One of the big misunderstandings in New Zealand motoring right now is that Nissan's new Altima sedan is a replacement for the Maxima.
It isn't - but it is easy to see why it seems that way.
Maxima is the large front- driven sedan that was launched around 1990 as Nissan's competitor against the Australian Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon.
It proved a success, too. It might not have been entirely competitive against the Falcon and Commodore when they were at the height of their dominance of the large-car scene, but it still sold in good numbers.
This was particularly the case earlier in its career, when a large number of customers appreciated Maxima's combination of comfort, ride, handling and power - with many knowing that its VQ series V6 was consistently named one of the world's top-10 engines.
But life goes on, market forces change, and customers have slowly moved away from large- engined sedans in favour of smaller vehicles, particularly those of the lifestyle genre such as SUVs. As a result, the large-car share of New Zealand's new- vehicle market has fallen from around 20 per cent in 1999 to not much more than 4 per cent now - and, if you take out the big fleet deals to such organisations as police, then the large-car share just about doesn't exist at all.
That's the reason why Nissan New Zealand pulled the plug on Maxima last year. Customers simply weren't interested in buying the car. Even an attempt to sell a 2.5-litre V6 version alongside the 3.5-litre V6 model didn't work - and so now the 25-year history of Maxima in this country is all in the past.
But late last year, Nissan New Zealand introduced a new 2.5-litre sedan called Altima, and it immediately began to be described as the Maxima replacement.
I suspect this has much to do with the media introduction being in Australia, where a small contingent of Kiwi journalists heard all about what was planned for the Aussie market, where Altima is available with 3.5-litre V6 engine power.
So over there the Altima may well be considered a Maxima replacement. But over here, it's not. If anything, it should be considered a replacement for the Primera sedan which we last saw here around 2008. And it should be considered a competitor in that market segment filled with such product as the Mazda6, Ford Mondeo, Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Kia Optima and Hyundai i45.
Another important point about the Altima is that it is nothing particularly new. The nameplate has been around for years, and the model is a huge seller in the United States where it is Nissan's most popular car and sells at a rate of more than 20,000 a month.
The latest-generation model is now a global product and is being manufactured in right-hand drive form in Thailand, so it can imported to New Zealand and sold at acceptable prices.
Those prices are $43,990 for an entry ST version and $53,290 for the higher-specified Ti.
For these prices, both the Altimas are nicely specified. The ST comes with 16-inch alloy wheels, a six-speaker audio system with 5in display and controls on the steering wheel, full connectivity, dual-zone climate-control air conditioning, keyless entry, six-way manual adjustment of the driver's seat, 60/40 split-fold rear seating, automatic headlights with washers, and electric door mirrors.
Meanwhile the Ti, which we've just been driving, adds 18in alloy wheels, satellite navigation, rear- view camera, front- and rear- parking sensors, a premium audi system with nine speakers, a colour 7in display, Bluetooth audio streaming with smartphone integration, leather trim, and an eight-way electrically adjustable driver's seat with two memory settings.
That's an excellent level of specification for a $53,000 car. But wait, there's more. The Ti also gets what Nissan calls an Intelligent Technology Suite which comprises blind-spot warning, lane departure warning, moving object detection, and an around-view monitor.
The Altima also gets xenon headlights with automatic levelling, a memory function for the door mirrors, an automatic day-night rear-view mirror, a power rear sunshade, and rear privacy glass.
Powering the Altima is a 2.5-litre, four-cylinder engine that develops 127 kilowatts of power and 230 newton metres of torque, which is about on par with most of the opposition medium-sized sedans.
What I do like about this car is that the engine is just about perfectly mated to a second- generation Xtronic continuously variable automatic transmission, and that results in an impressively smooth drive. We took the sedan on a long trip and achieved a fuel economy of 7.2 L/100km with ease.
Just as impressive was how the Altima drove. Ride is smooth and quiet, and the Nissan's suite of ride and handling aids include a vehicle dynamics control system that feature active understeer control - it detects any onset of that scourge of any front-driven car and brakes the inside front wheel to help stop it from happening.
I really believe I could have driven this Altima from North Cape to Bluff and not felt too tired at the end of it all. It's quiet and comfortable, and a special feature is that Nissan has enlisted the help of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to develop "zero gravity" seats that provide continuous support from the pelvis to the chest , therefore reducing muscular and spinal loads, and improving bloodflow. I didn't know anything about these seats at the start of the drive - but now I'm a fan.
Seat surfaces are also perforated for better ventilation, breathability and comfort.
Although the Altima is smaller than the - ahem - Maxima it doesn't replace, the interior doesn't feel any less spacious. There's excellent interior room, particularly for those in the rear seats where there's heaps of legroom. Boot space is good too, at 488 litres.
Quite obviously, the new Nissan Altima will never be a big seller in New Zealand, first because it competes in a market segment crowded with some very good product and, secondly, because the medium segment isn't showing any growth anyway. But it will have a strong application for the fleet market - and, quite frankly, I see this car as deserving to be immediately right up there among the best of them.
- © Fairfax NZ News
How much would you pay for a seat on the coastal walkway?