Midsize, mainstream and unexpectedly rewarding: 2021 Nissan Altima sedan

2020 Nissan Altima

By Chuck Giametta

What changes will make the 2021 Nissan Altima different?

Nothing noteworthy is expected as Nissan readies its roomy, comfortable midsize sedan for a model-year-2022 refresh. That midcycle update probably will focus on minor styling alterations. No significant changes are likely until the next all-new Altima arrives for model-year 2025.

The 2021 version of this four-door sedan will return with a choice of two four-cylinder engines, one of them turbocharged. And in a class of some 15 cars, will again be among the half-dozen or so available with all-wheel drive (AWD). If Nissan’s lucky, it’ll also be among the precious few midsize sedans not losing sales; for 2019, it was the only established nameplate that didn’t.

Note that conclusions in this review are based on test drives of 2020 Altimas supplied by the automaker. In areas where the 2021 may differ, we’ll withhold judgement.

Should I wait for the 2021 Nissan Altima or buy a 2020?

2020 Altima

Little reason to wait. The ’21 should be a virtual rerun of the 2020, but it’ll almost certainly cost more. Buying a ’21 also means your Altima will have just one model year before its styling could look a little dated against the refreshed ’22.

Either way, this will be the same basic car that was new from the ground up for 2019. It got racier bodywork, a more spacious and contemporary interior, and additional features, including semi-autonomous driving capability. Nissan dropped the available V-6 engine but added AWD as an option to standard front-wheel drive. The only model-year 2020 rivals with AWD were the Subaru Legacy, on which it was standard, and the Ford Fusion, Buick Regal, Toyota Camry, and Volkswagen Arteon, on which it was optional. Reports say the Kia Optima may add it for model-year ’21.

The ’21 Altima will again slot into Nissan’s car lineup between the compact Sentra and the Maxima. The Maxima is also a midsize sedan, but its basic design dates to model-year 2016. It’s pricier than the Altima and comes only with a V-6 engine and front-wheel drive.  

Look for the 2021 Altima lineup to again consist of five models with a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter engine: the rental-fleet-targeted 2.5 S and the retail-oriented 2.5 SR, SV, SL, and Platinum. It should also return 2.0 SR and 2.0 Platinum grades with a turbocharged 2.0-liter. Expect AWD to remain available only on the 2.5 models.

Will the styling be different?

2020 Altima

Nothing more probable than a new color choice or two. The 2021 Altima will retain the look that came with the 2019 redesign, when it grew longer, lower, and wider than its 2013-2018 predecessor. Signature cues, such as a “floating” rear roof treatment and Nissan’s “Vmotion” grille, will return.

Visually, model delineation should again run to such details as LED foglamps starting with the SV grade and an exclusive “dark chrome” finish to the grille and exterior trim of the sporty SR. Wheels will also remain differentiators, with 16-inch steel rims for the S and alloys for the others — 17s for the SV and SL, 19s for the SR and Platinum. Look for an optional rear spoiler to return at around $420 for all but the S trim.

Altima’s cabin will again deliver family-car comfort and a no-nonsense driving environment. Nissan’s “gliding wing” instrument-panel design features clear gauges and well-marked, sensibly sized controls. Knobs and buttons govern audio volume and tuning and most climate-system functions.

2020 Altima 2.5 SV

All ’21 Altimas will return with a tablet-style 8-inch touchscreen centered atop the dashboard. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, with SLs and Platinums again boasting imbedded navigation that doesn’t depend on a cellular signal for real-time GPS mapping. The screen is easy to reach, its icons self-explanatory.

2020 Altima 2.5 SV

Though far from opulent, the ’21 Altima’s interior materials should again be sturdy, with padded surfaces in most places you’d expect. The S and SV should return with woven cloth upholstery, the SR with a sportier fabric blend, and the SL and Platinum editions with leather. Returning as a nice upscale touch added for model-year 2020, the SV, SL, and Platinum grades should again feature piano-black accents.

2020 Altima 2.5 SV

Nissan touts NASA-inspired “zero gravity” front bucket seats, and while they don’t let you float free of bumps, they are set-and-forget comfortable. The driver’s view aft, however, will again be squeezed by the three fixed-in-place rear headrests and an oddly intrusive housing for the center high-mounted rear brake light. Back seaters enjoy firm support, claustrophobia-eliminating theater elevation, and outstanding legroom.

2020 Altima

Door, dashboard, and console bins and pockets accommodate an abundance of daily detritus. At 15.4 cubic feet, trunk volume is above class average and the opening is large but beware the cargo-creasing lid hinges.  

Any mechanical changes?

2020 Altima 2.0 Platinum

Very unlikely until the next-generation 2025 model, which could add a gas-electric hybrid powertrain. Before then, we’d urge Nissan to make AWD available with the Altima’s turbo 2.0-liter because it’d help quell the trace of torque steer – unwanted pulling to the side during rapid take-offs – that sometimes effects that engine.  

Otherwise, the ’21 Altima 2.5 line will return with 188 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque, reduced to 182 and 178 with AWD. The turbocharged 2.0 models will again have 228 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. (Think of torque as the force that gets a vehicle moving, horsepower the energy that keeps it moving.)

Nissan brands the 2.0-liter engine the VC-Turbo, for variable compression. This innovative design continually adjusts its compression ratio, essentially altering the volume of the combustion chambers while running. The automaker says it combines the power of a 2.0-liter turbocharged gas engine with the torque and fuel efficiency of a four-cylinder diesel.

2020 Altima VC-Turbo 2.0-liter engine

Power ratings for the 2.5-liter engine will remain a bit above par for a base four-cylinder in the segment, those for the VC-Turbo a smidge below average for a turbocharged 2.0-liter in the competitive set. All ’21 Altimas will again use a continuously variable automatic transmission calibrated to mimic the stepped gear changes of a conventional automatic. It’s a decent match for both engines, with the SR trim inviting a semblance of manual-type control via steering-wheel paddle shifters.

The 2.5 is dialed in for most driving situations, feeling it needs more power only when you’re really pressing, although we also found it necessary to toe the throttle regularly to stay abreast of show-no-mercy highway-speed traffic. The turbo essentially fills in any soft spots for merging, passing, and cruising but its character is more that of family-car engine upgrade than throbbing heart of a sports sedan.

AWD is an effective traction adjunct on slick or snowy pavement. It normally operates in front-wheel drive, distributing up to 50 percent of engine torque rearward when sensors detect tire slip. It also seems to help balance the Altima in fast cornering, erasing the hint of noseplow affecting front-drive models. Overall, handling with any ’21 Altima should again exemplify the best mainstream midsize-sedan road manners, with no surprises in everyday driving and unexpected rewards on twisty roads, especially on front-drive SR models with their tauter suspension.

Ride quality is another selling point. A compliant suspension, solid structure, and those comfy seats combine to take the jolt out of bad-pavement impacts. Teamed with laudable suppression of road, wind, and mechanical noise, any ‘21 Altima should remain a calming companion no matter the journey.

Will fuel economy improve?

2020 Altima 2.5 SV

Sans mechanical changes expect 2021 Altima EPA ratings to repeat those of the 2020 model. That would leave fuel economy for both the 2.5 and turbo-2.0 lines above average compared to segment rivals of similar power.    

Expect ’21 Altima 2.5 S and 2.5 SV models to again rate 28/39/32 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive and 26/36/30 with AWD. Slightly heavier and with higher-rolling resistance 19-inch tires, figure the 2.5 SR and 2.5 Platinum trims to repeat at 27/37/31 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive and 26/36/30 with AWD.

If the ’21 Altima 2.0 SR and 2.0 Platinum models again come only with AWD, look for a ratings repeat of 25/34/29 mpg city/highway/combined.

Will the ’21 Altima have new features?

2020 Altima 2.5 SV

Nissan might shift an item or two among models, giving 2.5 SR grades the integrated-LED-turn-signal mirrors standard on higher trims, for example. More important, we’d like to see adaptive cruise control, which maintains a set distance from traffic ahead, become available on 2021 Altima SR grades; its been standard on the SV, SL, and Platinum models.

New features per se are unlikely. That’s OK; this sedan’s already well-stocked with standard and optional equipment. Nissan should remain reasonably generous with safety features, making standard on every ’21 Altima autonomous emergency braking capable of stopping the car to avoid a frontal collision with another vehicle or object.

The balance of Nissan’s Safety Shield 360 technologies should again be optional for the S model as part of the $850 Driver Assistance Package and standard on all other ’21 Altimas. This tech enhances autonomous braking with pedestrian detection and includes automatic highbeam headlights, lane-maintaining automatic steering, and blind-spot and rear cross-traffic detection with autonomous rear braking.

2020 Altima 2.5 SV with ProPilot Assist

Look for the ’21 SV, SL, and Platinum grades to again come standard with Nissan’s ProPilot Assist semi-autonomous driving system. Using radar, a camera, sensors and automatic steering, it’s designed to keep the car in the center of the traffic lane. Combined with the included adaptive cruise control, it can also bring the car to a stop and hold it during traffic jams. The driver’s hands are required to remain on the steering wheel, or the system will deactivate. In our tests, the self-steering feature was the system’s weak link, tending to boomerang the Altima between lane stripes with more force than felt natural.

In addition to features already mentioned, the ’21 Altima S should again come standard with remote engine start, two front and two rear USB charge ports (Type-A and Type-C), an eight-way power driver’s seat, and 60/40 split-folding rear seatbacks.

To that, expect 2.5 SR grades to again add the LED headlights and dark accents, plus black side-mirror caps and body colored door handles. Standard on the 2.0 SR and optional on the 2.5 SR as part of the $1,050 Premium Package should be a power moonroof, heated outside mirrors with turn signals, heated front seats, and a two-way power lumbar for the driver.

2020 Altima 2.0 Platinum

The attractively equipped ’21 Altima SV will again include a moonroof, heated front seats and steering wheel, heated outside mirrors with LED turn signals, two-way power lumbar support, dual-zone automatic climate control, and rear-console climate vents. In addition to all that, the SL should again come with a nine-speaker Bose premium sound system and a power passenger seat. The flagship Platinum should again add a 360-degree bird’s-eye video view to the infotainment screen, interior accent lighting, and memory for the driver’s seat and mirrors.

How will 2021 Altima prices be different?

They’ll almost certainly increase, though modestly, leaving the ’21 Altima very competitively priced, particularly since factory cash-back incentives on all Nissans tend to be charitable and frequent. For reference, here are 2020 Altima base prices, including the $895 manufacturer’s destination fee.

With front-wheel drive, the 2.5 trims started at $24,995 for the S model, $26,595 for the SR, $28,775 for the high-value SV, $31,135 for the SL, and $33,075 for the Platinum. Expect AWD to again be an affordable $1,350 option for any of these 2.5 models.

The 2020 Altima 2.0 SR was priced from $30,645 and the 2.0 Platinum from $36,075.

When will the 2021 Nissan Altima come out?

Look for a 2021 Nissan Altima release date during the third quarter of 2020.

What are the top alternatives?

Buick Regal, Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Subaru Legacy, Toyota Camry, Volkswagen Arteon and Passat

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]