2021 Nissan Altima SR FWD VC-Turbo
2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder (236hp @ 5,600 rpm, 267 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm)
Continuously-variable transmission, front-wheel drive
25 city / 34 highway / 29 combined (EPA Rating, MPG)
Base Price: $31,575 US
As Tested: $32,905 US
Prices include $925 destination charge in the United States. 2.0 turbo engine not available in Canada.
Just then, they came in sight of thirty or forty sporty crossovers that rise from that plain. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them.
Such is the life of the sports-sedan enthusiast these days, tilting at the hulking windmills as we pray for a low, lithe vehicle with handling and power aplenty – matched with a real trunk. We ask for these things from automakers who have proven that once upon a time, such mythical creatures did indeed exist and did indeed move from showroom floors in appreciable numbers.
I’d hoped beyond hope that the 2021 Nissan Altima SR on these pages might have rekindled the old four-door sportscar soul deep within Nissan. See those “SR” letters? They look awfully close to the “SE-R” trim that graced generations of sporty Sentras and even an Altima way back when. “VC-Turbo,” too, hints at performance potential. Can this turbocharged sedan meet the increasingly quixotic and depressingly small market for three-box motors with verve?
In short, no. The Altima VC-Turbo is not a sports sedan. It’s a credible midpriced family sedan with better than average power, but there is nothing sporty about this car. That’s OK, really – while I prefer some all-around performance with my sedan, many more people will be perfectly content with a touch of extra power on an otherwise-sedate cruiser. The Altima does the daily driving thing just fine, with good ride quality and quiet, calm road manners.
The engine is the star here – we’ve talked about the variable-compression turbocharged four, theoretically giving V6 performance with four-cylinder economy. It mostly succeeds – for a three-MPG-combined EPA penalty (29 combined for the VC-Turbo versus 32 combined for a front-drive 2.5-liter Altima) you get 48 additional horsepower and 87 lb-ft of torque. The torque figure is significant – this positively jumps off the line with gusto. Nissan persists with the CVT, however, which causes the engine to drone at frequently changing pitch while cruising on the interstate. Hopefully, now that the Pathfinder is reverting to a 9-speed automatic, the great CVT experiment will begin to wind down.
Styling is handsome, but by this point in the product cycle, rather familiar. It will neither turn heads nor offend. The interior, similarly, is mostly bland – brightened a bit by orange stitching on the console, dash, and steering wheel. The faux-carbon weave trim on places like the door panels is a bit garish, I’m afraid – but the seats are magical. Nissan has been putting some seriously great chairs in their mainstream products of late. I’d say this is one of the best places I’ve put my butt in a long time.
My biggest problem with this package? As usual, it’s the price. $30,700 plus destination fees gives a big engine in a midrange package – a matching SR trim with the lesser 2.5-liter four would be over four thousand dollars less expensive. The VC-Turbo engine is only available in this SR trim, with no real options to speak of save premium paint, floor mats, and a spoiler. This premium-priced sedan has mid-level trim – it doesn’t offer Nissan’s excellent ProPilot Assist (adaptive cruise control and steering assist), nor does it offer dual-zone climate control, both of which are standard on the 2.5SL at $29,990 plus D&D. Nor can the powerful engine be fitted to the excellent all-wheel-drive Altima – which is why you can’t get this in the AWD-only Canada market.
If we look beyond Nissan at other competitors, it’s hard to overlook the 252 horses available in the Honda Accord Sport 2.0T. Sadly, the Accord’s manual is no longer, but that car remains the genuine sports sedan I fell in love with a couple of years back. And if it’s power you want, Toyota still offers a V6 in the Camry – 301 horses worth! Both of the competitors have a real automatic transmission, rather than the fun-sapping CVT found in the Nissan.
Nissan, it seems, has a long tradition of letting their engineers pursue new solutions and bringing them to market. Witness the SuperHICAS four-wheel steering of the Eighties and the CVT craze of the past decade or so among many other flights of fancy best suited to CAD programs rather than the rigid Excel screens of the beancounters. The VC-Turbo engine is another interesting solution, but I’m not sure it’s the right solution here in the Altima. The additional power is nice, but not for what you have to give up to get that power. The Nissan Altima VC-Turbo really should be a much better sports sedan fighter than it is in the tilt against the ever-present crossover threat.
[Images: © 2021 Chris Tonn]