Auto review: Despite nip and tuck, Nissan’s 2023 Altima stays mostly the same

Larry Printz | Tribune News Service

Some things never change, despite our best efforts. We will never be thin enough, young enough nor good looking enough. You could almost hear the Nissan Altima thinking the same thing — kind of. It doesn’t have the spotless reliability of the Toyota Camry, but it’s nowhere near as dull, either. The Honda Accord has always been the life of the party. And the Nissan Altima? Well, it always seems to be a good deal, and for 2023, that hasn’t changed.

When the Altima debuted three decades ago, its rounded flanks set it apart from its competition. Since then, it has lost a true sense of identity, becoming relatively devoid of personality. Most of this happened under the tenure of former Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, now wanted by Interpol after fleeing prosecution in Japan.

To Ghosn, sales volume mattered more than anything, and Nissan, a brand once known for its sporty cars, became the brand known for good deals, as dealers peddled the metal to please Ghosn’s appetite for market share while squandering Nissan’s brand image. You bought the Altima because you got a good lease deal, not for its reliability or fun-to-drive nature.

Of course, Ghosn has been gone for some time now, and Nissan’s natural identity seems to be re-emerging after years of being MIA. Exhibit A: the company’s 2.0-liter VC-Turbo engine. VC stands for variable compression, which changes from 8:1 for high performance to 14:1 for high efficiency. It’s an amazing bit of engineering slight-of-hand that yields 25 mpg city, 34 mpg highway. It comes solely in SR 2.0 trim with front-wheel drive and a CVT transmission. So sportiness is mild.

Of course, most buyers skip the extra cost and expense of this engine by opting for the base 2.5-liter four-cylinder, which generates 188 horsepower, rather than the VC-Turbo’s 248 horsepower. Yes, it’s slower, but it returns 28 mpg city, 39 mpg highway and comes at a lower cost. For those not in an eternal hurry, it suits just fine. And it can be had with all-wheel drive, albeit at the expense of one horsepower and a bit of fuel economy.

So why buy a VC-Turbo? Because you are in an eternal hurry. Yes, it requires 93 octane fuel. However, you’ll find it lends the drivetrain a unique character. Once its inner athlete is liberated, you’ll become accustomed to the modest turbo lag and the slow response from the CVT transmission. Just don’t expect it to provide the razor-sharp rush of power the instant you need it. Still, it proves to be lively enough.

Considering the performance of the VC-Turbo, however, the steering seems unhurried. While there is some body lean when turning, overall body movement — whether you’re turning or cratering through potholes — is well-controlled. So most of the time, the ride is fairly comfortable.

Still, can someone explain why the high-performance Altima comes solely with front-wheel drive, while the fuel-sipper variant gets it as an option?

And while you’re at it, can someone quell the incessant weather warnings?

My test drive occurred as Hurricane Ian was exiting South Florida. Every minute — literally, every minute — all music would be interrupted by any number of needless warnings, regardless of what the music source was. It was technological torture, as there’s no obvious way to shut it off (and no owner’s manual, for that matter). Other than that annoyance, the new interior proved easy to use, with a new 12.3-inch HD multimedia touchscreen and flat but comfy seats. Head and leg room lived up to what you’d expect, and trunk space seemed good at 15.4 cubic feet, although the gooseneck trunk hinges intrude on trunk space.

You might also notice the Altima’s revised front end with standard LED headlights and new wheels and colors, which give it a dollop of newness. Prices start at $26,385, with our nicely loaded 2.0 SR VC-Turbo topping out at slightly more than $37,000.

If Nissan wants to recapture its former popularity, its midsize sedan needs to be more special. While the VC-Turbo is an interesting engineering achievement, its benefits are outmatched by conventional hybrids. Still, the Altima is a good package for those shopping at the lower end of its price spectrum. Just know that the VC-Turbo will cost more. The best things in life do.

Then again, things never really change.

2023 Nissan Altima 2.0 SR VC-TurboBase price: $34,990

Engine: 2.0-liter turbo variable compression four-cylinder

Horsepower/Torque: 248/273

EPA fuel economy (city/highway): 25/34 mpg

Observed fuel economy: 31 mpg

Fuel required: 93 Octane

Length/Width/Height: 192.9/72.9/56.8 inches

Payload: 980 pounds

Cargo capacity: 15.4 cubic feet

(Larry Printz is an automotive journalist based in South Florida. Readers may send him email at TheDrivingPrintz@gmail.com.)