Pros: Capable handling; quick and precise steering; comfortable ride; an abundance of technology features

Cons: Dated compared to some newer rivals; limited rear-seat room; pricey at the top end

The Nissan Altima has been a crowd pleaser for a long time as a capable mid-size sedan and coupe. Both body styles exude an attractive appearance and a healthy dose of fun-to-drive character. Depending on how it's equipped, the Altima can be a basic daily driver, a well-equipped family sedan or a sporty, cutting-edge ride.

However, the aging Altima has its work cut out for it. While the growing mid-size segment has seen an influx of modern cars with plenty of premium innovations, the Altima has not seen a lot of forward progress.

For 2012, the Altima offers few changes. Its most notable difference over last year is a new Value option package that includes Bluetooth, automatic headlights and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls. Bluetooth becomes standard equipment on the range-topping 3.5SR trim. The Altima Hybrid is no longer available.

The Altima is attractive, well built and able to meet the needs of family drivers as well as those who want a more spirited driving experience. It also brings a respectable level of comfort, content and capability to its proven sedan and coupe formulas. But with the high degree of competition these days, that may not be enough.

Comfort & Utility

The Altima's cabin is pleasing to the eye and solid to the touch. Its styling has remained remarkably relevant, with fine craftsmanship and high-quality materials. Controls are smartly laid out, and gauges are easy to read yet sophisticated. There are also plenty of handy storage compartments for small items.

While the sedan's front buckets are a bit flat, lacking optimal lateral and lower-back support, the coupe has well-bolstered sport seats with better padding to accommodate the enthusiast-oriented driver. The rear seats are wide enough for two adults but a bit limited in headroom and legroom. That applies especially to the coupe, which could be downright uncomfortable for rear-seat passengers on longer drives.

Trunk room for the sedan is a very usable 15.3 cubic feet. However, the coupe is only a little over half that volume at 8.2 cubic feet.

The Altima is available in three trim levels: 2.5, 2.5 S and 3.5 SR. Standard convenience features for the base 2.5, which comes only as a sedan, include cruise control, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel and power mirrors and windows. This model does not offer a stereo, but is prewired for an aftermarket unit. The midlevel 2.5 S, offered as both sedan and coupe, adds push-button start and a six-speaker stereo. Also available as sedan or coupe is the uplevel 3.5 SR, which has a power-adjustable driver's seat, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror and heated side mirrors.

Notable options for the Altima, contingent on trim level and package, include leather upholstery, heated seats, a premium sound system, dual-zone climate control and a sunroof.

Technology

Except for the newly added Bluetooth on the 3.5 SR, the Altima offers no advanced electronics as standard. Higher trim levels do offer several high-tech options such as a backup camera, USB connectivity, voice-command navigation with traffic alerts and a digital music storage component. But when equipped comparably to new competitors from Hyundai or Kia, the Altima is costlier.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The front-wheel-drive 2012 Nissan Altima is available with a choice of two engines. The first is a capable 2.5-liter four-cylinder producing 175 horsepower and 180 lb-ft of torque. Transmission choices are a six-speed manual or a continuously variable transmission (CVT). EPA-estimated fuel economy for this engine is 23 mpg city/32 mpg highway with the CVT and 23/31 mpg with the manual.

The more performance-based 3.5 SR is equipped with a 3.5-liter V6 good for 270 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. Fuel economy figures for this unit are 20/27 mpg with the CVT and 18/27 mpg with the manual.

Safety

Standard safety features for the Altima include ABS, traction control, stability control, and six airbags: front, side and head curtain.

The 2012 Altima earned four out of five stars in crash testing from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Altima its top safety score.

Driving Impressions

The Altima 2.5 and 2.5S both offer a lively driving personality and a pleasant ride. These models offer adequate power and secure handling, a combination that will satisfy most buyers looking for a mid-size sedan or coupe for daily use. The Altima is quiet and comfortable, even at highway speeds. Road, wind and engine noise are minimal.

Although the coupe feels sportier than the sedan, it's only by a narrow margin. The Altima four-door shows a good bit of athleticism, too, thanks to its rigid body structure, well-sprung suspension and precise steering. Together, these chassis elements are a fine match for the Altima's base 2.5-liter 4-cylinder.

For those who want more power and performance, the V6-powered 3.5 SR not only brings more horses under the hood but also larger wheels and a sport-tuned suspension for added agility and grip. The result will be pleasing to those looking for a legitimate sport sedan or coupe that doubles as an affordable daily driver. The SR shows its edge with strong off-the-line performance and plenty of cornering prowess.

Both engines operate more smoothly with the Altima's CVT. This transmission's computer-controlled shift program increases both performance and fuel economy. It also features a Sport mode that mimics the gearing and operation of a smooth-shifting six-speed manual gearbox. The Altima's actual six-speed manual, on the other hand, is a bit clunky and unrefined. Avoid it.

Other Cars to Consider

Honda Accord - The Accord's reputation for reliability is unmatchable. It's also larger on the inside than the Altima. However, the Altima offers a quieter ride and a higher-quality interior.

Mazda Mazda6 - Both the Mazda6 and the Altima are sporty family sedans. The Mazda offers more passenger and cargo space. The Altima has better fuel economy and a higher-quality interior.

Hyundai Sonata - The Sonata has a much wider array of standard and optional features than the Altima. It's also more stylish and modern inside and out. But the Altima's ride is quieter and smoother.

Kia Optima - The Optima has a more modern design and costs less when comparably equipped. And for fans of manual shifting, the Optima offers a smoother and more refined gearbox.

Ford Fusion - The Fusion has a new exterior design that makes it far more eye-catching than the Altima. It also offers much more premium technology content.

AutoTrader Recommends

Unless you're specifically looking for higher performance or a coupe variant, the Altima 2.5 S sedan is the way to go. This four-door has the more fuel-efficient 4-cylinder engine, and, when properly equipped, many of the premium amenities of the 3.5 SR at a considerably lower cost.

author photo

Shamit Choksey has a love for automobiles that worked into an early career writing and developing cop shows for network television. Later, diving even further into the world of wheels, he became a writer/producer for the Emmy-nominated PBS/Discovery Channel series "MotorWeek." These days, Shamit lives in Southern California, serving as a media consultant and journalist within the automotive industry. Incidentally, his wife and two sons are not impressed by any of this.

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