2023 Nissan Altima 2.0 SR Review: Sporty but hardly sporting
It’s been interesting to watch the heated competition of the three Japanese-brand, bread-and-butter triplets: The Nissan Altima, the Honda Accord, and the Toyota Camry.
It wasn’t always that way.
The Nissan Altima was an odd duck when it first came out in 1993. More substantial than a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla, it was smaller and less substantial than the Honda Accord or Toyota Camry. It was an in-between car, powered by a serviceable 150-horsepower, double overhead-camshaft 2.4-liter engine.
The original Altima was never sporty; the larger Maxima had sporting ambitions, though, including “4DSC” stickers on the rear side windows, which stood for four-door sports car. It was compared to the Accords and Camrys of the day, but the Altima was regulated to the just-transportation category. As such, it was a solid seller.
The Altima’s fate changed in 2002, when the third-generation car debuted. Nissan kicked the Maxima upstairs to the near-luxury market, and the Altima grew, very consciously, to dimensions almost identical to the Camry and Accord. Game on.
Nissan had never before had a car prepared to counter the Camry and Accord, but with that new Altima they did. There was, by the way, some disagreement as to whether Nissan should call it an Altima or give it a new name, but the Altima advocates prevailed.
That early-2000s Altima was the first offered with a V-6, the gutsy 3.5-liter VQ35DE motor, but the standard motor was a 2.5-liter four-cylinder. In 2005 the Altima upped the ante with an SE-R model that could be had with a six-speed manual transmission and came with better brakes, a freer-flowing exhaust, and a stiffer suspension. Zero to 60 mph time was 6 seconds, invigorating by 2005 standards.
So that’s our Altima history lesson, which it brings us to our test car, this 2023 Nissan Altima 2.0 SR. It’s the sportiest Altima available right now, powered by a 2.0-liter variable-compression-ratio four-cylinder with a turbocharger. It’s rated at a respectable 236 horsepower and 267 lb-ft of torque.
The V-6 is gone, but this four-cylinder has comparable muscle—and better fuel mileage. It’s EPA-rated at 25 mpg city, 34 on the highway, and 29 mpg combined. We were never quite able to nail that 29 mpg, but chalk that up to consciously spirited driving. Unlike many turbocharged cars, the Altima SR does not demand premium fuel; regular is recommended, but keep in mind that 236 horsepower is only available with the top-tier stuff.
Nissan makes one of the better continuously variable transmissions, or CVTs. Whether you like it will depend on whether you prefer a conventional transmission that shifts or one that doesn’t. We’ll go on the record as not being huge fans of CVTs, but the Altima’s is solid and reasonably responsive to a pressed-down accelerator pedal. Still, executive editor Eric Weiner thought the CVT was “so noisy and ropey-feeling that it saps the engine of any character.” It has a “manual shift mode” with steering-wheel paddles for shifting, but it’s just an artificial way to make a CVT feel more like a conventional transmission.
The 2.0 SR has a “sport suspension,” but it’s sporty in name only. There’s palpable body roll, and understeer, in sharp turns. Its comfort factor is reasonably high, but the suspension seems unduly surprised by rough pavement and potholes. Overall weight is 3460 pounds, which is a little heavier than the base front-wheel-drive Altima (all-wheel drive is optional for a very reasonable $1500, except on the 2.0 SR, which is front-drive only.)
Specs: 2023 Nissan Altima 2.0 SR
• Price: $34,900 / $37,060 (base/as-tested)
• Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged four cylinder with a continuously variable transmission
• Horsepower: 236
• Torque: 267
• Layout: Front-wheel-drive, four-door, five-passenger sedan
• EPA-Rated Fuel Economy: 25/34/29 (city/hwy/combined)
• 0–60 mph: 5.5 seconds (est.)
• Competitors: Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Kia K5, Hyundai Sonata
We have no complaints about the exterior. The Altima 2.0 SR is a handsome car, especially painted a very pale gray called Gray Sky Pearl, which is considered a premium finish costing $395 extra. The 19-inch spoked aluminum alloy wheels look like they mean business, as does the modest rear spoiler; both are included with the 2.0 SR package, as are big dual exhaust pipes. The front fascia is new for 2023 on all Altimas, and it gently brings the model more into the Nissan family. For a conventional three-box sedan, it is very attractive.
Inside there’s room aplenty—four six-footers will fit fine, or five in a pinch. Instruments and controls are conventional, but one Weiner thought the 12.3-inch screen interface was “clunky to navigate. At least it has CarPlay.” Upholstery is leather, with a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. Front seats are heated and power-adjustable. The seat comfort level is reasonable, but a little more side bolstering would be appreciated.
On the road, the Altima’s electric power steering is vague and artificial-feeling. Nissan could take a lesson from Honda here. That said, the 2.0 SR is happy commuting in rush-hour traffic, or on the highways for a family vacation. And there’s a ton of room for luggage in the 15.4-cubic-foot trunk.
As far as pricing, the 2.0 SR starts at $34,990, and with the premium paint, floor and trunk mats ($355) and splash guards ($225), the bottom line is a not-awful $37,060, including $1095 in shipping. At this price point, however, it looks, but doesn’t really feel, more expensive than it is.
If you’re looking for a really affordable ride, though, the Altima S, with the 188-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder, starts at just $26,585 including shipping, a bargain in a world where the average transaction price for a new vehicle is close to $49,000. No, you won’t get leather or a turbocharged engine, but you will get a roomy car that’s rated at 28 mpg city, 39 on the highway, and 32 overall. The all-new 2023 Honda Accord LX starts at $28,390 including shipping, and a Toyota Camry starts at $27,415—all good choices under $30,000.
As it has been since 2002, the Altima is a contender in the category. It’s tough to go wrong the Nissan, the Honda, or the Toyota. It’s worth noting, though, that the Camry and Accord will have better resale value than the Altima as well as higher customer satisfaction ratings. Test drive all three, and make your choice based on the car (and the dealer) you like best.
2023 Nissan Altima 2.0 SR
Highs: Great looks, spunky engine, roomy and leather-clad interior. Good mileage on regular gas.
Lows: CVT transmission robs a good engine of some sportiness, vague steering, just O.K. handling.
Takeaway: Competent, handsome car that could use some performance tweaking to justify its badge.