Revised Nissan Altima is pretty as a picture

It's been a busy season for Nissan, which has been undertaking a major revamp of its car line, including the fourth-generation Altima sedan.

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It’s been a busy season for Nissan, which has been undertaking a major revamp of its car line, including the fourth-generation Altima sedan.

Two engines are offered, a 3.5-litre V6 and my tester’s 2.5-litre inline four-cylinder, which is unchanged from 2006.

Both come with a six-speed manual transmission. For the first time, the sole automatic offering on both is a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which uses a belt circling two cones to provide a theoretically infinite number of gear ratios.

The four can be noisy under acceleration, but it’s sufficient for this car – it makes 175 hp and 180 lb.-ft. of torque – and also keeps the price down: the 2.5 starts at $24,398 and tops out at $33,898, which includes a navigation system, while the 3.5 ranges from $30,198 to $39,298.

The price on my base 2.5 S tester drops slightly over 2006 levels and adds standard side and curtain airbags that were optional last year.

I’m fond of CVTs, but with Nissan, my preference depends on the application. I’ve found it to be extremely smooth and pleasant on Murano and Sentra.

On Altima (and Versa), though, I’m not quite as pleased. In city driving, it tends to sit around 1200 r.p.m., where it slogs and feels like it’s lugging, and it takes a firm shot of throttle to raise the revs and smooth it out.

It feels best in spirited driving, but that tends to affect the fuel savings the CVT offers.

I’m blaming that, plus the bitterly cold weather during the week I drove it, for my Altima’s rather dismal fuel return of 10.7 L/100 km, compared to the car’s official combined average of 7.6 L/100 km.

The transmission also includes a manual shift mode, which “shifts” at predetermined points, for the illusion of stepped gears.

The new Altima is slightly shorter than the model replaces, but its height and width are virtually the same. The styling has changed considerably, and the handsome sedan now looks similar to the Infiniti G35 (and the upcoming two-door Altima Coupe is just stunning).

Even the four-cylinder comes with dual exhaust tips, which nicely finishes off the back end.

The only drawback is the upswept trunk, which reduces visibility when backing up.

The new body is stiffer than the old model, which becomes evident when the car is asked to twist hard around a curve; there’s no sensation of body roll, and the vehicle tracks smoothly.

A new front suspension has dialed out almost all torque steer, but the light steering, while a boon for parking in tight spaces, doesn’t provide the feedback I’d like at higher speeds.

The ride is firm, but not unpleasant, and only the harshest bumps are felt in the cabin.

Brake pedal feel is very good and the car stops with confidence. Anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distribution are standard.

Traction control is only on 3.5 models, though, and stability control can only be added as an option on the V6 model.

My base 2.5 S tester came with numerous features – a/c, heated mirrors, CD player with auxiliary jack, automatic headlamps and six airbags.

Its $2,000 convenience package includes alloy wheels, heated cloth seats and eight-way power driver’s seat.

All Altimas come standard with an Intelligent Key: as long as it’s with you, you start the car by simply pushing a button.

It’s cool but pointless – how much trouble is it to turn a key? – and I’m always afraid of putting it down and driving off without it.

At least when it’s in the ignition, you know where it is.

Despite being slightly smaller than its predecessor, this version is very roomy in all seating positions. My electrically adjustable driver’s seat was fine, but the Designated Passenger had considerable complaints.

The hip point on the hard passenger seat is very low, so your knees come up too high when your feet are flat on the floor, and the cushion slopes forward, without sufficient bolster under the legs. It feels like only the cloth upholstery is keeping you from sliding right out.

The rear seat is roomy and comfortable, and has a fold-down armrest.

Nissan always delivers considerable small-item storage, and Altima follows through with a huge glovebox, CD-friendly centre-stack cubby and a deep console box.

There are vast improvements in the quality of materials over the previous generation’s interior, but there are still some fairly wide parts gaps where the centre stack and vents meet the dash pad.

The optional leather-wrapped wheel is perfectly sized, with the perforated surface providing good grip, and its audio and cruise controls are well-placed.

The heater controls are also simple to use, and even on the coldest days, the system blasts very hot air, very quickly.

The large trunk is 110 cm long, increasing to 184 cm when the rear 60/40 seat is folded.

But that operation could be easier: you must pull up a cover on the parcel shelf, and then push the button under it, which releases the passenger side.

You then reach behind, into the trunk, and pull a hanging strap to release the driver’s side.

Pretty as a picture, this next-generation Altima offers Infiniti’s good looks at a fraction of the price. And if you’re budgeting, the four-cylinder version does everything that most drivers will ever need.

While the model is stacked against rivals like Accord and Camry, I found a surprising competitor in the Nissan Sentra, which has been resized to the point that it’s almost as roomy, and delivers an even better combination of four-cylinder engine and CVT.

If you’re at the dealership anyway, do yourself a favour and take ’em both for a spin.;

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