For a long time, Nissan's Altima and Maxima have been so similar it's been hard to tell them apart — and not just in terms of their looks.
They're almost exactly the same size, and for several years, they offered the same engine, Nissan's 3.5-liter V-6.
Now the Altima's got a new engine, one not available in the much more expensive Maxima.
It also offers AWD, something that's also not available in the Maxima — or the two best-selling midsize/mid-priced family cars the Altima competes with, the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord.
There's more, too, including a larger trunk and more back-seat legroom than the Maxima.
What It Is
Like the Maxima, the Altima is a midsize sedan.
Like the Maxima, it's a sporty sedan, especially when equipped with its new turbocharged variable-compression 2.0-liter engine, which replaces the V-6 as the optional engine.
This engine has more torque than the Maxima's V-6 — and almost as much horsepower — while returning better gas mileage.
The Altima is also available with all-wheel drive. The Maxima only has front-wheel drive.
There is also the matter of MSRP. The base S trim Altima starts at $24,100. The least expensive version of the Maxima costs $34,050.
For the same money, you can buy a top-of-the-line Altima Platinum with the high-powered, high-efficiency 2.0-liter turbo engine, or pay thousands less for a mid-trim SL with the turbo engine and AWD. The Altima trunk (larger than the Maxima's) and roomier second row are included at no additional charge.
Nissan redid the Altima from the wheels up last year (the 2019 model year), so the '20 carries over with just a few styling and trim tweaks.
It offers AWD in a class where it's fairly rare.
It offers almost as much power as the much more expensive Maxima for much less money.
Back-seat passengers have USB ports.
What's Not So Good
AWD is only offered with the not-so-powerful standard (2.5-liter) engine.
Both engines are paired with a CVT automatic transmission only.
The departed V-6 (still available in the Maxima) was a simpler engine (no turbo or intercooler) and known to be a 200,000-mile engine. The new 2.0-liter has yet to prove itself as reliable.
Under the Hood
You can go with the standard 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, which has 188 horsepower, paired with a CVT automatic transmission and your choice of FWD or AWD.
Mileage with this engine is a very impressive: 28 mpg city and 39 mpg highway, the latter figure as good as that of many compact economy sedans.
For more power, there's the new 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder, which has 248 horsepower and 28 foot-pounds of torque. This engine is also paired with the CVT but is only offered in FWD configuration, which is unusual.
Usually, it's the stronger engine that's paired with AWD because of the additional weight and additional power (and traction problems, putting all that power down via the front wheels only).
Mileage with this engine — 25 mpg city, 34 mpg highway — is almost as good as with the much less powerful 2.5-liter engine. And it's better than the V-6 Maxima, which only manages 20 mpg city and 30 mpg highway.
On the Road
With the 2.5-liter engine, the Altima is economical. With AWD, it's practical, a car that'll get you to work when it snows.
With the optional 2.0-liter engine, it's a performance car that's also economical — just a bit less practical.
At the Curb
The Altima looks less rococo than its Maxima sibling, which may be preferable if you prefer a more subtle look.
The larger (15.4-cubic-foot versus 14.3-cubic-foot) and noticeably roomier back seat (35.2 inches of legroom versus 34.2 inches in the Maxima) are simply preferable, especially given you pay thousands less for both.
Piano black interior trim is available. The base S trim and sport-themed SR trim can be ordered with a bundled package of driver assists including automated reverse braking. Equipped with this system, the car will automatically brake if the driver is backing up and a pedestrian walks behind the car unseen.
The Bottom Line
The new Altima will likely draw attention from potential Camry/Accord buyers ... and Maxima buyers, too, at least for the moment.
Nissan is going to update the Maxima next year, which will probably mean it will have AWD, as well as some other things.
But for now, unless you really miss that V-6, the Altima seems like the go-to choice between the two of them.
Eric's new book, "Don't Get Taken for a Ride!" is available now. To find out more about Eric and read his past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.