Fuel-efficient and feature-laden, the 2013 Nissan Altima shoots to the head of its class and lifts Nissan to new heights.
The Altima competes with the Chevrolet Malibu, Chrysler 200, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Toyota Camry and Volkswagen Passat.
Prices for the front-wheel drive 2013 Altima start at $21,500 for a model with a 182-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and continuously variable transmission. Altimas powered by a 270-horsepower V6 start at $25,360.
I tested a very well-equipped four-cylinder Altima 2.5 SL that cost $29,810. All prices exclude destination charges. The Altima goes on sale in July.
Nissan sold coupe and hybrid versions of the previous Altima. Neither model is available as the new car launches, but it would be no surprise to see them join the model line over the next couple of years.
The four-cylinder engine has plenty of perk. Over several hundred miles of highway, country and city driving, it proved more than capable in fast cruising, passing and traffic. Engine noise and vibration are noticeable under heavy acceleration, but not overly intrusive.
The Altima's new continuously variable transmission has 40 percent less friction and a wider range of ratios -- about equivalent to a conventional automatic with eight gears -- than the previous model. That contributes significantly to the car's outstanding 38 miles per gallon EPA highway fuel economy rating. That's 1 mpg better than the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco and 2013 Ford Fusion 1.6-liter EcoBoost, which use special systems to maximize fuel economy.
It's a triumph that Nissan achieved 38 mpg without direct injection, batteries, turbocharging, diesel or any other costly technology.
The Altima's EPA ratings -- 27 mpg in city driving, 31 mpg in combined -- also top comparable models of the 200, Accord, Camry, Fusion, Malibu, Optima, Passat and Sonata.
In addition to the new CVT and numerous improvements to the engine, an electric-hydraulic power steering system contributes to the Altima's fuel economy. With a base curb weight of 3,187 pounds, the Altima is also lighter than its competitors.
That light weight also contributes to the Altima's sporty and responsive handling. The steering is quick and direct, with good on-center feel. The speed variable system gives appropriate assist at low speed and on the highway.
The brakes have plenty of power and good pedal feel for easy modulation. A cleverly designed new rear suspension holds the road in fast maneuvers and absorbs bumps well.
The interior has plenty of room for front and rear passengers. The 15.4 cubic-foot trunk is bigger than all the competitors but the Fusion and Passat. The lid opens wide for easy loading of large objects.
The front seat has plenty of storage bins and cubbies. The car I tested had excellent voice recognition for phone and navigation. The quality of hands-free phone calls was good, as was control of both a wired iPod and streaming audio from my iPhone.
Other features include blind-spot, lane-departure and rear moving-object alerts. The blind-spot worked well, except for a couple of warnings when the lane next to me was empty. I found the lane-departure warning a bit too sensitive. It's not adjustable, so I turned it off.
Moving-object detection requires some explanation. A digital camera in the trunk lid has a nearly 180-degree field of vision and can recognize moving objects. If it senses something behind or to your side moving -- a car coming down the row in a parking lot or a kid chasing a ball, for instance -- a warning sounds.
Unlike ultrasonic backup assist, it does not recognize stationary objects. You can't just back up and expect it to warn you about the car parked behind you.
Most automakers use several sensors to provide blind-spot, lane-departure and rear-collision warning. The Altima offers all three features with a single rear-facing camera and clever software programming.
With a $29,810 sticker price, it should have memory for the driver's seat and mirror settings, but that's about the only feature the car I tested lacked.
Wind and road noise are minimal, and the interior materials and fits were good. The controls are easy to use, with soft surfaces at most touch points. The instrument panel has big, clear gauges and a configurable display that shows navigation, trip computer, audio or other features.
The 2013 Altima is slightly lower, longer and wider than the outgoing car. Its sleek profile is complemented by a trapezoidal grille Nissan says was inspired by the angular, shoulder-padded jackets Japan's fearsome Samurai warriors wore.
The 2013 Nissan Altima's features, value and efficiency should make it an equally fearsome foe for other midsize sedans.