Rental Review: 2017 Nissan Altima
Being mindful of the miles I throw on my 6, I decided to utilize my sister's discount and rent a car from Enterprise. They seemed to be booming with requests the day I went to pick up my reservation. I was hoping for the Buick Verano that was depicted as their standard class offering. Instead, I got a Nissan Altima. This annoyed me some as I had a brief experience with Nissan's CVT before and was less than impressed. Considering I was going to be climbing 3 mountain passes en-route to southern Oregon, I wasn't expecting much.
Stylewise, the Altima is tasteful, especially compared to the over the top aggressiveness of it's larger brother the Maxima. The lines on the car flow fairly well. However, the interior was a mixed bag. Most of the plastic was the cheap, hard kind. Only the door handles and the center arm rest had softer material. To make it worse, there was at least 3 grades of this cheap plastic strewn about the dash. Aside from a splay of silver near the knees, it was all black. Everything about the controls, from the stereo system with the smallish 5" non-captive color screen to the multi-function switches on the steering column, looked 2nd rate. Even the seats screamed economy.
That being said, the seats were actually decently comfortable during my 1200mi romp with the Altima. Aside from poor thigh bolstering, I didn't feel fatigued much despite only having 6 way adjustment with no lumbar. Another nice surprise: Despite the cheap feel of the interior, the sound system seemed to spare no expense. While it won't win any awards, it definitely blows the stock system of the 6 away with good levels (including bass). NVH was also superior to the 6. Interior noise levels were subdued, but this was with replacement tires. No idea if the OE tires were any better or worse.
Where Nissan seemed to blow it was in details. There was a central DIS between the speedo and tach, but for my model it mostly just showed the back end of the car. I'm sure in higher models the DIS is more interactive, but there was no option for instant MPG or even cumulative. Only a DOE (distance to empty) meter was shown. HVAC controls were also simple, with no digital readout for temperature or dual zone ability. Again, this could be the trim level.
Regarding the drivetrain, I learned a few things about the CVT that Nissan employs. First, do not push it. Under light throttle the CVT acted effortlessly, keeping the car in the 1700-2400 rev range with smooth reactions. Floor it and the transmission becomes much less confident. For one, it seems to forget its roots and acts more like a traditional multi-speed curiously shifting between 3500-5000 RPM in steps. It made me wonder what the point of a CVT was if it was only going to mimic something more traditional. Second, the O/D kill switch is a bit of an oxymoron. Again, it's like the transmission is trying to be something it's not. Activating the OD kill switch pushed the CVT to hold a 3500-4000 revline no matter what the conditions. Leave the kill switch alone (and again, using light inputs), and the transmission would seamlessly adjust for inclines never working above 2500RPM. Where the kill switch DID come in handy was in descents, as the CVT offered no resistance to gravity. Using the kill switch in this fashion allowed me to minimize descent braking considerably.
So what is the big benefit of the CVT? As I came to find out during my trip, it paid off in economy. With a 17GAL fuel tank and with a mixture of city, country, mountainous pass and interstate crusing, I managed 700mi out of the tank. By rough estimates, that worked out to 41MPG. Granted, I never allowed the time to burn a few tankfuls off to be more specific, but even in the high 30s I consider that impressive for a midsize.
As for ride and handling, it's adequate. The ride was mostly pleasant with only the harshest road conditions getting filtered into the cabin. Don't rely in the steering wheel, though. It's numb beyond reproach. That adds to the handling issues. While the car feels to be competent, the lack of steering feel will definitely add a learning curve to how you toss it about. Even near the handling limits the wheel offers no warning. Should you need to brake, the binders will definitely do the job. Perhaps too well, as they felt overboosted. Just a toe-tap was enough in most situations.
After my weekend with the Altima, I believe that its best suited purpose is as a long distance hauler. Trunk space is good, the seats are mostly supportive and the fuel range exceeds most midsize cars out there. However, some might be put off by the low material qualities and, yes, that CVT.