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Driven: Nissan Altima Thai’d down for December

Here soon: Nissan's Altima mid-size contender is due to arrive in Australia in December this year.

Nissan’s mid-sized Maxima replacement set to be sourced from Thailand

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Nissan logo12 Sep 2013

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

NISSAN’S long-time-coming Altima will not have to travel as far as initially thought, with Australia-bound cars sourced from Thailand rather than the United States.

That might sound like no big deal, especially as the brand’s Pulsar, most Navaras and the outgoing Maxima already hail from there, but it underlines the midsizer’s importance to the company.

Clearly Nissan Australia is covering its bases.

In fact, unfettered supply and more favourable exchange rates means this is the first Nissan to truly take on the Toyota Camry since the late and unlamented Pintara was discontinued (along with the brand’s local manufacturing) in late 1992.

If you are having trouble remembering that particular model, you are not alone.

Here’s a hint anyway: it also spawned the equally unloved Ford Corsair.

Yes, there was the subsequent Bluebird available until 1997, but that sold in tiny numbers and nobody remembers it nowadays.

Interestingly, the latter was the first to be badged Altima in America, making the upcoming L33 the fifth-generation Nissan to wear that moniker.

No pricing or specification details have been released yet, but do not bet against a sub-$30,000 opening gambit for the base version, likely to be badged the ST.

That puts the Nissan between the newly released Holden Malibu, Camry Altise and Hyundai i40, and comfortably under the Mazda6, Honda Accord and Ford Mondeo.

The entry Altima will be powered by a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine pumping out about 136kW of power and 244Nm of torque, and driving the front wheels via a new continuous variable transmission (CVT).

Unfortunately, this drivetrain combination was not available for us to sample on the Nissan 360 global drive experience held near Los Angeles, but the upmarket (Ti?) US-spec version with a 201kW/350Nm 3.5-litre V6 was.

Local market trends suggest the majority of Australian buyers will plonk for the four-pot Altima. Expect the six to arrive here as well, however.

Of course, being an American-made model, there will be slight differences in steering (electric/hydraulic powered rack and pinion) and suspension (MacPherson struts up front/a multi-link rear) tuning, but the fundamental car will be close to the one landing locally in a few weeks time.

First impressions are positive, with the upmarket 3.5 SL big on the sort of bling associated with Infiniti and Lexus models. Low-profile 18-inch alloys, lashings of chrome, twin exhausts (with that evocative VQ35 growl), leather upholstery, sat-nav, sunroof, piano-black trim and a high-end Bose audio system suggest we are in a mid-$40K rather than a high-$20K proposition.

Indeed, memories of the more salubrious Maxima models sprung to mind, giving the Altima an instant connection with the sort of buyers Nissan is hoping to lure.

It is all quite tastefully done, as we sit with room to spare on fatly padded seats.

Firing up the V6 is a further stroll down Familiarity Street, as is the creamy forward surge from the excellent VQ. Acceleration is pretty much effortless, with a muted but alluring sound coming from behind the firewall. Only later, when checking the 14 miles per gallon (16.8L/100km) fuel consumption average, did the reality of that big 3.5-litre donk become apparent.

Anyway, here’s where the Maxima similarities end, since the new-generation CVT is light years ahead of the slurry old trannie in terms of reaction and response times. Unless really booting it, the gearbox feels like a well-sorted torque-converter auto.

Memories of an L33 Altima prototype with the 2.5/CVT combo driven in Tokyo almost two years ago flooded back, so we are expecting similarly impressive performance and refinement from the cheaper four-pot models as well.

The drive route was a 30-minute inner-urban drive through the Californian town of Irvine, where the roads are smooth and straight, so it is hard to get a grip on how grippy the American Altima’s handling is.

But while the steering is a tad too light for our tastes, it is at least quick to react to inputs, and nicely planted at the 130km/h mark at which everybody seems to cruise on the freeways.

A few fast turns highlighted a flat and composed chassis, but we can’t really tell whether that’s down to the sticky 235/45 R18 tyres (on hot roads) or particularly well-tied down suspension.

On the flipside, however, quite a few bumps permeated the plush cabin, so we’ll have to wait to assess the Altima on Aussie bitumen.

But it is clear that the new Nissan midsizer is both a competent and composed car dynamically.

On first acquaintance, we’ve come away with the feeling that buyers are in for a car that’s both relaxing and sporty. ‘Camry with attitude’ might sum it up.

If Nissan gets the pricing right and avoids supply bottlenecks, the Altima will have the right amount of visual and driver appeal to return the company back to the halcyon pre-Pintara Bluebird/200B/180B days of medium-segment domination.

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