Nissan is gunning for the top. For years the best-selling car in America has been the Toyota Camry with the Honda Accord usually pulling a close second. The automotive landscape is changing faster than ever, and when the dust settled over 2011, Nissan found itself holding the second place spot. This was accomplished with the fourth-generation Altima, now a five-year-old car. Nissan has decided the time is right to overtake the sales crown from the perennial champion, and is bringing an all-new 2013 Altima to lead the charge. Nissan invited us down to Nashville for some time in this all-new, “most innovative” Altima ever, and we have a lot to say about the future of this car, and the future of the mid-size segment as a whole. Grab a snack and dive in; this one is going to be good.

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The new 2013 Altima will go on sale around July and be offered in seven models – four 2.5-liter equipped models, and three 3.5-liter equipped models. The model range includes 2.5, 2.5S, 2.5SV and the range topping 2.5SL. The 3.5 is available in S, SV and SL trims as well. Exterior styling falls well in-line with the recent trends at Nissan. The new grille introduced on the Versa sedan has been updated to fit the Altima, while the rear carries details of the larger Maxima. A lower roof line gives the new Altima a much sleeker look compared to its bubble-domed predecessor. Pricing starts at $22,500 for the base 2.5 with the top-level 3.5SL coming in at a reasonable $30,080. Besides pricing, what is supposed to make this new Altima so much greater than its rivals?

Let us start with Nissan’s goals and benchmarks. Every company decides what “target” car they want to beat. It is usually a major competitor of the car, so in this case think the Camry. Nissan however decided to strive for what they call “class-above” characteristics. For example in the suspension redesign, they did not target the Camry, or the Sonata, or the Fusion or even the Accord. Nissan used the 3-Series BMW and Audi A4. Let that sink in for a moment. Does this mean that the new Altima can carve up a canyon with the grace of the Germans? Not quite (there is the RWD vs. FWD issue here), but the Altima does manage to maintain a higher lateral rigidity in the suspension components than either of those sports sedans, an impressive feat indeed. Sport sedan or not, the Altima does possess some fairly fancy suspension wizardry. Most notable the multi-link rear setup has been revised and the addition of new connect bushings improves toe angle control during hard cornering.

This style of thinking has been applied throughout the entire redesign of the car. Nissan doesn’t just want to beat the Camry, they want to beat everyone. The CVT has been updated and lightened with expanded ratios, with the spread between the lowest and highest “gears” being greater than the spread of competitors 8-speed automatics. This allows for greater power in the low-end, with incredible fuel economy on the top. The final ratio is so high that at 60 mph the four-cylinder Altima is spinning at a leisurely 1,450 RPMs. Design changes have also resulted in internal friction reductions of 40-percent.

To help improve economy, the Altima (already one of the lightest cars in the segment) has been lightened up thanks to redesigned components and an increased use of ultra-high strength steel. The total effect of the diet plan is a weight loss of 80-lbs over the previous model, all while including more standard equipment. The engine has also been altered and fitted with new components to reduce internal friction and increase its breathing ability. The revised 2.5-liter mill produces and estimated 182 horsepower and 180 lb ft of torque.

To total effect of all the weight savings and engine improvements nets the all-new 2013 Altima and estimated highway fuel economy of 38 MPG; better than any non-hybrid gasoline powered model in the segment. The real party trick of the new Altima is that beyond class-leading fuel economy, it also possesses class leading acceleration with 0-60 estimated in the mid 7-second range. Anyone looking for a more power can get the new Altima with the much-loved VQ 3.5-liter V6 available in earlier models. Nissan expects the V6 to return MPG ratings of 22city/30hwy.

The obsessive upgrading has continued on the inside, and the interior is miles above anything else you will find in the segment. Even though we were driving pre-production models, the fit and finish was well above most competitors. While there were various plastics scattered around the cabin, they were all of high quality. The armrest, door panels and other touch points were all covered with soft touch materials. Ergonomics were spot on with easy to use knobs for all the major functions such as HVAC and stereo.

The big news in ergonomics for the Nissan is the “Zero Gravity” seats that were designed using research from NASA. According NASA research, the least fatiguing seats are those that come closest to the relaxed shape the human body takes in a weightless environment. The Altima features a new seat shape with continuous support from the pelvis to the chest, designed to reduce load pressure on the spine and increase circulation.

The cabin of the new fifth-generation car is also loaded down with new technology. The new NissanConnect system is a full suite of technologies that include Bluetooth for hands-free calling and audio streaming, a hands-free text message assistant that reads and replies to text messages, Pandora integration, a USB connection for iPods and other devices and, of course, SiriusXM Satellite Radio. A 5-inch color screen is included on SV and SL models. One of the most notable features of the system is the text messaging assistant. Once a message is read, the driver can respond with a canned message (Nissan includes several, but there are some customizable options as well).

For those who desire a small bit of guidance, the NissanConnect with Navigation possesses all the same powerful features, but adds navigation abilities and upgrades the 5-inch screen to a 7-inch touch-screen. 3D-effect mapping, voice recognition, turn-by-turn directions and Google POI data are all included with the upgraded unit.

The last major piece of new tech on the inside of the new 2013 Altima is the Advanced Drive-Assist Display. This is a 4-inch color screen that is sits in the instrument panel between the tachometer and speedometer. The screen is a customizable display that is designed to keep drivers informed of several parameters of their new Nissan. The system can display tire pressures, MPG calculations, trip computer information, navigation prompts and audio system information. The display also features a 3D image of an Altima that is color matched to your vehicles exterior color. It is a very subtle detail, but one that makes an impact.

This level of detail abounds throughout the car. For instance, if the wipers make four passes, the headlights will automatically activate, as it is a law in many states to turn on lights when its raining. The backup camera is programmed to automatically detect when it is dirty and will self clean itself. The rear camera is also used as an integral piece of the lane departure and blind spot monitoring, negating the need to use more costly radar sensors. There is also the extremely innovative tire pressure sensor system, that allows you to fill the tries without using a pressure gauge. Just begin filling the low tire, and the car will honk to notify you when its sensors say the tire is at the proper pressure.

2013 Nissan Altima Easy Fill Tire Inflation Technology

So the new Nissan is packed full of technology and refinement that is supposed to make owning one an entirely new and exciting experience, but does it deliver. To put all the new equipment to the test, Nissan arranged a drive down twisting Tennessee state roads from the Nissan North America HQ in Franklin to the Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg. The first half of our journey was spent in the top model 3.5SL. Our silver car was equipped with black leather and had every option available. All V6 models come equipped with paddle shifters behind the wheel to force the CVT into one of seven fixed “gears” to give the car a more traditional sporting feel. While we are unsure how successful the transmission is at relaying a sports car sensation, the 3.5-liter V6 made up for any issue we may have had. The VQ series V6 engines have always been refined and powerful mills, and the version in our Altima was no different. Stand on the skinny pedal and you are met with a rush of acceleration and a fantastic noise from the dual exhaust.

When the road began to wind, as it often does in the Tennessee countryside, the contoured steering wheel provided ample control and great weighting. The system in the new Altima is a hybrid design that still uses a hydraulic pump and power steering fluid like a standard system, but uses an electric motor to pump that fluid around rather than relying on the engine to do the dirty work. This compromise saves fuel economy b reducing parasitic losses, but doesn’t detract from the feeling of the steering like most electrical systems do. We dare say that with all the flak Porsche has received about its newest 911’s electric steering system, that they should look into a system like the Altima’s. Imagine, Nissan providing Porsche with advice on steering feel.

The ride is extremely compliant and comfortable over less than stellar stretches of asphalt, but body roll is well controlled and kept to minimal levels. Our overall impression of the suspension setup for the new Altima is a reserved sportiness that provides a fun and engaging drive, while not compromising the overall livability of the car. We would personally prefer a slightly more taut setup, but it is spot-on perfect for the intended market that this car will compete in.

That really sums up a vast majority of this car, competent and comfortable. During our time with the Altima we were never uncomfortable, nor dissatisfied. The interior was quiet, the ride well controlled, the engine sonorous and even after a rather aggressive flogging, we managed a very respectable 28.7 MPG.

After a quick stop in Lynchburg, we swapped out our loaded silver 3.5SL for a more modest maroon 2.5SV. Gone was the sumptuous black leather, instead replaced with a tan cloth, and the interesting black and silver patterned trim pieces replaced with piano black. That, however, is the major extent of the differences. The headliner was still the same quilted cloth with thick padding, the door panels still covered with soft materials (a suede-like material instead of leather) and those “zero-gravity” seats were just as comfortable. To be honest, we preferred the grippy cloth and fluffy door panel material to the leather found in the more expensive model.

The drive back to Franklin was a different route that featured even more varied roads and surfaces than the original trip, plus a stunt on I-65 to test high-speed stability and NVH. After adjusting to the power loss from moving between engines (nearly 100 hp), the lesser Altima was just as engaging and playful as its V6 equipped stable mate. The suspension was just as compliant and flinging the car through corner after corner, we very rarely found ourselves wishing for the more powerful engine. We did miss the noise, however, as the 2.5 just fails to produce the same aggressive growl that 3.5 is capable of providing.

Once we left the twisting back highways, we piloted the Altima towards I-65. The expansive roadway that feeds thousands of motorists to and from Nashville was well packed when we arrived just after4pm. Even with a power deficit, the CVT was quick to select an RPM level that put the engine square in its power band, making quick passing maneuvers a breeze. Once we fought our way through the brunt of the traffic and settled into a nice pace, we found the Altima to be capable highway cruiser. Stability was great, with a solid on center feel for the steering, and backwash from the large semi-trucks clogging road never seemed to unsettle the car.

Noise levels were well subdued and it was very easy to converse with the other passengers that found themselves sharing the Altima with us that afternoon. The trip was so comfortable and unassuming that during a rather insightful conversation about marketing, we accidentally overshot our exit by more than 10 miles before anyone realized we had passed our intended destination. After we finally reached our destination all passengers departed the Altima comfortable and rested with no signs of having just spent several hours in a car. The in-dash computer also displayed a MPG rating of 37.2 which is tantalizingly close to the magic 38 Nissan is touting, and impressive considering the types of roads we traversed and type of driving we were doing. I suspect a careful driver could easily crest 40 MPG on the highway.

To call the new Altima a competitive car is to downplay the accomplishments Nissan has made. They have decided to take a step beyond the standard practices, and have created a car that is truly a class above. When the Japanese makers started creating high quality cheap cars, they changed the face of the automotive landscape. With the cast improvements in ride, comfort and fuel economy for such a competitive price, the 2013 Altima is poised to do the same. Competing automakers can no longer make a “competitive” vehicle in the same way they used to. The Altima has officially raised the bar, and it looks to like everyone will have to play catch-up.