Test Drive: 2009 Nissan Altima 2.5 SL car test drives nissan
2009 Nissan Altima 2.5SL. Click image to enlarge

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2009 Nissan Altima

Ottawa, Ontario – It can be difficult to find new things to say about a car that’s three years into its model run, particularly if said car hasn’t yet enjoyed the kind of mid-cycle refresh that most models get three or four years after their introduction.

A case in point is the 2009 Nissan Altima you see here. In February of last year, I drove a 2007 Altima 2.5 S, a fairly basic four-cylinder model with the available continuously variable transmission (CVT). When word came that I’d be driving this newer one, I wondered what differences I’d find.

Well, aside from trim and colour differences (this one is a silver 2.5 SL model, a step up from that blue, entry-level 2.5 S), the cars are virtually identical. That’s not entirely a bad thing, but it’s clear that since this car’s 2007 debut, a few of its competitors have gained ground in certain areas – but more on that later.

Test Drive: 2009 Nissan Altima 2.5 SL car test drives nissan
Test Drive: 2009 Nissan Altima 2.5 SL car test drives nissan
Test Drive: 2009 Nissan Altima 2.5 SL car test drives nissan
2009 Nissan Altima 2.5SL. Click image to enlarge

For now, I’ll stick to the good stuff that stands out.

The interior is largely unchanged, but Nissan has relocated the remote trunk release button to a more user-friendly spot. It’s a small detail change in a car that, in my opinion, already boasted one of the nicest mid-size sedan interiors, in terms of layout. The Altima’s gauge cluster is one of my favourites in this class, with bright, clear markings.

The seats, if a bit lacking in lateral support, are very comfortable, and space is generous front and rear, though rear-seat legroom seems slightly tighter than in the new Mazda6, a car I drove the week before taking this car. Visually, the trunk seems smaller than that in the Mazda, and the numbers bear that out: the Altima’s trunk can take in 433 litres (15.3 cu. ft.) of stuff, while the new 6′s trunk is 469 litres (16.5 cu.-ft.).

The Altima offers oodles of interior storage, though: check out the huge glove-box, big cubby with a garage-door style opening at the base of the centre stack, three cupholders in the console, and the two-level covered bin under the centre armrest.

But if the strong points are the same as they were in 2007, the negatives are, too. There’s the all-black dash, which could really use some light-coloured trim (in addition to that on the steering wheel and shifter bezel) to brighten the mood.

And the rear outboard seatbelts still lock up too easily, and for no reason. Coincidentally, it was my father-in-law who pointed this out in both the 2007 and 2009 cars.

The foot-operated parking brake is annoying, too. In my opinion, it’s a poor choice in a car that wants to be a sporty one.

Test Drive: 2009 Nissan Altima 2.5 SL car test drives nissan
2009 Nissan Altima 2.5SL. Click image to enlarge

The Altima is as good a driver as it ever was. With the continuously variable transmission (CVT), a $1,300 extra, performance is smooth and generally quiet. Engine noise only gets intrusive at higher revs, where the 2.5-litre four-cylinder tends to sound coarse.

Back in 2007, I called the Altima “nearly whisper-quiet” on the highway. Two years later, and some of the competition has caught up to this car. While it’s far from unpleasant as a highway driver, the new Mazda6 (again, I drove this car the week before the Altima) is noticeably quieter at speed. The Mazda does a better job of keeping engine noise out of the cabin, too.

The Altima’s trump card might still be the CVT. While the way this type of gearless wonder works may still be alien to some drivers, Nissan does the technology very well. Acceleration is smooth, even at full throttle, and gentle acceleration is even better. Not even the smoothest conventional automatic – and, again, I’m thinking of the super-smooth five-speed unit in the new Mazda6 as an example – can match the seamless performance of Nissan’s CVTs.

Test Drive: 2009 Nissan Altima 2.5 SL car test drives nissan
2009 Nissan Altima 2.5SL. Click image to enlarge

Despite my engine noise complaint, the four-cylinder engine offers nice power, particularly in the mid-range, where torque feels plentiful. This engine’s power ratings are 175 horsepower and 180 lb-ft, and official EnerGuide fuel consumption estimates for a four-cylinder Altima with the CVT are 8.9/6.3 L/100 km (city/highway), against which my tester returned 9.7 L/100 km in a week’s worth of mixed driving.

The positive spin to my road noise gripe is that the Altima’s steering feeds a good amount of road surface information to the steering wheel, and the nicely-weighted steering contributes to the car’s sporty driving feel. On the other hand, the touchy brakes might be someone’s idea of sporty, but just like in my 2007 tester, I found them too sensitive and tough to modulate. They are strong, though.

As mentioned, my tester was a 2.5 SL model, a car that starts out as a basic Altima 2.5 S and adds the 2.5 SL package ($3,350), which brings a power moonroof, leather seats, a driver’s seat lumbar adjustment, a Bose stereo with speed-sensitive volume control, Bluetooth hands-free phone technology, dual-zone automatic climate control, and auto-dimming rear view mirror with compass and a few other niceties.

Test Drive: 2009 Nissan Altima 2.5 SL car test drives nissan
2009 Nissan Altima 2.5SL; note new location of trunk release, to left of steering wheel. Click image to enlarge

My tester also included the $2,100 2.5 S convenience package, which adds 16-inch alloy wheels (replacing 16-inch steelies), an eight-way power driver’s seat, heat for both front seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, an auto up/down front passenger window and key-operation capability for the front windows and dual illuminated vanity mirrors.

Also extra was the CVT, which added $1,300 to the price. All told, this car’s price-tag was $30,848, including $1,400 freight. Notable is the 2009′s starting price of $22,698, down from $24,498 for a 2008 2.5 S. Other costs have gone up, however: that freight charge is up $100 from last year.

There may not be much new to talk about in the 2009 Altima, but at least there are still a number of positives worth mentioning. I’d expect Nissan to give this car a makeover for 2010, which sounds like as good a time as any to fix a few of the negatives. Now that would be something worth talking about.

Pricing: 2009 Nissan Altima 2.5 SL

Base price: $22,698 (2.5 S)
Options: $6,750 (2.5 SL package of power moonroof, leather seats, adjustable driver’s lumbar support, Bose stereo with XM satellite radio and speed sensitive volume control, Bluetooth hands-free phone system, dual-zone automatic climate control, auto dimming rear view mirror with compass, centre console rear passenger vents, illuminated centre console, $3,350; 2.5 S convenience package of 16-inch alloy wheels, power driver’s seat, heated front seats, auto up/down front passenger window, remote/key-operated front windows, dual illuminated vanity mirrors, trunk side net, $2,100; CVT, $1,300)
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,400
Price as tested: $30,948
Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives

Specifications
  • TBA

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