FIRST DRIVE: Nissan Altima

APART FROM Bathurst, which is sacred, V8 Supercars lost me a long time ago when the racing Falcodores abandoned any legitimate connection, apart from a badge, a silhouette and a front engine/rear wheel drive layout, with the road Falcodores we know and love. Well, used to love.

As the home grown hardware disappears over the next few years and V8 Supercars morphs inevitably into a NASCAR-style formula, we’ll see an even greater schism between track and street, a trend well illustrated by Nissan’s new Altima, which replaces the Maxima.

The road and race Altimas have their engines at different ends of the car. It requires the total suspension of disbelief, or the cognitive sophistication of a lab rat, to watch an Altima win on Sunday and then say to yourself, “Ooh, I’ll have one of them. They’re the business.” Have we really become as brain dead as the Americans?

If you’re shopping the mid-size sedan field, there are far more lucid reasons to put the Altima on your list, especially the base model ST, which comes in at a sharp $29,990.

It runs a 127kW, 2.5-litre atmo petrol/CVT drivetrain (also used in the X-Trail) and includes the basics, apart from a rear camera; the ST-L, at $35,890, is also good value, adding the camera, plus navigation, Bose audio, smartphone connectivity, a seven-inch colour infotainment display, parking sensors at both ends and a few strips of cowhide.

The Ti, at $40,190, is loaded but you can buy a 3.6-litre V6 Holden VF Calais for $200 less and you’d be nuts if you didn’t. Same goes for the top of the range Altima Ti-S, with Nissan’s signature VQ35 3.5-litre V6, also matched with a CVT. Given the limitations of front-wheel drive in a biggish car, the VQ is tuned for a relatively modest 183kW here and at $45,390, the Ti-S is hardly compelling.

The Maxima sits at the big end of this class, on the same 2775mm wheelbase as the Camry/Aurion, but at just 1435kg the ST is light for a car of this size so the 2.5 litre four does the job with surprising ease on 91 octane. It’s flattered by the CVT. Squeeze the pedal and it immediately pins the required revs, giving the 2.5 a sense of midrange urge and responsiveness it would not possess with a conventional automatic. It’s also quiet and impeccably smooth.

So is the Altima’s ride/handling compromise. On the ST’s 16-inch alloys/60 aspect ratio rubber (and the ST-L’s 17s/55) comfort and compliance are excellent and road noise is efficiently isolated. Dynamics are mediocre, but in a fit for purpose context the Altima has few noteworthy vices apart from those endemic to the class: some initial body roll, overassisted, remote control steering and the occasional bottoming out of the front end if you hit a particularly vicious pothole.

Nissan claims its “Zero Gravity” driver’s seat was designed using ergonomic research from NASA. If that ain’t a sales pitch to its US heartland, I don’t know what is. Still, the driver’s pew is comfortable, albeit bereft of upper body support when cornering.

Mazda’s 6 has this class shot to bits at present, but the Altima ST is certainly worth a look. It’s more polished than most of the pack, notably Camry, i40, Malibu, Liberty and Accord, but like all of them has strict limitations as a drive.

You would never confuse it, for example, with a high-performance, rear-wheel drive V8. Unless perhaps you watched far too much TV, lived on KFC and pre-mixed bourbon and cola and didn’t get out much.

Nissan's Q Cars

Nissan’s 2014 kicks off in Q1 with the arrival of the Infiniti Q50. In Q2, the new XTrail and Pulsar SSS sedan arrive, plus the supercharged hybrid Pathfinder, which sounds like the answer to an unasked question. And in Q3, we get the Qashqai, nee Dualis.

PLUS Ride comfort; refinement; efficient CVT; quality; value

MINUS Uncomfortable back seat; overassisted steering; soft front end

Nissan Altima ST Specifications

Engine  2488cc in-line 4, dohc, 16v

Max power  127kW @ 6000rpm

Max torque  230Nm @ 4000rpm

Transmission  CVT automatic

Weight  1423kg

0-100km/h  9.0sec

Price  $29,990

On sale  Now

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  • Bill, don't get your comment on engines being in different ends of the car from road to race. Surely both are front engines, so guess you're meaning driving wheels. Agree that front drive in a big car is no good though. As for cvt.... Never.