Nissan Altima gets a lot of power from its four-cylinder

The 2012 Nissan Altima comes as a sedan and coupe, but the hybrid sedan has been dropped.

Nissan’s American-built midsize car, the Altima, is catching on with car buyers this year.

Through the first nine months of 2011, the pleasantly styled and well-powered Altima posted U.S. sales of more than 200,000 and outsold a perennial top seller, the Honda Accord.

The sales gains aren’t just because the Nissan was able to resume production faster than Honda and Toyota after the big earthquake in Japan early this year and have readily available cars on dealer lots.

The five-passenger Altima, which made its U.S. debut in the 1993 model year, has been coming into its own for a while, Nissan officials said.

Buyers find the 2012 Altima largely unchanged from the 2011 version, which has been known for spunky performance, comfortable ride and easy-to-use controls and gauges. The 2012 models with four-cylinder engine also are competitive in fuel mileage, ranking seventh overall among nondiesel and nonhybrid 2012 midsize sedans.

Adding to the appeal: The Altima, with above average reliability, is a recommended buy of Consumer Reports. The 2012 sedan earned four out of five stars for passenger protection in a frontal crash and five out of five stars for side crash protection.

Plus, it’s built in not one, but two assembly plants in the United States – Smyrna, Tenn., and Canton, Miss.

The biggest change for 2012 is that the slow-selling, high-priced, gasoline-electric Altima hybrid sedan is no longer being produced.

Starting price, including destination charge, for the sedan is $21,170. This is for the 2.5 model with 175-horsepower, four-cylinder gasoline engine and continuously variable transmission that a driver operates like an automatic. The upscale 3.5 SR sedan, which has sport-tuned suspension and 270-horsepower V-6, has a starting retail price of $26,190.

The Altima also is sold as a five-seat coupe with a starting price of $24,360. This base two-door comes with 175-horsepower four-cylinder and manual transmission. The starting price for a coupe with automatic is $24,860.

The test Altima was the midrange 2.5 S sedan, which topped out at more than $26,000 with power driver seat, moonroof, Bluetooth connectivity, dual climate control and alloy wheels among the options. With standard curtain air bags, traction and stability control, the tester did not have leather-trimmed seats or navigation system.

The test car immediately impressed with its power. The 2.5-liter, double overhead cam four-cylinder moved the car quickly and in sprightly fashion on city streets and country roads. There was engine buzziness on uphill sections of highway, but the car still kept up with traffic.

The CVT worked well, without making passengers hear a lot of high-engine revving. In fact, it was one of the best experiences I’ve had with a four-cylinder and CVT working together to power a sizable car that’s nearly 16 feet long.

The steering was nicely responsive, too, and better than expected. I appreciated that the car came with tilt and telescope steering column, so I could adjust the wheel to the best spot for me.

The interior was quite quiet, and I didn’t hear much from passing trucks or motorcycles. I didn’t notice wind noise, either.

Fabric seats looked and felt good, and side windows in front and back were a good size. Back-seat headroom was about an inch less than what’s in the top competitors. All gauges, buttons and knobs were easy to understand and within reach. I was especially impressed by the huge glovebox with nearly half a cubic foot of space.

Cubbies on the doors were large enough to hold 20-ounce drinks, and there were three cupholders in the console between driver and front passenger – a nice touch.

The gas tank holds 20 gallons, enough for 530 miles.

There already have been two safety recalls of the 2012 Altimas. One, announced in July, was for certain 2011 and 2012 Altimas that had suspension bolts that weren’t tightened to specification and could lead to vibration and possible loss of vehicle control.

The second recall, announced in August, was due to an air bag control unit not being assembled properly.

SPECS

THE VEHICLE: 2012 Nissan Altima 2.5S, a front-drive, five-passenger, midsize sedan

BASE PRICE: $20,410 for 2.5; $22,570 for 2.5S

DESTINATION CHARGE: $760

PRICE AS TESTED: $26,320

ENGINE: 2.5-liter four-cylinder producing 175 horsepower

TRANSMISSION: Continuously variable

EPA MILEAGE: 23 mpg city, 32 mpg highway

LENGTH: 190.7 inches

WHEELBASE: 109.3 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 3,192 pounds

BUILT IN: Smyrna, Tenn.

OPTIONS INCLUDE: Convenience package (power driver seat, automatic headlights, Bluetooth connectivity, leather steering wheel with audio, 16-inch alloy wheels), $1,350; convenience plus package, $1,150

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