Kelly Taylor / Winnipeg Free Press
Nissan says the all-new Altima represented its largest investment ever in a vehicle platform.
CIRCUIT MECAGLISSE, Que. — The big news out of the launch of the new 2019 Nissan Altima in California in September was also the least relevant, at least at the time.
For Canada, Altima would come with standard all-wheel drive. In the U.S., all-wheel drive is an option.
It was almost impossible to put the all-wheel drive to any kind of meaningful test on the dry tarmac surrounding Santa Barbara, so we’re here, about an hour north of Montreal, winding the all-wheel-drive Altima around Circuit Mecaglisse, a popular racetrack used summer and winter by many manufacturers.
To get here, we first drove on twisty, snow-covered country roads, which hinted that Nissan has got all-wheel drive figured out. Such was confirmed on the foot-thick ice that now covers the racetracks at Mecaglisse.
The all-wheel-drive system is advanced from some competitors’ and some previous systems that would only transfer torque when slip is detected. While its normal state is 100 per cent front-wheel drive, it defaults to 50-50 whenever the Altima pulls away from a stop. As well, the system continuously monitors wheel conditions, transferring torque from front to back and side to side as needed. The system never transfers more than 50 per cent of the torque to the rear wheels.
An electronically controlled viscous coupling handles the front-to-rear torque transfer.
The side-to-side transfer is accomplished by braking: when the right front wheel slips, for instance, that wheel is braked, which automatically directs torque to the other wheel. It’s an elegant design in that it simplifies the mechanical components, which don’t require complicated gearing to accomplish the transfer. It makes for more complicated electronic systems, but those systems are significantly more reliable than anything mechanical.
The system is very well-sorted, with none of the abrupt transfers of less-sophisticated slip-then-grip systems, which will often dump torque to the rear after it’s too late, which of course exacerbates the problem it’s trying to solve. Such was never a problem, even when the car was sliding sideways on the ice.
In the Altima, the chassis is rigid in some spots, less rigid in others. Side-to-side rigidity has been enhanced to reduce body roll and improve steering response, while front-to-back rigidity has been reduced so more of the shock of bumps is absorbed by the chassis instead of transferred to the cabin.
On the icy track, that translated into very predictable handling: you can use throttle lift to help rotate the car around corners and a bit of patience and steering where you want to go means it will come around and point itself in the right direction. When it is pointed where you want to go, the all-wheel-drive system is set, too. Throttle down and away you go. Fun.
I’m still not a fan of continuously variable transmissions, and Nissan is addicted to them. But they’ve used that addiction to also get very good at making them.
For most of our drive here, the transmission seemed quite like a normal automatic transmission. Only when you really hammered the throttle did the CVT’s trademark sound and feel present itself.
Nissan is making a huge bet that the sedan isn’t dead yet, and by making all-wheel drive standard in Canada and available in the U.S., gives a sedan option to mainstream buyers who previously felt they had no option but to get a crossover to get all-wheel drive.
Nissan said the all-new Altima represented its largest investment ever in a vehicle platform, so they’ve gone all-in.
Still, in a presentation prior to our ride-and-drive, Nissan Canada president Joni Paiva heralded the company’s three biggest sellers: Rogue, Qashqai and Murano, all of which are crossovers.
The Nissan Kicks, a new compact crossover, burst out of the gate with more than 5,000 units sold, but a shortage of product slammed the brakes on that. Paiva said now that models are making their way to dealers again, he expects Kicks will kick one of the top-sellers off the podium, likely Murano.
Altima’s sleek profile — aided by a compact engine design allowing for a lower hood — and striking interior already were putting it at or near the top of the class. The addition of all-wheel drive as standard equipment only elevates it further.
The new Altima has an athletic stance that is lower, wider and more dynamic than previous generations.