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2013 Nissan Altima Review In The Sonoran Desert By Steve Purdy

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2013 Nissan Altima


An Arizona Road Trip
By Steve Purdy
Michigan Bureau [5382]

Arizona is one of our favorite travel destinations. We usually go when it’s not too hot in the Desert Southwest, mostly late fall and early spring, and we’re usually able to score a test car so that we can do a travel and car story together. What could be more fun.

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This trip our ride is the recently updated Nissan Altima, a white-bread, mid-size sedan built in Smyrna TN. Just about everything in its class has been recently redesigned. It is perhaps the most competitive segment of the automobile market today and one where just good enough is not good enough.

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The first week in December is a great time to be exploring this part of the country. The oppressive heat of the late spring, summer and early fall has given way to the mild, but still sunny, days of what they think of as winter. Our luxurious resort on the northern edge of Scottsdale, the Sheraton Desert Oasis, is lush with fragrant vegetation, water features and beautiful rooms. From here we can book all kinds of desert excursions and, in our classy-looking pearl white Altima SV, we can explore at our leisure as well.

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On this side of town we’re surrounded by natural Sonoran Desert wilderness interspersed with concentrated pockets of upscale development. At certain elevations the stately saguaro cactus thrive, standing randomly in the rocky, gravelly, sandy, dry areas like individual spirit beings, each different from the other. Only a few desert plants bloom this time of year but the off-season colors vary beautifully in the soft light. Exotic aromas waft unexpectedly everywhere. Yuccas sport tall spires of spent blooms, the soft cream-colored teddy bear cholla needles glow when backlit by the low winter sun. Mesquite and creosote vie for space on the desert floor, both radiating their own distinct aromas. The variety of flora thriving in the desert continues to amaze us.

This new Altima has been out for about a year and this is our first experience with it. Competing head-to-head with Fusion, Malibu, Accord, Sonata, and a plethora of other front-wheel drive, five-passenger, mid-size sedans, it must provide a high level of quality, content, style and value just to stay in the game. Altima does all those things well at a price about equal to the others. We can get it with a highly efficient 2.5-liter four-cylinder or a lusty V6, but not with all-wheel drive or conventional transmission.

Our desert cruiser comes in at just over 28 grand, including destination charge, with a decent level of equipment. For that price we do not have navigation or leather seats but we do have 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels, leather wrapped steering wheel, the V6 engine, back-up camera, push-button start, satellite radio, dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth, paddle shifters and manual mode for the CVT. The basic Altima with 4-cylinder power starts at less than 22 grand, very close to most of its competitors.

The 3.5-liter V6 with DOHC, 24-valves and variable valve timing boasts 270 horsepower, and 258 pound-feet of torque. That’s plenty for this relatively lightweight, 3,323-pound sedan. With the updated and much more fun-to-drive CVT (continuously variable transmission) we accelerate briskly on full throttle and find it much less wheezy than earlier versions of the CVT. While it has a manual mode actuated both with the floor shifter and paddle shifters it imitates gear changes but does not hold lower gears once you’re not pressing hard.

The EPA rates this combination at 22-mpg in the city, 30 on the highway and 25 overall on regular fuel. With the 18-gallon fuel tank we have well over a 400-mile range. It appears we’ve averaged 28.3-mpg this week with mostly highway cruising.

Now – out into the desert.

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Never again will we do one of those ride-in-the-back-of-a-Jeep desert tours. We found something much better – the Desert Wolf Tours based at the classic old cowboy bar called the Road Runner Saloon in New River, just north of Phoenix.
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They manage a fleet of little things called Tom Cars originally designed as an Israeli military vehicle - bigger than a Quad, smaller than a Jeep – to carry tourists out into the desert. The best part is: we get to drive them ourselves. Crude, rough and noisy, they’re just right for exploring the wilderness. With extreme suspension travel, a tiny 4-cylinder engine with CVT, centrifugal clutch, and a low range, they’ll go over, around or through about anything.

Our guide, Chris Moreland, led us through the rutted, sandy, rocky, gravelly, maze of trails northwest of New River stopping at an abandoned copper and turquoise mine, some Indian ruins and a variety of nature spots including an amazing forest of saguaro. In less than four hours we were covered with a glaze of fine dust that sort of confirmed our desert cred. And, we were again filled with admiration of Mother Nature’s noble work designing this corner of the Sonoran Desert.

It wouldn’t be a fully satisfying visit to central Arizona without at least a day trip to Sedona, one of the most beautiful and serene places in the country, maybe the world. About two hours north of Phoenix, this little town sits along Oak Creek surrounded by spectacular formations of eroded red rock buttes. The area is permeated, they say, by electromagnetic vortices that can trigger an emotional or spiritual experience in many people. My pretty wife and I are not particularly spiritual but we’ve both felt that thrilling and inexplicable twinge hiking among the red rocks.

I-17 boasts a speed limit of 75 mph for much of the way, but that 90-mile stretch, we found, was being hawked by at least a dozen Highway Patrol cars. Our Altima loped along comfortably at barely extralegal speeds up and down long slopes with the cruise control holding us right on our mark. At those speeds it is remarkably quiet for a mainstream sedan.

The seats - in this case fabric - are quite soft compared to most, certainly not in the European style. Controls are easily managed, attractive and intuitive mostly, though the radio controls caused me a bit of consternation. Fit, finish and quality of materials are good but not exceptional, as is the overall conventional design. The Altima is a pleasant, competent and comfortable ride, indeed.

In Sedona we hiked the challenging (for me at least) 3.3-mile Airport Loop trail around the butte upon which the airport sits. Helicopters and bi-wing, open-cockpit, airplanes buzzed over our heads taking tourists for aerial tours of the red rocks and up to Grand Canyon as we hiked the undulating rocky path gasping at the 360-degree views of the surrounding valley. That was nearly a three-hour hike, but my pretty wife could have done it in little more than two if she needn’t wait for me to catch up.

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After the hike we drove the winding road up Oak Creek Canyon to the escarpment, Highway 89A, one of the most spectacular roads anywhere, then back down again just about sunset. The colorful rock formations of the canyon become even more saturated in that waning light. I was pleasantly surprised on our drive back to the city after dark that I was able to turn the dash lights off entirely to prevent eye fatigue. That’s not possible with most cars. We saw no ambient light inside which is becoming more common even in modest mainstream cars.

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One last road trip took us out to Roosevelt Dam by way of the road to Payton along Route 87, another spectacular drive through saguaro groves and mountain scenery. Turning southeast on Route 188 we passed through Tonto Creek and Roosevelt Lake. At the dam we picked up the old Apache trail, a rocky, dusty dirt road that winds along the vertical cliffs following the river for about 22 miles before arriving at Tortilla Flats, an old stagecoach stop. Along the washboard and potholed harsh road we admired the stiffness of the Altima’s chassis but we discovered or caused more than a few rattles and squeaks. To be fair, we’re not sure any car could have withstood that road without some rattles.

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At the Superstition Saloon in Apache Junction, where the walls are covered in one-dollar bills and the bar stools are saddles, we indulged in an overcooked half-pound burger for lunch. The ambiance, meant to appeal to tourists, reflects the ancient stagecoach era including lots of artifacts and old wood. Bikers love this place as well because of the winding, paved, scenic road coming up from Apache Junction.

Back at the resort preparing for our return home our Altima seemed a bit out of place in the luxurious environment around Scottsdale where more Mercedes, Bentleys and Maseratis ply the upscale shopping areas than Fords, Chevys and Chryslers. With it’s fresh exterior styling and sensible new design Altima remains a good choice as an affordable, practical and up-to-date sedan. And, at nearly 30 mpg we cold explore every dry corner of Arizona without breaking the bank.

ęSteve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved