Pros: Handsome styling; cushy seats; innovative continuously variable transmission technology

Cons: Vague power steering; engine-induced torque steer

What's New: The Nissan Altima has been completely redesigned for 2013.

The family sedan category in recent years has become the Camry/Accord category. Those two reliable Japanese models have come to represent prudent purchase decisions to many family buyers.

But recently, we've seen the arrival of the all-new Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima and Volkswagen Passat, and now the all-new Nissan Altima. Each of these cars has its own strengths and weaknesses, and some are better than both the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry.

Nissan targeted maximum efficiency for its conventional, non-hybrid version of the Altima, producing the lightest car of this group and continuing the company's class-exclusive use of a continuously variable transmission (CVT) to achieve an impressive 38 mpg on the EPA highway driving cycle for the 4-cylinder model.

Comfort & Utility

Considering the amazing highway fuel efficiency of the 4-cylinder Altima, it is even more incredible that the car is as spacious and comfortable as it is. The Camry feels bigger inside, but the Nissan's materials are clearly nicer.

Nissan boasts that the front seats were designed using NASA zero g technology, and they are comfortable regardless of the connection to NASA. This includes the basic, fabric-covered seats, not just the pricey leather-wrapped ones, although it would be nice to have adjustable lumbar support on the base seats. That fabric seat covering has a soft, fuzzy texture similar to a stuffed teddy bear, and that contributes to the comfortable impression of the seats. Likewise, the headliner and sun visors are also covered in soft fabric.

In the back seat, the legroom is especially commendable, and the seat bottoms are supportive. The rear seatbacks fold down so that long items can pass through from the roomy trunk. They lie at an angle rather than fold flat, so the utility of the load space is fairly limited.

Technology

Nissan is ahead of the game in integrating consumer technology into the Altima. A color display sits between the large circular analog gauges and shows tire pressure readings, navigation information, blind spot warning signals and music information from Pandora streamed from a connected smartphone. Bluetooth phone connectivity is standard equipment on all Altimas. Smartphones can also coordinate with the car to provide hands-free messaging and to search Google for points of interest.

The Easy Fill Tire Alert system simplifies pumping up the tires by chirping the Altima's horn when you've put in enough air. Remote keyless entry and push-button start are also standard; these items are more commonly standard only on premium-brand cars.

Performance & Fuel Economy

Nissan carried over the existing Altima's engines, a 182-horsepower 2.5-liter 4-cylinder and a 270-hp 3.5-liter V6. The 4-cylinder's EPA ratings are 27 mpg city and 38 mpg highway, while the V6 scores 22 mpg in the city and 31 on the highway.

Nissan applied its knowhow to the Altima's continuously variable automatic transmission. Nissan has stuck with CVTs while other companies like Ford have tried and given up. For the new Altima, Nissan redesigned 70 percent of the CVT's parts, cutting internal friction by 40 percent and expanding the range of available gear ratios. The computer that manages the transmission has also been programmed to be smarter.

As a result, Nissan credits the CVT with 40 percent of the Altima's improvement in fuel economy for 2013. On the road, there's less of the expected CVT engine screaming at high revs that makes it seem, when accelerating, that something on the car might have broken. In fact, the Altima's CVT is even more invisible to drivers than before, which is high praise for a technology that is widely disliked by drivers because of that disconnected feeling they have had from bad CVTs.

The question is, however, why does Nissan bother with a unique technology when conventional automatics are getting up to eight or nine speeds? For now, Nissan's response to that question is "38 mpg," and that's a good answer.

Safety

Nissan offers several new safety technologies aimed at helping Altima drivers avoid accidents, such as lane departure, blind spot and moving object warning systems. Cameras monitor the surrounding area, letting the computer warn the driver if there's a car in the blind spot. Even better, the computer analyzes the images it sees and issues a warning in case there is a moving object in view behind the car.

To supplement the usual new stability control technologies, the Altima features active understeer control. This automatically brakes the inside front wheel when the car is going too quickly into a turn, reducing the understeer effect that is common to front-wheel-drive cars. Understeer is when a car doesn't turn as much as the driver intends because the front tires are sliding.

Driving Impressions

The Altima's styling, comfort and efficiency all promise to make it an excellent contender against the top-selling family sedans. Unfortunately, the car's steering is a significant letdown, particularly in the V6 version.

In turns, the steering provides no feel for the road, and steering effort remains exactly the same no matter how hard the car is turning or how much grip the tires find. This gives the Altima's steering a disconnected, artificial feeling.

Similarly, the Altima suffers torque steer while accelerating. It isn't the seriously bad kind of torque steer in which the engine wrenches the front wheels to the side and tries to change lanes when the driver intended to go straight. No, this is the more subtle sort, in which the car resists the driver's attempt to turn the steering wheel-for instance, when unwinding the wheel while accelerating from a turn.

Other Cars to Consider

Chevrolet Malibu: The Malibu is a smaller, tauter 4-cylinder-only car.

Ford Fusion: The Fusion combines winning style with a huge variety of power sources, including a standard 4-cylinder, a turbo, a hybrid electric and a plug-in hybrid.

Honda Accord: The old standby is still solid, efficient and responsive, although the styling has gotten a little stale.

Hyundai Sonata: The exciting-looking Sonata isn't that exciting to drive, but it is a great car, delivering the combination of price, efficiency and quality that built the Toyota Camry's reputation.

AutoTrader Recommends

Loading the Altima with options quickly runs the price of the V6 version into the low $30,000s, which should scare away family drivers. At that price, Nissan's own Maxima might be the better choice. The responsible family shopper can choose the 2.5 SV trim level for $24,100 and get goodies like remote start, Pandora radio integration and hands-free text reading with 17-inch aluminum wheels and a backup camera, all in a car rated at 38 mpg on the highway.

author photo

Dan Carney is a veteran auto industry observer who has written for MSNBC.com, Motor Trend, AutoWeek, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Better Homes and Gardens and other publications. He has authored two books, "Dodge Viper" and "Honda S2000" and is a juror for the North American Car of the Year award. Carney covers the industry from the increasingly strategic location of Washington, D.C.

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