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2020 Nissan Altima Test Drive Review
Redesigned last year, the Nissan Altima is an appealing midsize family sedan that gets just about everything right, but it's missing a meaningful claim to fame that Nissan could use to lure car buyers.
Sedans are not dead, though some models in the segment are not long for this world. In fact, post-pandemic financial pressure on consumers could result in a resurgence of the traditional 4-door car as consumers seek lower-cost, higher-value transportation.
Clearly, Nissan believes in sedans. And should economic headwinds once again favor cars over more expensive and less efficient SUVs, the company is perfectly positioned to capitalize on such a theoretical trend. During the past two years, the company has redesigned or refreshed its entire sedan lineup, which includes the Versa, Sentra, Altima, and Maxima.
New last year, the 2020 Nissan Altima receives an important change. The company's Nissan Safety Shield 360 advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) package is more widely available than before. Now optional for base S trim and standard with SR trim and higher, this collection of ADAS makes the 2020 Altima even more worthy of your consideration.
But is that enough?
Look and Feel
In addition to base S and sporty SR variants, the 2020 Altima comes in SV, SL, and Platinum trim levels. My test car was an Altima Platinum equipped with the available turbocharged engine, extra-cost paint, a rear spoiler, splash guards, a set of floor and trunk mats, grocery bag hooks in the trunk, and illuminated doorsill kick plates. The price came to $37,825, including $925 for destination charges.
Equipped with 19-inch machined-finish aluminum wheels, the Altima Platinum looks terrific. Last year's redesign cleaned up this car's styling, leaving just a handful of questionable details.
Viewed from the side, the car's door handles are on different visual planes, making the front ones appear too low on the door. Around back, the body-color lower diffuser panel between the exhaust outlets would look better in a dark gray. And personally, I could live without the black trim on the rear roof pillars.
Interior design is clean, contemporary, and a model of ergonomic simplicity. The touchscreen infotainment system is located high on the dashboard and includes stereo knobs. The climate controls are clearly legible and include temperature adjustment knobs. The transmission shifter is a traditional PRNDL affair. You're unlikely to need the owner's manual to operate anything in this vehicle.
Materials quality looks and feels on par with the midsize sedan segment, and you'd better like black or gray, because those are the only colors available. Matte chrome detailing and striated simulated wood trim dress up the interior just enough to keep you from feeling like you got ripped off.
Most 2020 Nissan Altimas have 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine making up to 188 horsepower, paired with a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) that powers the car's front wheels. All-wheel drive (AWD) is an option with this engine, making the Altima more appealing to shoppers in cold-weather climates.
My test car had the optional turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine. This is Nissan's vaunted variable-compression turbocharged engine, which debuted in the redesigned 2019 Infiniti QX50. The automaker worked for 10 years to perfect the design, which automatically and variably adjusts the compression ratio in order to provide the power of a V6 engine when you want it, and the efficiency of a 4-cylinder engine the rest of the time.
This exclusive engine is referred to as the VC-Turbo, and Nissan offers it only with SR and Platinum trim. It comes with a CVT and front-wheel drive (FWD). It is not available with AWD, and when you run it on premium fuel it supplies 248 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. (Output on regular gas is 236 hp and 267 lb-ft) The EPA says you can expect to get 29 mpg in combined driving, but on my testing loop, the car averaged 26.2 mpg.
Nissan equips every Altima with a strut front, multi-link rear suspension, as well as dual-pinion electric steering and 4-wheel-disc brakes. All have 17-inch wheels except the SR and Platinum, which feature handsome 19-inch designs. Only the Altima SR gets sports suspension tuning.
Even without the firmer underpinnings, the Altima's ride and handling will impress a discerning driver. In part, this is due to standard Active Ride Control, which automatically adjusts engine torque and applies the brakes to smooth the ride quality, and Intelligent Trace Control, which is a brake-based torque vectoring technology.
Quick, sharp, and responsive to input, the Altima VC-Turbo is satisfying to drive. This is true in urban and rural settings, and on arrow-straight freeways and curvy mountain roads. The CVT is programmed to sound and feel more like a traditional automatic, but when changing ratios, it can produce sudden surges in power unlike any other kind of transmission. This isn't a bad thing, and it's not a good thing. It's just a thing.
Form and Function
Constructed to mimic the sensation of weightlessness in space, the Altima's front and back seats employ NASA-inspired design for superior comfort. Consider the goal realized, with just two exceptions. First, Nissan doesn't offer a front passenger's seat height adjuster for the Altima. Second, you can't get ventilated front seats, either. At the test car's price, it is fair to expect both.
If you live in a cold climate, the Altima offers heated front seats, a heated steering wheel, and a remote engine starter with climate control operation, so that the car is toasty warm when you're ready to drive it. Heated rear seats, however, are not available. Nissan does supply rear air conditioning vents, though.
Substantial in-cabin storage space ensures that you've got places to put things. Just don't search for a wireless smartphone charging pad, because there isn't one. Instead, you'll need to use the USB-A and USB-C connections.
Trunk room measures 15.4 cubic feet, which is average for the Altima's class. Our test car had optional grocery bag hooks that prevent plastic sacks from rolling around and distributing your fruits and veggies all over the trunk, as well as an interior grab handle to help keep your hands clean after loading luggage.
Nissan offers a nearly perfect infotainment system in the Altima. While an 8-inch display is increasingly small by modern standards, the flat and easily referenced display, the stereo volume and tuning knobs, and the rows of physical and virtual buttons supplying shortcuts to main screen menus make using the system a snap.
It comes standard with Bluetooth connectivity, a text-messaging assistant, Siri Eyes Free, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto. Available features include satellite radio, a navigation system with door-to-door directions via a smartphone app, a 9-speaker Bose premium audio system, and Nissan Connect Services.
A connected services technology, NissanConnect Services is free during the first six months of Altima ownership. Beyond that, the Select Plan with Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and remote door lock access continues for a total of three years. Highlights of the Premium Plan include automatic collision notification, emergency calling, and smartphone alerts related to curfew times, vehicle speed, and defined geographical boundaries. The Premium Plus Plan adds hands-free 24-hour destination assistance.
The door-to-door navigation function is especially helpful when you arrive at your destination but need to park farther away than anticipated, such as within a major city where parking can be hard to find. The Nissan Connect smartphone app continues to provide directions as you walk to your final destination.
If there is room for improvement here, it relates to the Altima's voice recognition technology. It is not a fully natural voice recognition system, so you must sometimes use specific commands in order to obtain desired results.
For 2020, every version of the Altima includes Nissan Safety Shield 360, or at least parts of it. With the base S trim level, forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking are standard. Other versions of the Altima get the whole enchilada, including pedestrian detection, blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic warning, lane departure warning, rear automatic braking, and automatic high-beam assistance. These added features are optional for the Altima S.
Additional safety systems include a driver monitoring system, a road-sign recognition system, and a surround-view camera. ProPilot Assist is a Level 2 semi-autonomous driving aid that adds adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability and lane-centering assistance, each of which is designed to make driving in traffic and over long distances less fatiguing.
Unfortunately, it doesn't achieve that goal. Though I did not test the technology in heavy traffic, on a longer drive including plenty of miles on highways and freeways, I found the system's audible alerts irritating. Furthermore, I felt like I needed to second-guess the system in some situations, and I fought against the lane-centering system on a regular basis. ProPilot Assist proved hard to trust, so aside from testing the technology I did not use it.
If a collision occurs, the 2020 Altima is a safe sedan. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gives it an overall rating of 5 stars, while the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) assigns the Altima a Top Safety Pick with the automatic high-beam LED headlights that are standard in every version of the car except for the base trim level.
While some car companies are planning to abandon the midsize sedan segment, including both Chevrolet and Ford, others are doubling down. That means Nissan needs to make sure it is competitive in terms of more than just price. It must demonstrate value that cannot be found in other family cars, like the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, and Hyundai Sonata.
Here, the argument in favor of purchasing a 2020 Altima is not clear cut.
Nissan does not provide Altima owners with a super long warranty, or with free scheduled maintenance, or with multi-year trials to its connected service platform. The Altima is not a resale value champion, it doesn't come in hybrid or plug-in hybrid versions, it's not the largest or most accommodating car in its class, and it doesn't do a convincing imitation of an entry-luxury car. This Nissan is also not the most powerful, nor the most efficient, nor the safest sedan in the midsize car segment.
Literally, every single Altima competitor can lay claim to one or more of those value-add characteristics. But not this Nissan.
This situation doesn't make the Altima a bad car. Indeed, I find it quite agreeable in almost every way, and especially with the turbocharged engine. At the same time, unless you're an engineering geek who thinks the car's limited-availability VC-Turbo engine is super cool, you're probably putting the Altima on your shopping list for no other reason than the styling and the deal. And that's not a good place for Nissan to be.
Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience reviewing cars and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, J.D. Power, the New York Daily News, Autobytel, and Vehix. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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2020 Nissan Altima Top Comparisons
Users ranked 2020 Nissan Altima against other cars which they drove/owned. Each ranking was based on 9 categories. Here is the summary of top rankings.
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