Mild To Wild: How Radically Different Will This Midsize Sedan’s Looks And Powertrains Turn Out?

What changes will make it different?

Styling and the likely addition of an unusual gas-electric hybrid. This popular midsize sedan was last all-new for model-year 2013 and is on path for its next full redesign around model-year 2019. That leaves the ‘16 poised for a midcycle freshening that could include styling inspired by the Nissan Sport Sedan Concept shown at the 2014 North American International Auto Show. And look for the four- and six-cylinder gas engines to be joined by a hybrid that probably will incorporate a supercharged four-cylinder engine.

Why should I wait for the 2016 model?

To get the latest looks and the option of an innovative hybrid. Styling changes could hew to the usual midcycle updates, meaning a mildly revised nose and tail, maybe some new colors and wheel designs, perhaps a cabin redecoration. But the carmaker could go further, reshaping some sheetmetal with new and futuristic lines accentuated by chrome trim taken from the Sports Sedan Concept. Corresponding interior updates would include more geometric shapes and contrasting colors. Regardless, expect these and other aspects of the concept car to appear on the redesigned 2016 Maxima, the brand flagship that shares much of Altima’s underskin architecture.

Should I buy the current 2015 instead?

If you can live without the newest styling, aren’t interested in a hybrid, and want a good all-around midsize sedan. Even with revised styling, the ‘16 won’t be fundamentally different than the ‘15, itself the recent beneficiary of improved cabin décor. The ’14 version borrowed a beat from Asian and European rivals, dumping a bland, monochromatic beige or gray interior for an improved color scheme with black carpeting. Attractive deals should be available on the 2015, too, as dealers clear inventories ahead of the freshened 2016s.

Will the styling be different?

It’s perhaps too much to expect new body sheetmetal, but the Sport Sedan Concept’s dramatic curves, deep side creases, and “floating” roof would make a spectacular midcycle update. More realistically, Altima could adopt the show car’s aggressive grille, drop-curve hoodline, and boomerang-shaped LED headlights. That would jazz up styling that’s not unpleasant but lacks the presence of rivals such as the Ford Fusion and Mazda 6. Unchanged would be dimensions and packaging that furnish a spacious cabin and big trunk. We would, however, welcome higher interior quality materials and a dashboard with a more driver-focused layout. A central dashboard infotainment/climate/navigation screen would return, and any hybrid’s will get specific displays to track gas-electric energy flow and various fuel-consumption details. Within the gas-engine line, expect the return of four trim levels: base, S, SV, and top-line SL; a hybrid would possibly be offered in two or more of those. The gas-only lineup will again subdivide into four-cylinder “2.5” and V-6 “3.5” categories. Altima’s two-door body style was dropped for model-year 2014, leaving this a five-passenger sedan. Trunk volume should remain a class-average 15.4 cubic feet. But of note is that the automaker’s hybrid system is configured to consume minimal cargo volume, so a hybrid version of this car probably won’t suffer the luggage-space penalty associated with some rival gas-electrics.

Any mechanical changes?

The big one would be addition of a hybrid. Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, and Toyota Camry already offer them, with the Ford and Honda available as plug-in hybrids, as well. Here, Nissan would likely employ the powertrain introduced in its 2015 Pathfinder SUV Hybrid. It combines a 2.5-liter four-cylinder gas engine with electric-motor power and an onboard lithium-ion battery pack of compact dimensions. What’s unusual is that the engine is supercharged, for a net output of 250 horsepower, 50 or more than any Altima hybrid rival could boast. Like a turbocharger, a supercharger furnishes denser airflow to the cylinders, adding power. But a supercharger compressor is driven by the engine’s crankshaft rather than spooled by exhaust gasses, as is a turbocharger. The automaker says a turbocharger would necessitate addition of direct fuel injection to the four-cylinder, increasing the cost to consumers. An advantage of a supercharger is quicker delivery of low-rpm torque, which can mean better acceleration at around-town speeds. Otherwise, the ’16 Altima will remain among the midsize-car holdouts that still offers a six-cylinder engine in addition to a four-cylinder; the others are the Accord, Camry, Chrysler 200, Subaru Legacy and Volkswagen Passat. In the gas-only line, the base trim level would come only with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that should remain at 182 horsepower. The other three trim levels will again be available with a 3.5-liter V-6 with some 270 horsepower. Regardless of powertrain, all ‘16 Altimas would again come with a continuously variable transmission (CVT). A CVT plays the roles of a conventional automatic transmission but without a fixed number of gear ratios. Instead, it continuously changes ratio to more precisely match engine output with fuel economy and acceleration. A drawback is a CVT’s tendency to let engine speed to zip ahead of vehicle speed, resulting in annoying exhaust drone during rapid acceleration, particularly with the four-cylinder engine. Nissan could extend to the four-cylinder models – and maybe the hybrids — a feature found on the V-6s: steering-wheel paddle shifters giving the driver a sense of manual gear control via seven simulated CVT “ratios.” This is a front-wheel-drive car. In its competitive set, all-wheel drive is available on the Fusion, 200, and Buick Regal and standard on the Legacy. Overall, Altima has maintained a laudable compromise between sporty handling and ride comfort. Performance with the four-cylinder is perfectly adequate for family-sedan duty, and while the V-6 is impressively fast, rapid acceleration off the line provokes some pulling to the side, known as torque steer.

Will fuel economy improve?

Quite possibly. Strategic aerodynamic improvements and perhaps some powertrain optimizing could boost EPA ratings over the 2015 figures, which were 27//38/31 mpg city/highway/combined for 2.5-series models and 22/32/26 mpg for the V-6. Even with no change, those ratings would keep the ‘16 near the top of its class in gas mileage. Hard to predict how efficient a hybrid version would be, but the Pathfinder Hybrid’s gas counterpart uses this same V-6 and the battery-assisted version beats it by 25 percent in city-mileage ratings and by 18 percent in combined ratings.

Will it have new features?

Probably not so much new – most every amenity is already offered – as a trickledown of various features from the highest trim levels to the less expensive ones. The base 2.5 sedan, for example, might get alloy wheels and USB iPod connectivity standard instead of optional, as on the other grades. Otherwise, expect it to continue with a nice array of conveniences for an entry-level model, including keyless entry with pushbutton ignition, Bluetooth phone and audio linking, power windows, locks, and mirrors, cruise control, and a four-speaker audio system with CD player, air conditioning, height-adjustable driver’s seat, tilt/telescoping steering column, and outside-temperature indicator. The popular S trim level should again add to the base a dashboard LCD touchscreen, power adjustable driver’s seat, and a six-speaker audio system. Expect the SV level to expand on that with a standard a rearview backup camera, dual-zone automatic climate control, remote engine start ignition start, and NissanConnect smartphone integration, including access to Facebook, Pandora, and iHeart Radio Internet apps. Again onboard as optional or standard depending on the model will be lane-departure and blind-sport warning systems, leather upholstery, an eight-way power driver’s seat with power lumbar, heated front seats, and a moonroof. The available navigation system would probably retain the 7-inch dashboard touchscreen, feature 3D mapping, and respond to voice commands and steering-wheel controls. It should again incorporate NissanConnect’s ability to let the audio system read aloud incoming texts and the driver to respond with pre-set answers such as “driving, can’t text,” “OK,” “running late,” “on my way,” or a custom message. It’ll also include SiriusXM links to information on travel, weather, fuel prices, movie times, stock updates, and sports scores. It would be nice if the compact nature of the lithium-ion battery pack would enable a hybrid model to retain the split/folding 60/40 rear seatbacks that enhance cargo versatility in the gas-only versions.

How will 2016 prices be different?

They’ll almost certainly increase, but by how much, the automaker will need to decide as it calculates costs and market forces. Based on 2015 starting prices, look for a 2016 base-price range of roughly $23,990-$29,400 for the 2.5 line and $27,990-$33,600 for the 3.5 line. (Estimated base prices include the manufacturer’s destination fee, in this case, around $810.) Going with the Pathfinder example, its hybrid model is priced some $3,000 above the corresponding gas-V-6 version.

What Is the Expected Release Date?

Sometime during the second half of 2015

Best competitors:

Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Chrysler 200, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Ford Fusion, Mazda 6, Chevrolet Malibu, Subaru Legacy, VW Passat.

What’s a cool feature?

Nissan’s Easy Fill Tire Alert lights a dashboard icon when a tire’s pressure falls below the recommended level. When you stop to inflate it, the system toots the car’s horn to signal when the proper pressure is reached. It’s a great way to encourage proper inflation, which is vital to safety and fuel economy. More manufacturers ought to copy it.

Read More about the Latest Models

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to 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, 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]