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2012 Nissan Altima still a strong option in the midsize market?

The fourth generation Nissan Altima is entering its sixth year on the road.  We take a look at the vehicle, how it competes in the mid-size segment, and see what’s new for the 2012 model year.

Specifications as-tested

Model Year: 2012
Make: Nissan
Model: Altima 2.5 SL

Engine: 2.5L 4-cylinder / 175 hp at 5600 rpm and 180 lb.- ft. of torque at 3900 rpm
Transmission: Xtronic CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) with manual mode
Drivetrain: Front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy: 23-mpg city/ 32-mpg highway
Observed Fuel Economy: 28.2 mpg

Base MSRP: $22,570
As tested MSRP: $32,095

Equipped Options:
2.5S Technology Package (Navigation, XM NavTraffic/Weather) [$1,780]
Premium Audio Package (Bose Audio, USB/Aux Ports) [$990]
Rear Decklid Spoiler [$370]
Fog Lights [$310]
Moonroof Wind Deflector [$100]
Required Fees: Delivery Charge [$760]


A solid choice

It’s not easy to compete in the midsize market. First off, it’s crowded. This is the same consumer space that the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Chevy Malibu, Kia Optima, Ford Fusion, and Volkswagen Passat all vie within.  More so,  all those competitors have seen medium to major redesigns since the current Altima first went on sale in 2008.  For 2011 the Altima saw a very minor exterior refresh (the hood) and for 2012 the only change of note is a new color. A major redesign of the Altima is scheduled to happen next year for the 2013 model but today we’re driving the 2012 Altima 2.5 SL.

Like a fine wine, the Altima has only grown better with age. It’s not the newest and it’s not the fanciest, but it’s rock solid. It’s the only model of the midsize bunch that uses a continuously-variable-transmission (CVT).  That means the transmission never really “shifts”. Instead it’s always adjusting and matching the right engine speed for the current situation.  The advantage is two fold; providing both satin smooth acceleration and an engine that always seems to be in the perfect spot whenever you need to accelerate.

On the road the Altima drives with confidence and a spark you don’t normally associate with a mid-size family sedan. This isn’t your neighbor’s Toyota Camry and it shows. The Altima drives with  European-like composure. Nimble and responsive at city speeds yet smooth,  solid, and predictable on the highway.

We didn’t get a chance to sample the up-level 270-horsepower 3.5L V6, but our tester’s 2.5L four-cylinder got the job done adequately. Putting out 175-horsepower, the 2.5 SL is refined and works well with a CVT.  As much as we tried, we couldn’t match the EPA rated 32-mpg during our real world highway testing. We attribute that to the CVT, which often pegs the engine in the middle of the RPM band for acceleration but takes time to settle into a lower cruising gear ratio. Our 28.2mpg mixed driving average is none the less impressive for a vehicle of this size.


It’s whats on the inside that counts

Another advantage the Altima brings to the table is an extremely refined interior. It’s not as expressive as the Hyundai Sonata or Kia Optima, but the plastics and trim are of a much higher quality. While other automakers have tried to trim down costs by substituting hard materials and cheaper switchgear, Nissan has actually invested more into the interior of the Altima and it’s well noticed.

A soft touch dash, fine wood-like accents, and Infiniti level switch-gear are among the very best of this segment. We found the seating to be comfortable on our backside, even during longer trips.

Our Altima test car came equipped with the optional Technology Package. This included a high-resolution Navigation system with XM Traffic & Weather.  We would imagine most won’t opt for the Navigation system but it’s important that Nissan offers the technology. Ford and Hyundai both offer competitive navigation systems that offer live weather alerts, sports scores, and stock quotes. The Premium Audio Package our tester was equipped with is well worth the additional $990. It features Bose speakers and a USB/Aux input that gives you an iPod/USB Drive compatibility.

New for 2012

There are only a few changes for the 2012 model year.  This is not surprising, as the Altima received a relativity minor exterior update last year.  One new color is being offered for this year; Dark Slate replaces Metallic Slate. A carryover Special Edition package complements a new Value Package offered on the lower trim 2.5 S.



The Altima has been and continues to be one of the most solid choices in the mid-size market. However, it’s hard to ignore that the segment is full of strong contenders and the Altima is handicapped with a higher price than most of its newer and more expressively styled rivals. In short, we really enjoy the Altima and what it brings to the table but struggle to find a reason why it’s more expensive than its competitors.  With a substantial redesign on the way for 2013, we’re eager to see what Nissan has in store.


  • High quality interior materials and fit/finish
  • Super smooth 2.5L engine/CVT combination
  • Well balanced driving dynamics


  • More expensive than the competition
  • Real world fuel economy lower than competition
  • Styling leaves us wanting more

2012 Nissan Altima Road Test Gallery

2011 Hyundai Sonata arrives ready to impress

When you hear “mid-size sedan”, which cars come to mind?  Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Chevy Malibu, or Ford Fusion?  If you didn’t think about the Hyundai Sonata, it’s time to think again.

2011 Hyundai Sonata - Photographer: Zane Merva

Specifications as-tested

Model Year: 2011
Make: Hyundai
Model: Sonata SE

Engine: 2.4L DOHC  direct injection 4-cylinder / 200 hp at 6300 rpm and 186 lb.- ft. of torque at 4350 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drivetrain: Front-wheel-drive

EPA Fuel Economy: 22mpg city / 26mpg combined / 35mpg highway
Observed Fuel Economy: 29.7mpg

Base MSRP: $22,595
As tested MSRP: $25,915

Standard Equipment: Traction/stability control, key-less entry, steering wheel mounted paddle shifters, USB/Aux/iPod port, dimension audio system, automatic headlight control

Equipped Options:
Navigation & Sunroof Package [$2,600]

Required Fees:
Delivery Charge [$720]

>>See our full 2011 Hyundai Sonata Road Test Photo Gallery<<

Driving Dynamics & Performance

2011 Hyundai Sonata - Photographer: Zane Merva

The 2011 Hyundai Sonata is fun to drive. Let that sit in your mind for just a moment. In a segment usually promoted using safety and fuel economy, “fun to drive” is not a term you’d expect out of a family sedan.  Yet, the Sonata delivers.

On the road we were immediately surprised by how quick and agile the Sonata felt.  We never expected the base 200-horsepower model to feel so good. In this market base engines are almost expected to feel sluggish and anemic. Somehow, Hyundai has bucked the trend. The base 2.4L inline-4 in the Sonata feels more than adequate, in fact it feels quite healthy. Only minimal fanfare is required to accelerate on the highway and around town low end torque provides quick getup and go. Should you desire more power, look for a 274-horsepower turbocharged 2.0T option later this year.

In addition to proper acceleration, the Sonata can be tossed around and feels comfortable on any road surface. A solid chassis and communicative steering empower the driver to feel in control behind the wheel.

There are two factors that contribute to the Sonata’s handling prowess.  First, it weighs 200lbs less than Malibu and 100lbs less than Camry and Fusion.  Second, the Sonata’s base engine, rated at 200-horsepower,  is  30-horsepower up on Camry/Malibu and 25-horsepower up on Fusion/Accord.

The Sonata, which equals rivals at 22mpg city also tops with more highway fuel economy. Even with a horsepower advantage, Sonata is rated at 35mpg on the highway. That’s 4-mpg better than Accord and Altima,  2mpg better than Camry and Malibu, and 1mpg better than Fusion. Have no doubt that 35mpg in a four door family sedan is impressive but we found that advertised economy allusive.  Our best observed highway mileage was 31mpg.

Design Execution, Appearance, Fit & Finish

2011 Hyundai Sonata

There’s something new, yet familiar about the styling on the 2011 Sonata.  Its sweeping exterior side profile is semi-reminiscent of a Mercedes CL and the HVAC “torso-body” button on the interior center console is a close duplicate of what you’d find in a Volvo.  However, set next to a  Toyota Camry or Chevy Malibu the Sonata looks crisp and refreshing. It’s a touch of style that makes a statement without coming off as in your face. The Sonata’s styling will appeal to a wide audience.

Hyundai calls the new design “Fluidic Sculpture” and has also started using the design philosophy in other models, such as the new Tuscon.  Sculpture like or not, we really enjoyed both the interior and exterior styling of the new Sonata.  It felt stylish and interesting without being too busy or distracting. Every button and switch was easy to use and fell within arms reach.

While Hyundai has done many things right with the Sonata, it didn’t take very long to find a few things that felt needed improvement.  Many of our gripes centered around the interior. The choice of plastic found around the cup holders is prone to scratches. At night, we also found that many of the interior indicator lights did not dim as much as they should. For example, the gear shift selector back-light stayed too bright for our eyes.  The same was also true for the headlight/fog-light/high-beam indicators in the gauge cluster.   After dark when night adjusted vision is at a premium these brightness issues were annoying and compromised our ability to see the road in front of us.

Audio, Electronics, & Technology

2011 Hyundai Sonata - Photographer: Zane Merva

The new Sonata continues to impress with its technology offerings. Standard Bluetooth hands-free is a segment first.  Standard USB/AUX input jacks are also well appreciated. For $35 Hyundai offers a iPod/iPhone integration cable that plugs into the USB and line-in port at the same time. While we appreciate that Hyundai and Apple are playing nice, we’re confused why you need the special cable. The Ford Fusion and Chevy Malibu allow customers to use their existing USB cable for iPod/iPhone control. If you try that on Sonata, it just won’t work. If you don’t have an iPod/iPhone, you can always load up a spare USB drive with music for your listening pleasure.

If you splurge for the optional integrated navigation system you’re in for a treat. A high-resolution display allows for easy readability at a glance.   Hyundai has also partnered with Sirius XM to offer Weather, Stocks, and Sports information.  Just like Sirus/Ford Travel-link, you can view weather maps, warnings, sports scores, and stock prices on your screen. Stock and sports information is handy and weather features are not only cool but could be life-saving in severe situations.

Comfort & Ergonomics

2011 Hyundai Sonata - Photographer: Zane Merva

In concert with the typical job of everyday commuting, the new Sonata is comfortable and easy to live with. Steering wheel controls are comfortable to use without contorting your thumbs, audio and navigation operation are intuitive, and Hyundai’s switch-gear feel is solid and precise.  We did find it odd that Hyundai does not offer an automatic climate control option.  We found the manual system to require small adjustments every 10-20 minutes to stay comfortable.

The seats in the Sonata are comfortable for long and short hauls alike. During our week with the car we always arrived at our destination without cramps or aches. That’s not something we’ve always been able to say of the other cars in this class.

>>See our full 2011 Hyundai Sonata Road Test Photo Gallery<<


A right-sized car with a beefy base engine and a thrifty price.  Engaging driving attributes, good looks, and great fuel economy make the Sonata deserving of careful consideration for anyone in the mid-size sedan market.  Hyundai has taken everything good about family sedans and improved on it while simultaneously injecting the Sonata with a spark of style and fun.


  • Lowest base price & highest fuel economy among Camry, Accord, Malibu, and Fusion.
  • Standard iPod/AUX/USB input
  • Optional Navigation system includes XM Weather/Sports/Stocks
  • Class leading engine feels more powerful than 200-hp


  • Semi-soft plastic on steering wheel and center console scratches easily
  • Gear-selector back-lights and gauge cluster headlight/foglight indicators are  too bright for sensitive eyes
  • iPod/iPhone audio control will only work with exclusive Hyundai cable exclusive 360 Video Walk-around in HD

First Drive: 2011 Buick Regal delivers smooth style & solid European handling

Last week I had the chance to sample the completely new 2011 Buick Regal on the roads and highways of Southern California.  We’ve been foaming at the mouth at a chance to get behind the wheel of the Regal ever since it was introduced in LA last year. Could the car that was almost a Saturn really deliver as a Buick? Lets find out.

One walk around the Regal and it’s immediately recognize as a Buick, which is a very good thing. Despite being more stylistically reserved than its big brother, the LaCrosse, the Regal looks youthful, classy, and elegant. There are very few hard creases in the bodywork, lending to a fluid in-motion look even while sitting still. It’s impressive considering only minor styling changes were made to convert the Regal from its originally intended form as a Saturn Aura.

2011 Buick Regal

The Regal will be avaliable with two engine options; a base four-cylinder and more powerful turbo-charged four cylinder. Both use direct injection.  The base four produces 182-horsepower while the turbocharged four (avaliable later this year) increases output to 220-horsepower.  Both engines will be mated to a 6-speed automatic and the turbo will have a 6-speed manual as an option.

Buick claims the Regal’s main competitors are the Volvo S60 and Acura TSX. I’ve yet to drive either the Volvo or Acura, so I can’t give direct comparisons. However, in a pure stats game, the Regal is left underpowered compared to the upscale engines in both the S60 (300hp) and TSX(280hp). Only the TSX offers a base four cylinder, of which the Regal bests by 10hp (172hp vs 182hp).

Where Buick really turns on the heat is in price. The Regal starts at a relatively cheap $26,995 for the base four and $29,495 for the turbo.  Acura starts their base TSX at $29,310, while an optional V6 starts at $34,850. Volvo offers a turbo-6, which starts the S60 at $37,700.  As you can see, the Regal holds a substantial price advantage over both rivals.

2011 Buick Regal

The Regal, which is sold as an Opel Insignia in Europe, has a noticably European weighted chassis tuning. In short, the days of Buicks driving like a boat are officially over.   The turbo model also has the added benefit of an adaptive suspension and steering system.  Called IDCS (Interactive Drive Control System), the car changes steering angle and suspension damping both automatically and with the aid of three driver selectable modes. Buick describes it like this:

“IDCS allows the driver to choose between three different operating modes that change the suspension settings, throttle response, shift pattern and steering sensitivity through the variable effort steering system. The three modes deliver three types of experiences:

Normal – balanced and optimized for all driving situations

Tour – optimized for comfort and relaxed driving on long journeys

Sport – optimized for road holding; enthusiast driving .”

It works largely as advertised. Switching between modes yields a noticeable change in the driving dynamics of the car. It’s really impressive. In fact, the Regal is downright fun in Sport on winding roads. However, push the car and the steering gets noticably foggy and hard to place. It’s not horrendous and 99% of owners will never notice, but you’d never catch an Audi doing the same thing.  Base engine models come with an also competent, although stiffer, suspension and steering feel. Both suspensions were extremely well poised on the highway.

The base engine, while not anemic on paper, is embarrassingly slow on the road. I understand it’s the “fuel economy” option, however even in that area it falls short. The I4 is rated at 20mpg city, 30mpg highway. The more powerful turbo I4 only falls slightly behind at 18mpg city and 29mpg highway. The turbo is an overall spectacular engine.  It pulls hard from lower RPMs thanks to a twin-scroll turbo and delivers usable power in the middle range.   Although I didn’t get a chance to drive the turbo with the six-speed manual, I’d sense it would be the combo to go with.

2011 Buick Regal

Inside, the Regal continues to impress. The car extends GM’s recent streak of high quality and high fit & finish interiors. Three console finishes are avaliable; piano black, satin metallic, and Kibo-patterned wood (pictured above).  The multimedia infotainment system has a usb/iPhone port, an aux port, supports streaming bluetooth stereo, and bluetooth hands-free phone use. It’s controlled by an iDrive like knob mounted on the middle console. After a few minutes using the system, it’s extremely easy to change settings and navigate menus on the road and without looking down.  I do hold two complaints; that the chrome ring around the gear-shift often reflected the sun in my eyes and the mass of brown buttons in the center stack looked overly mono-tone and hard to distinguish at quick glance.

It’s exciting to think that the redesigned 2010 Chevrolet Malibu will be a closely related version of the same platform. I’m personally looking forward to the just announced Regal GS that is due later this year. It will feature an even sportier suspension tuning and a more powerful engine.  I can’t wait to sample the Regal in depth more in the future. It’s an intriguing and compelling offering that will continue to drive the Buick Renaissance forward.


  • Outstanding fit & finish
  • Supportive seats- comfortable for hours on end
  • Rock solid and unflappable on the highway


  • Base engine is anemic, underpowered and provides little additional fuel mileage
  • Rear seats lack headroom, even for average folk
  • Adaptive suspension and steering felt ambiguous when pushed too hard (GM says they are still refining software settings)

2011 Buick Regal

First Drive Conclusion

Forget the base engine and go with the turbo. It’s an entry level premium car that can hang with more established European rivals in a more affordable wrapper.  If you really want a true sports sedan, better wait for the high-performance GS model slated for later this year.

Video Walkaround

2011 Buick Regal Photo Gallery

Required Disclosure: The lodging,  transportation, and access to vehicles required to write this article were provided, free of charge, to the author by General Motors. routinely accepts such offers from automakers to expand our coverage, however no special treatment, bias, or special consideration is given in return.