, available only on the SR VC-Turbo trim vehicle, is a turbocharged 2.0-liter with direct inject and port injection (236 hp/267 lb-ft of torque with regular gas, 248 hp/273 lb-ft of torque with premium). This variable compression (VC) ratio technology debuted on the 2019 Infiniti QX50, which Nissan touted as an automotive industry first. Highly simplified, the technology squeezes more power out each drop of fuel.
The VC-Turbo delivers 25 mpg city/34 mpg highway/29 mpg combined, while the 2.5-liter gets 27-28 mpg city/37-38 mpg highway/31-32 mpg combined with front-wheel drive, 25-26 mpg city/35-36 mpg highway/29-30 mpg combined with all-wheel drive.
All trim levels and both engines in Altima get hooked up to continuously variable automatic transmissions (CVT). Nissan has been devoted to this style of transmission for years. Rather than using traditional stepped gears, a CVT uses pulleys and bands to keep the engine in the ideal rev range at all times. This can be great for efficiency, but the responsiveness and engine sound is lackluster (in the worst circumstances, a CVT can introduce a droning sound, and a rubber-band feel to acceleration).
Altima’s Xtronic CVT, thankfully, avoids most of the pitfalls with artificially introduced peaks and valleys in the power curve, and on SR trim even offers manual shift via paddle shifters. That said, the 2.5-liter engine is tea with milk for Altima, and the VC-Turbo is a double-shot of espresso. Be sure to drive both before making a decision.
Altima’s four-wheel independent suspension (MacPherson struts up front/multi-link rear) is very good on the bumps and delivers a nice level ride through the turns. Steering is direct and precise. The available all-wheel-drive system is front-wheel biased, but can send up to 50% of the power to the rear when needed. If you’re in a wet or snowy climate, it can make Altima better to drive year-round. Unfortunately, all-wheel drive is not available with the VC-Turbo, which is front-wheel drive only. Why, Nissan, why?
Altima comes in five trim levels with a standard 2.5-liter engine:
- S (starting around $24,500 FWD) — This is the base car, no AWD available.
- SV (starting around $25,500 FWD/$27,000 AWD) — Adds LED headlights, electronic parking brake, NissanConnect 8-inch touchscreen, Nissan Safety Shield 360, 17-inch alloy wheels, and more.
- SR (starting around $26,000 FWD/$27,500 AWD) — Steps up to 19-inch wheels, paddle shifters – the sporty trim level.
- SL (starting around $30,000 FWD/$31,500 AWD) — Adds ProPilot Assist, Bose Audio.
- Platinum (starting around $34,000 AWD) — All the options are standard, top-of-the-line model.
One additional model is available with the new 2.0-liter VC turbo engine:
- SR VC-Turbo (starting around $30,500 FWD) — The superior engine choice gets wrapped with a nicely equipped sedan.
Some package upgrades are available on the lower trim levels to bridge the gaps, making it easy to configure the Altima of your dreams. Nissan also offers a ton of à la carte accessories, from body-side molding to floor mats to trunk organizers and illuminated ash trays.
If you are looking for a more accurate idea of pricing, you can build and price an Altima on Nissan’s official web site.
Easily the best feature available on Altima is the VC-Turbo engine, which transforms Altima from a run-of-the-mill sedan to a fun-to-drive experience. We also like the available ProPilot Assist system, which can make a long highway drive less tiring and much safer. All-wheel drive is a great feature for a sedan, though we wish it could be available on the VC-Turbo, which is front-wheel drive only.
Have we mentioned how much we like the VC Turbo engine? Since the only version of the Altima where you can get that engine is the SR VC-Turbo, thankfully the trim level is nicely equipped in the sweet spot in the lineup.
Nissan Safety Shield is standard on all trim levels except the base S, where it is a $475 option. ProPilot Assist is available on SV as part of an $1,800 package, standard on SL and Platinum.
The Altima is a nice upgrade from a compact sedan. It is a tasteful, smart choice for a rising young executive – not flashy or excessive, and not a penalty box for your commute. If a luxury car seems like overstatement, and driving excitement isn’t on your short list, Altima can give you the upscale, stylish look without the ostentatious nameplate.
Altima is in a tough group of midsize sedans. The Toyota Camry has been America’s best-selling car on and off for decades, followed closely by the Honda Accord, and neither car is going away. The VC-Turbo is a good addition to the Altima lineup, and the SL and Platinum trim levels of Altima are downright elegant. Avoid the base S model, which seems like a bargain until you spend time in it. You deserve better.
- Honda Accord
- Hyundai Sonata
- Kia K5
- Subaru Legacy
- Toyota Camry
- Volkswagen Jetta