Looking for America's roomiest, non-hybrid, mid-size sedan with the best gas mileage? It isn't a Honda or Toyota. It's Nissan's considerably redesigned 2013 Altima.
This fifth-generation Altima, with a federal government's rating of 27 miles per gallon in city driving and 38 mpg on the highway, is slightly larger and has more power than its predecessor and is restyled inside and out for a more upscale appearance.
In fact, even the base 2013 Altima has chrome-look outer door handles and chrome-look trim around its windows for a pleasing jeweled effect.
The new, five-passenger Altima also has improved seats and new premium features -- some of them standard equipment, such as keyless push-button start and Bluetooth hands-free phone system.
Best of all, Consumer Reports says predicted reliability of the new Altima is expected to be above average.
The 2013 Altima also garnered five-out-of-five-star rating for frontal and side crash passenger protection in U.S. government testing.
2013 Nissan Altima 2.5 SL
- Base price: $21,760 for 2.5 model; $22,860 for 2.5 S; $24,460 for 2.5 SV; $25,760 for 3.5 S; $27,660 for 2.5 SL
- Price as tested: $30,525
- Type: Front engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger, mid-size sedan
- Engine: 2.5-liter, double overhead cam, direct-injection, inline four cylinder with CVTC
- Mileage: 27 mpg (city), 38 mpg (highway)
- Length: 191.5 inches
- Wheelbase: 109.3 inches
- Curb weight: 3,121 pounds
- Built at: Canton, Miss.
- Options: Technology package (includes blind spot monitoring, navigation system lane departure warning) $1,090; moonroof $800; carpeted floor and trunk mats $185
- Destination charge: $790
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $22,550 for a base Altima S with 182-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that a driver operates like an automatic transmission.
This is just $80 more than the starting retail price for a 2013 Honda Accord with 185-horsepower four cylinder and manual tranny. A 2013 Accord with a CVT starts at $23,270.
The starting Altima retail price also is $480 less than the starting MSRP, including destination charge, for a base 2013 Toyota Camry with 156-horsepower four cylinder and automatic transmission.
Still, prices for the 2013 Altima can rise to more than $30,000 for a four-cylinder model in top-of-the-line SL trim with optional technology package that adds new safety equipment like blind spot warning and land departure warning.
Nissan also continues to offer the Altima with last year's 270-horsepower V-6. The V-6 model has a starting retail price of $26,550 and, like the four-cylinder Altima, comes with a CVT only.
The Altima is Nissan's best seller and topped 302,000 sales in the United States last calendar year. This was up 13 percent from calendar 2011 and made the Altima the nation's fourth most popular car.
During the test drive, the 2013 Altima did not garner any looks from passersby.
Even inside the new Altima, passengers remarked about how much room there was -- particularly legroom in front and back seats -- but they didn't seem to notice new premium plastics and materials on the interior.
And, the Altima doesn't have a rearview camera on every model, as is standard for the 2013 Accord.
Altima buyers must move up to the 2.5 SV trim level, which starts at $25,250, to get a rearview monitor.
The major impression of the new Altima is its size. On the outside, it looked substantial even though the car is only 1.3 inches wider and 0.8 inch longer overall than its predecessor.
Front-seat legroom of 45 inches is huge, while back-seat legroom seemed like more than the 36.1 inches that Nissan reports.
Headroom back there is a decent 37.1 inches, which is increased a tad from last year, and three average-size adults can sit in back without resting atop each other.
The Altima's 15.4-cubic-foot trunk is on a par with the Accord's but smaller than the 16.4 cubic feet in the Hyundai Sonata.
The Altima's 2.5-liter, double overhead cam four cylinder powered the test car well, bringing the peak torque of 180 foot-pounds up by 4,000 rpm. This is the same torque that last year's Altima had, but last year, peak torque came on by 3,900 rpm.
This kind of careful engine tuning, plus judicious weight reduction and addition of the CVT help account for the improved mileage.
The Altima's CVT, while not quite quick to deliver acceleration, was smooth in its operation. The main distraction was a droning sound now and then from the transmission, which is common from CVTs.
Otherwise, the test Altima's interior was quiet.
Zero to 60 miles per hour is estimated at a mainstream 7.4 to 7.7 seconds with the four cylinder.
The test car averaged just 26 mpg, which is nowhere near the government fuel economy average of 31 mpg.
Indeed, the mileage was about on par with last year's four-cylinder Altima, which was rated at 23/32 mpg by the government.
With the Altima's downsized, 18-gallon gas tank, the range can easily top 450 miles.
The Altima has some special touches. Because of the standard Easy Fill Alert tire pressure system, the Altima tells a driver when a tire needs air and then honks the horn when a low tire is inflated to its correct pressure.
The Altima's new, standard active understeer control works automatically to brake the front wheels and keep the car under control.
There has been one safety recall involving some 14,000 2012 and 2013 Altimas. Last October, Nissan notified federal regulators that bolts for the power steering might come loose and fall off, which could cause drivers to lose control of the vehicle.