Going & Stopping

Base Altimas have a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 175 horsepower (170 hp in states that have adopted California's emissions rules). A 270-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 is optional. A six-speed manual transmission is standard for both engines, but a continuously variable automatic transmission is optional. CVTs don't have gears like conventional automatic transmissions, instead using movable pulleys and a belt to connect the engine with the driveline, resulting in perfectly smooth acceleration without noticeable gear changes. Nissan's CVT also features a clutchless-manual mode, which simulates traditional stepped-gear shifting.

One of the advantages of a CVT is that it can have an unlimited number of gear ratios and a broad range from the lowest to the highest, which in theory should mean better gas mileage. Compared to the manual transmission, the CVT's gas mileage estimates are slightly worse with the four-cylinder — 26/34 mpg (city/highway) versus 26/35 mpg — and are mixed with the V-6: 21/29 mpg for the six-speed and 22/28 mpg for the CVT.

In everyday driving, the 3.5-liter V-6 and CVT make a better pair than I thought they would. The V-6, for its part, revs smoothly and pulls the 3,334-pound car easily. The drivetrain is eager to please most of the time, but there's some mild torque steer when accelerating hard out of a turn as the engine forces power down to the front wheels — not an uncommon characteristic in high-power front-wheel-drive cars.

My opinion of the CVT itself is split. I really like its ability to quickly raise engine rpm when a quick burst of acceleration is needed while darting through traffic, but when cruising at steady, slow speeds, the CVT adjusts itself so as to keep engine rpm extremely low, which robs the V-6 of power. The transmission's clutchless-manual mode, meanwhile, is about as good as they come in terms of responsiveness. That praise is faint because I don't find these things very entertaining in general, but compared to ones paired with conventional automatics this one is quite good.

The Altima's all-disc brakes have a natural feel; unlike some systems, they don't ask that you learn their quirks and idiosyncrasies.

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