We’ve heard it again and again: The sedan – in pretty much all shapes and sizes – is dying, unable to contend with what the SUV and CUV world is bringing to the table, especially in North America. Utility vehicles have AWD, they have high-performance, turbocharged motors, and they have room inside for the whole family and their stuff.
So what do you do, as a car manufacturer, with your sedan portfolio? Some are discontinuing sedan models wholesale in North America. Some are taking names traditionally associated with cars, and slapping them on crossovers.
But some others – Mazda and Nissan, for example – are taking lessons learned from SUVs and CUVs, and putting them in cars. The 2019 Nissan Altima you see here gets AWD as standard in Canada, while the 2019 Mazda6 Signature gets a turbocharged engine that actually started life in a CUV.
So, which of these two have managed to pull off the trick of making sedans great again?
To my mind, manufacturers don’t need to make sedans great. They already are. If you’re in the market for a mid-size family hauler from one of the mainstream brands, you already get some of the best offerings there have ever been in terms of safety, performance, technology, and efficiency.
The problem is that crossovers have also improved, and most people prefer to sit up high. To make an appeal to the modern car buyer, sedans don’t have to be merely good, they have to be different. Both of these sedans are excellent, for different reasons, but one of them is a better alternative to a crossover because it makes a play for something the high-riding, hot-seller segment doesn’t really offer. Let’s dive in.
Never thought I’d say this as I’ve always held the Mazda6 as the standard when it comes to mid-size sedan styling exercises, but Nissan has styled the Altima in such a way that it’s no shrinking violet as it sits besides the Mazda.
Nissan’s patented V-Motion grille has been taken to the nth degree here in terms of width, and that width has the Nissan appearing low, ground-hugging, and menacing, I’m also a big fan of the wheel design.
Of course, the Mazda cannot be discounted; the headlights and mesh grille are right on; not as blingy as the Nissan, perhaps, but because they’re a little more stealthy, they get actually have a little more presence. The silver paint on our tester may hide the sweeping curves over the front fenders and on the lower doors, but they still lend an air of muscularity to the proceedings. I think if the Mazda were painted a more eye-catching shade, it may win here. As it stands right now, however, I’m going with the Altima.
Uh, Dan? Didya forget to put your contacts in today? Altima styling peaked with the 2005 SE-R variant (best factory wheels ever?) but Nissan’s been largely careful to keep their mainstream offering, well, mainstream. This latest one is a looker, especially with the 19-inch wheels of the Platinum Edition, but take a closer peak. Essentially, the Altima takes cues from the Maxima – the floating roof for example – and applies them to make a fairly standard sedan shape more attractive. I’m not saying it isn’t attractive, but I am suggesting it’s not particularly daring.
The Mazda6 on the other hand, is an older design that still looks fresh. Take a gander at the two cars in profile, and the 6 is sleeker, curvier, a little more classically beautiful. In the luxury segment, sure, leasing turnover means a car’s styling need not age well. The buyer who plonks down cash for a Mazda6 will have a car that’ll still look great ten years down the road.
I’m not sure you’ll be able to say the same for features like the Altima’s “floating roof” detail. I predict that one’s going to be the personal luxury coupe “opera window” of the 2010s. It’s the 6 for me.
While I prefer the trim and Spartan look of the Mazda6’s interior, I’ll happily concede victory to the Altima in this category. It’s just so dang comfortable, and easily better for roominess. If I was renting a car on vacation, I’d hope for an Altima.
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The 6’s cockpit is, as you’d expect, a little more driver-focussed, and built for an owner who’ll go looking for the twisty bits in the canyon roads. For pounding highway miles on a commute, I’d be more relaxed in the Altima. I could, however, live with the 6’s interior for the car’s other attributes.
I found this to be a little more “tale of two cars” than the exterior; the Mazda is a more buttoned-down affair, but it’s also the more luxurious with slightly more high-quality materials and tighter panel gaps than the Altima.
The Altima, though, feels the more modern place to be. The surfaces are a little broader, a little more flared and who the heck doesn’t like a flat-bottomed wheel? Both cars get a pleasingly low-profile climate controls, but Nissan must do something about the Altima’s shifter. It’s large, awkward-looking and completely at odds with the modernity espoused by the rest of the cockpit design.
Clear win for the Altima here, and it’s not even close. Yes, Mazda has added Apple CarPlay and Android Auto to the 6, but the native interface hasn’t changed and it appears that the two techs don’t quite jive so well in the Mazda. Dropped connections and dysfunctional apps were the orders of the day for me (Brendan may say otherwise, but I doubt it) in the Mazda. Doesn’t help that its native interface isn’t spectacular, either.
Switch to the Nissan, and it’s almost as if you’ve switched eras: The screen is bigger, it’s sharper, the system’s faster, the touchscreen much more responsive. Of course, it kind of needs to be as there is no back-up scroll wheel as there is in the Mazda. Which, I guess, wins back a few points for the 6, as there are those out there that still prefer a more traditional interface. It’s nicely placed, right there within easy reach on the centre console so you never have to look down. The volume knob also resides there, which is a nice touch. The one caveat for the Nissan, meanwhile, is that in certain light, the glare can distort your view of the screen. It’s an issue I didn’t come across as much in the Mazda.
No disagreement here, Mazda’s infotainment system hasn’t aged nearly as well as its exterior. As Dan points out, Apple CarPlay is now present, which future-proofs the 6 as an ownership prospect. However, it’s not the best execution of the technology, and it does tend to drop the connection.
In the Altima, the technology feels like it’s making your life easier. In the Mazda, it just feels a generation back, as Dan has pointed out. It’s a bit of a shame as the Mazda’s control layout is so carefully thought out, but most buyers will just gloss over it because the Altima looks so much fresher, and is closer to operating the smartphone we’re all used to.
I was thrilled when I learned that the Mazda6 would be getting the turbocharged engine from the CX-9. Indeed, if it felt quick in that big, heavy three-row crossover (which it did), then surely, it would make it easy to drive the 6 as fast as it looks? Indeed, that was right on the button as the Mazda6 is an absolute zinger of a mid-size sedan.
The power on-hand – 227 hp (250 on 93-octane fuel) and 310 lb-ft – is enough to clobber the Altima off the line, and still have enough left in reserve to make a move or two even when at speed. It’s too bad that it only has a garden-variety six-speed automatic to work with, as I wonder if a more modern dual-clutch or multi-ratio transmission would be even more apt at exploiting all that power. Then again, with Mazda’s SkyActiv philosophy, close attention has to be paid to fuel economy and lightweight materials and componentry so the six-speed may be the sweet spot in that regard.
Then again, at least it has a six speed. Or any speeds, really, because the Altima doesn’t have any – it has a continuously variable automatic. Sure, they’ve programmed in virtual “shift points”, but driven side-by-side with the Mazda, you can see how “virtual” they really are. There are also no paddle shifters – not because it’s a CVT, because other Nissan’s with CVTs get a pair – more than likely as a cost-saving measure. Nissan’s research shows they aren’t used much by owners, so why bother? Well, Mazda has bothered for the 6, and it adds yet another notch to the Mazda’s performance belt.
Where the Nissan loses in the powertrain department, however, it gains back in the chassis department. First of all, there’s the ride, which is incredibly soft but not wallowy. It’s well-controlled so you’re not rolling about all the time. It’s just damped enough to ensure that your everyday road imperfections are that much less apparent when at the wheel, even with that big 19-inch rolling stock. It’s comfortable, it’s quiet, and it’s just a more luxurious drive than the price suggests.
This is all without even touching on the Altima’s party trick: all-wheel drive. Power can be split up to 50:50 front–rear, so that in snowy conditions, the Altima gets that much more traction and provides that much more peace of mind to the occupants. Indeed, I had the chance to try the Altima on a snowed-in track earlier this year, and it demonstrated a poise normally associated with those dastardly SUVs and CUVs it’s competing with.
That’s all great stuff, and Nissan’s betting that AWD will appeal to the Canadian consumer enough for them to overlook the fact that it doesn’t quite have the power of its competition – like the 6, or the Hyundai Sonata Turbo, or the Honda Accord. It’s not as if they couldn’t make the Altima more powerful, either: The US gets a version with the very good variable-compression turbo motor that started life in the Infiniti QX50 CUV; only even down there, you can’t get the VC-Turbo with AWD. Nissan had to make a choice, then, and this is the choice they’ve made.
Was it the right one? Probably. Most buyers aren’t power-crazed journos like me, so the safety and comfort afforded by having AWD is attractive. That 6, though. My goodness, is it ever fast. I have a tough time ignoring all that performance in this test.
So don’t! Obviously Nissan has hedged their bets that thrifty Canadian customers want all-weather traction and four-cylinder fuel-sipping, and they may well be right. Given this Altima’s supremely comfortable ride (credit to those seats as well), I’m not sure I’d bother with the turbo engine, even if it was offered here. The days of the hot-rod Altima SE-R are well past us. Besides which, Nissan needs something to set the Maxima apart.
The thing is, what does the Altima offer that the Nissan Rogue doesn’t? A slipperier profile for more efficient highway commuting, perhaps. As Dan pointed out, the Altima offers pretty much everything a crossover does, with the trade-off of a lower centre of gravity for reduced seating height. Do most customers care that much about the benefits of a lower centre of gravity? The sales charts say they don’t.
Which brings me to the Mazda6, which finally has the engine it deserves. Mazda did this car a bit of a disservice by mucking around with the interesting idea of offering a manual instead of just coming out with the turbocharged offering in the first place. Yes, I know the development cycles don’t line up, but really, this engine is the one the car should have always come with.
Let’s say you were one of the thousands of people who owned a mid-2000s Mazda3 hatchback as a carefree post-college youngster. Well, now you’ve grown up and got a family Acura for the kids to puke in, so you want something a little nicer. German luxury? It seems like a good idea, but you don’t have youthful memories of a GTI, you grew up with the ol’ “zoom-zoom” commercials. A turbocharged Mazda6? And it looks like that? Bingo.
The 6 isn’t a car for everyone, but it does a fantastic job of pleasing the people it’s targeted at. It’s wonderful to drive with the extra power, and if anything has a bit too much torque. I don’t mind the six-speed at all, and I’d expect more gears in the transmission would just mean more hunting around. Turn-in is sharp, enough body roll is present for a bit of theatre, and the whole thing feels polished. The turbocharged engine runs out of steam a bit with regular fuel, so you should probably consider premium for the added oomph.
Again, I’d rather own the Mazda6 as a proper alternative to having a crossover of some kind. It feels different, appealing to the emotional side of ownership. You could form some great driving memories with this car. The Altima would be more just a backdrop to your daily life.
The Altima feels roomier inside especially in the back seat, where the Mazda6 really does feel as snug as its aggressively sloping roofline suggests it is. Headroom is definitely at a premium, and switching to the back of the Altima is a breath of fresh air. I suppose the light interior colours of our tester help in this regard; even though the numbers say the Mazda has more rear headroom, I didn’t feel it.
Up front, it’s going to come down to personal preference. Want a supportive, more bolstered seat? The Mazda provides a very athletic-feeling driving position. Want something more relaxed? The Altima gets Nissan’s Zero Gravity seats, and they are comfortable as all get out – these are proper luxury items in a non-luxury car.
Since our tester was a Platinum trim, we had Nissan’s 360-degree AroundView camera, whose top-down view is a boon for parking. Mazda gets one of these, too, although the example on the Altima is that much clearer and easier to use.
Dan’s taller than me, which means sometimes we don’t see eye-to-eye (literally) on headroom concerns. In this case, however, there’s no disagreement here. The Mazda6 makes some packaging compromises for a sleeker shape, and that’s going to cut into your space, especially in the rear.
Further, the cockpit-like front position isn’t going to appeal to all drivers versus the Altima’s bright and airy space. The 6 just feels more closed-in, front and rear. It does have a better bolstered seat; and I could take or leave the Altima’s flat-bottomed steering wheel. In summation: the 6 is perfectly livable, but the Altima’s has a practicality edge to go with its comfort win.
Features and Value
Thanks to its lack of turbocharged engine, the Altima is the better value here (depending how you weight power). Both Nissan and Mazda are aggressive with their financing and leasing deals, so it’s an apples-to-apples comparison. The Signature trim 6 is a lot more expensive than the Platinum-grade Altima, and with the Altima’s fresher interior and more modern tech, it feels like you’re getting more in the latter. The 6’s emotional appeal is harder to tally.
Both of these represent the top trims each brand offers, so they come well-equipped with all manner of safety aids: adaptive cruise, active lane-keep assist, rear cross-traffic alert, high-beam assist, and so on. Only the Mazda gets a head-up display, however, and it gets a 10-way adjustable driver’s seat as opposed to the Altima’s eight-way example, though both vehicles are only available with a manually adjusted front passenger seat. Of course, all that aside, with the Altima you’re saving about $5,000 over the Mazda, giving it the edge in this category.
It’s a close race. While these are both mid-size sedans, both Brendan and myself felt that they were aimed at very different buyers. The Mazda6 Signature, with all its class and bells and whistles – plus all that power – is a little more aspirational. Remember: Mazda has no luxury arm à la Infiniti over at Nissan so its top models need to walk that luxury line a little. With the Altima, on the other hand, Nissan probably wants to make sure it doesn’t go too far luxury-wise, thus potentially cannibalizing sales of the Infiniti Q50 sedan – yet I don’t think the Altima gets the edge overall for me.
With its power and athletic handling, the Mazda may be something you turn to if you want a little more from your sedan. With the Nissan, maybe it’s something you turn to if you don’t want a Rogue crossover.
The Mazda6 is the one you’d pick if you wanted a little more passion baked into your everyday transport, and that’s the last stand for the mainstream sedan. What can a sedan offer over a practical crossover? How about sharp handling, great looks, and a punchy turbocharged engine? Make no mistake, the Altima’s a great value, practical and comfortable. The Mazda6, on the other hand, is the one to have you looking back over your shoulder as you walk away from it. That just barely gives it the edge over the Altima – and over the crossovers that surround it in the parking lot.
||2019 Mazda6 Signature||2019 Nissan Altima Platinum|
|Peak Horsepower||227 hp @ 5,000 rpm||182 hp @ 6,000 rpm|
|Peak Torque||310 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm||178 lb-ft @ 3,600 rpm|
|Fuel Economy||10.0/7.5/8.9 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb||9.3/6.7/8.1 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb|
|Cargo Space||416 L||436 L|
|Price as Tested||$41,495||$37,213|
|Optional Equipment||$450 – Machine Grey Metallic paint $450||$300 – Three coat paint $300|