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Test Drive: 2013 Nissan Altima

Pay attention Leaf lovers because this concerns you.

The 2013 Nissan Altima is all-new and gunning to become America's top-selling model. After the old version finished 2011 in second place behind the Toyota Camry, the automaker is pulling out the stops on its midsize sedan in an effort to take the crown.

The sleek four-door’s calling card is its upscale design. Looking every bit the little sister of an Infiniti, the curvaceous bodywork is heavy on the chrome and a few steps above its predecessor’s proletarian appearance. Inside the changes are in the same vein, with a luxurious elegance replacing the low rent attempt at sportiness in the outgoing Altima’s cabin. The dashboard now constructed of layers of high-quality plastic and wood trims that are as good as anything else in the class, and some above it. It’s also a very spacious car that still offers acres of legroom and a bit more width than before.

Two engines are available; a 270 hp 3.5 liter V6 and a 182 hp 2.5 liter four-cylinder that Nissan expects to account for about 90 percent of sales. Both work with an updated, continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) that Nissan says has a wider “gear” ratio spread than a traditional seven or eight-speed box.

With a starting price of $22,280 all Altimas are equipped with Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, while the top-of-the-four-cylinder-line 2.5 SL adds pushbutton ignition, power seats, dual zone climate control, a backup camera, leather trim, 9-speaker Bose stereo and a few other bits of window dressing that includes LED brake and turn signal lights for $28,830.

Navigation is optional, as is a unique system that uses the rearview camera as a sensor for blind spot, cross traffic and lane departure alerts by analyzing the image for obstacles and painted lines on the road, rather than relying on side-mounted cameras, radars and other expensive monitoring technology. There are also a small washer and blow dryer installed on it to keep the lens clear.

(And you thought the Titan pickup meant that the Japanese forgot how to miniaturize things.)

A couple of other smart features on the Altima include wipers that park themselves at the base of the windshield even if you shut off the car while they are mid-swipe, a system that beeps the horn when you’ve inflated the tires to their proper air pressure, and “zero-gravity” seats designed using research developed by NASA.

That last one involves shaping and padding the chairs to promote a neutral posture, reduce pressure points and improve blood flow in an effort to soothe your muscles and make them less susceptible to fatigue. While I can’t vouch for the science behind the design, the seats definitely feel different the first time you sit in them -- very form-fitting, with cushioning in places you don’t expect it -- and I survived three and a half hours of beach traffic in them with no aches, pains or deep-vein thrombosis to show for it. Unless you're in a hurry, range anxiety is not a concern  here.

Overall comfort in the Altima is very good, and it has a ride and handling balance that’s spot-on for this type of car. It’s more involving to drive than a number of its direct competitors -- the Toyota Camry and Hyundai Sonata come to mind -- and offers good road feel through nicely-weighted steering. Still not quite a Honda Accord, there’s enough communication through the wheel to keep you interested, but what’s happening on the fuel economy gauge may be even more intriguing.

The four-cylinder Altima has an EPA rating of 27 mpg city, 38 mpg highway. I easily hit 40 mpg at an average of 60 mph. As if numbers like that needed perspective, they are better than those of the “hybrid” Chevrolet Malibu Eco, and all other conventional midsize cars. Interestingly, Nissan isn’t even using the latest direct fuel injection technology, which means it probably left some mileage on the table that it can tap in the coming years.

Better still, while the shiftless operation of the transmission can cause the Altima sound like a motorboat at times, it also makes the most of the power on hand and won’t leave you pining for the V6. After all of these years the CVT, theoretically the most efficient transmission design, may have finally been vindicated.

There’s no hybrid model available this time around, at least not yet. With MPG ratings like that, it’s easy to see why. For now, Nissan is happy to concentrate its greenest efforts on promoting the all-electric Leaf. Nevertheless, sales success for the Altima is exactly the sort of thing that will ensure its slow-selling battery-powered sister’s future. All of the profit has to go somewhere, and Nissan is using a nice hunk of it to build a Leaf assembly line right next to where Altimas are manufactured in Smyrna, Tennessee.

So, Leaf owners, while you may be driving the car of the future, the next time you buzz by one of your Altima-driving friends remember to thank them for their generous subsidy and, if you ever want to experience zero-gravity, feel free to ask them for a ride.

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2013 Nissan Altima

Base Price: $22,280

Type: 5-passenger, 4-door sedan

Engine: 2.5-liter inline-4-cylinder

Power: 182 hp, 180 lb-ft torque

Transmission: Continuously variable automatic

MPG: 27 city/38 hwy