Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: November 17, 2019
As luck would have it, I was graced with a new 2020 Nissan Altima the same day that Toronto experienced its first heavy snowstorm of the year. But this wasn’t just any Altima. Last year, Nissan launched it with a standard all-wheel drive system that allowed their mid-size sedan to send power to all four wheels. And while its main competitors like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry do without AWD (correction: Toyota just announced they are launching a Camry AWD later next year), the Altima is betting that this grippy guardian angel will provide enough traction to boost sales in a slowly diminishing segment.
Sedans just don’t sell like they used to with high-riding SUVs taking the helm, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a market, and in geographic areas like Canada where snow and adverse weather conditions happen four months out of twelve, demand for AWD sedans have never been higher. Selection is limited, though. Aside from the Altima, Subaru has been selling their Legacy AWD for quite some time, and hopping up to larger sedans like the Dodge Charger AWD takes some extra bit of coin. The sixth-generation Nissan Altima AWD on the other hand starts at an appealing $28,098, compared to starting price of the $28,490 Honda Accord LX, and $26,620 Toyota Camry LE, both of which have a more diversified portfolio. The Accord can be had with a more powerful turbocharged engine or even a manual transmission, while the Camry offers a V6 or a hybrid powertrain.
Giving the Nissan a slight edge are clean shaven looks, and an attractive V-shaped front grill evoking fond memories of the GT-R we drove a few weeks ago. The muscular front hood is even more accentuated without front license plates, and the floating roofline at the C-pillar makes for a nice visual. I’d even go so far as to say the Altima is one of the best looking mid-size sedans on the market, more so than the emo-Camry and the overly-dressed-Accord.
And with snow falling and vision dwindling, there felt like no better time to put the new Altima AWD to the test. The drive wasn’t as bland or as coarse as I expected. Nissan has expertly tuned their CVT to deliver meaty torque from the get go, and it doesn’t rev or scream unnecessarily like the harsh examples that preceded it, The 2.5-litre naturally aspirated inline-four engine is 80% new and feels perfectly suited to the car. With 182 hp and 178 lb-ft, this reactor is not too powerful but just enough for easy acceleration and moderately quick overtaking duties. There is no optional turbocharged engine like the Accord, so those who seek more power will have to look elsewhere. The Altima doesn’t drive as aggressively as it looks either, so don’t be fooled by that front grill. And dynamically, there isn’t enough agility or verve to make me want one over a Rogue or Qashqai.
With the roads bogged down by fifteen centimetres of snow and traffic grinding to a demoralizing halt, the Altima’s welcomed AWD system that shifts 50% of power between its axles, took me home without a hiccup but the lack of winter tires was unnerving. Wearing 19-inch all-season Hankook Kinergy GT tires on all four corners, sprinting from a stop wasn’t an issue, but quick braking from higher speeds did not offer much confidence, with the ABS quickly intervening and the systems shambling to shuffle torque to the appropriate wheels. I’m almost certain that if it was loaded with snow tires, the Altima AWD would be a formidable winter warrior. In my tester’s spec, not quite. I’d take any one of its FWD competitors with snow tires instead. Driving all four wheels can only do so much when none of them have the required grip in cold temperatures. Little do some know that all-season tires really mean, three-seasons. Winter not included.
On the bright side, even with the entire front end caked up with slush and dirty snow, the sensors and radars worked brilliantly and allowed me to utilize ProPILOT Assist and remedy a bit of driver fatigue on the mundane journey home. ProPILOT is Nissan’s safety feature system that helps the vehicle maintain a certain set speed, keep it within the center of its lane, and keep a certain distance to the vehicle ahead, though the autonomous braking and steering wasn’t as polished or as smooth the Accord or Camry’s units. The fuel economy wasn’t bad though, as we averaged a respectable 7.9 L/100km over a mix of both city and highway driving.
The interior isn’t a bad place to spend time in. Inoffensive is a good description. Dark glossy plastics run rampant, and there isn’t anything that gives off that premium effect like the Mazda6. It doesn’t suck you in like a comfy couch like the Accord either. Still, the design is convincing enough to feel clean and well-suited towards this price point. The center-mounted touchscreen enjoys crisp graphics and is about on par with Honda’s and Toyota’s units in terms of learning curves and usability. It’s nice to have physical shortcut buttons flanking the bottom of it too for quick inputs. The same goes for the volume and tuning dials on both sides.
The slim flat-bottomed steering wheel is a neat sporting touch but it’s wrapped in a grainy leather-ish material that doesn’t feel all that nice. The wood trim adorning the dashboard livens up the otherwise bleak interior but it lacks that whiff of ergonomics that make the Camry and Accord so effective. But one touch that Nissan (and Hyundai) installs into their vehicles, which often goes overlooked, is a wiper mode function that shows your current wiper status: off, intermittent, steady, or fast, so you’re not constantly guessing while you’re flicking the stalk up and down in a heavy snowstorm. Comes in handy as there is no automatic wiper sensing function available here.
Overall, we can safely say that our gold standard mid-size sedan remains the Honda Accord. It not only drives better but it has a better chassis, a honeypot of an engine, top-notch cabin ergonomics, and is just as nicely equipped. Sure it doesn’t have AWD but smack on some winter tires and it won’t be an issue - trust us, we’ve driven it. The Toyota Camry, which is due for an AWD system late next year, is a bit of a dull affair and though incredibly fuel efficient, ranks down there with the Altima in terms of driver engagement and emotional appeal. Otherwise, the new all-wheel drive system is a welcome addition to Nissan’s portfolio and a safe haven for those lacking winter confidence. Add on a nice set of winter tires, and the Altima AWD remains an appealing candidate. There’s a lot to like, but just not enough to love.
Model: 2020 Nissan Altima Platinum AWD
Paint Type: Sunset Drift
Base Price: $35,098
Price as Tested: $35,398
Length/Width/Height (mm): 4,900 / 1,852 / 1,458
Curb weight (kg): 1,570
Engine: 2.5-litre four-cylinder
Horsepower: 182 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 178 lb-ft @ 3,600 rpm
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, AWD
Fuel Consumption ( City / Highway / Combined ) L/100km: 7.8
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 9.1 / 6.5 / 7.9