The Nissan Altima has been an object of ridicule lately, primarily because it’s often the car of choice for individuals with, shall we say, less than stellar driving capabilities. But we’re not here to make fun of your car choice. We’re here to let you know what Nissan Altima years to avoid.
If you’ve been thinking of buying a used Altima, this post will discuss everything there is to know. From its history, reliability, common problems, and of course, the Nissan Altima years to avoid. Let’s begin:
Nissan Altima Generations
First, let’s take a look at the Nissan Altima generation. Since there are quite a few of them, let’s break it down into several sections:
First To Third Generation
The Nissan Altima is a mid-size sedan that began life in 1993, as a replacement for the Nissan Bluebird. It was still known as the Bluebird in Japan, but elsewhere it was the Altima. The first generation Altima had a 2.4L engine making a healthy 150 horsepower. Paired to either a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic.
There’s not much to talk about the first generation. It only came with one engine option, and the styling is inoffensive, but period reviews noted that it had decent and somewhat sporty handling. Although this also resulted in a relatively firm ride.
Nissan then introduced the second generation in 1998. It still had the same powertrain configuration, although the 2000 model year made 5 (five) more horsepower than the previous generation.
The Altima also grew longer, around three inches longer, and later in 2000, it got around five inches longer. However, the wheelbase length was the same. Styling is also different, but still largely inoffensive and just looks like any average American sedan.
Nissan refreshed the Altima relatively quickly, launching the third generation in 2001—just four years after the last one. This is where you start to see bigger changes; the wheelbase and overall length were nearly 10 inches longer. It came with new engine options, including the 3.5L VQ engine V6, the same engine you’ll find in the Nissan 350Z sports car.
Less well-off customers will have to make do with a 2.5L inline-four engine. Still, this makes a perfectly acceptable 152 horsepower. Overall, the car was well received. And it’s often credited as one of the cars that helped turn around Nissan’s fate, as Nissan was facing debt issues at the time.
The fourth generation Altima arrived in 2007. We’re giving this generation its own section as it saw many notable changes compared to previous generations.
Anyway, the styling was still very similar, although the wheelbase and overall length were slightly shorter this time. Engine options also remained the same, but both the 2.5L and 3.5L engines made around 20 more horsepower than before.
The big change was with the transmission; previous generations were available with either a manual or a planetary gear automatic. However, with the fourth generation, it was either a 6-speed manual or Continuously Variable Transmission, or CVT for short.
If you’re unfamiliar, CVT transmissions use a set of pulleys (an input pulley and an output pulley) connected by a chain or belt. The pulleys change their width during driving, which in turn affects the belt’s diameter. The change depends on the driving conditions, affecting the power and torque output.
You can learn more about how CVT transmissions work here. CVT transmissions are dull, but they work just fine. And if anything, they provide a smoother driving experience and are perfect for non-enthusiasts. However, as you’ll discover later on, Nissan’s CVT transmission isn’t reliable. It doesn’t even have an idea of what the word ‘reliable’ means.
Anyway, more on that later on. Another big change for this generation was that it was available as a two-door coupe. While it looks somewhat similar to the brilliant Infiniti G35, the Altima Coupe was a completely different car and only shared the same engine.
We couldn’t find any information on the sales number. But it was presumably quite poor, as Nissan never made another Altima Coupe after 2013. And even in 2013, the 3.5L variant of the Coupe was discontinued.
Fifth Generation To Present
Nissan unveiled the fifth generation in 2013, and it still came with the same engine options in the US: a 2.5L inline-four and a 3.5L V6. However, global versions were available with either a 1.6L turbo or a 2.0L inline-four engine.
Nissan ditched the manual for all Altima models and only offers it with a CVT made by Jatco. And it was even less reliable than the previous generation, although we’ll talk more about that later.
There’s nothing too notable about this generation. It was ever-so-slightly larger than before but weigh around 120lbs less. While it isn’t very exciting, this generation sold very well. Around 320,000 units were sold in the US alone and maintained a sales figure of over 300,000 units up until 2016.
Nissan then unveiled the current sixth generation in 2019. The styling was still distinctively Nissan, but it looks far more modern. The current generation is offered with a 2.5L inline-four engine as standard, and a 2.0L turbo engine is available for higher-end models.
While we love the VQ35DE V6 engine, it was admittedly quite old at this point. It couldn’t keep up with the smoothness, efficiency, and power delivery of more modern turbo engines. So, we understand why Nissan ditched the V6 for this generation in favor of a more modern turbo engine.
However, what we don’t understand is why Nissan chose to stick with the Jatco CVT. While it seems to be much more reliable than before, we still have trust issues whenever there’s a CVT transmission in a Nissan.
Reliability aside, all Altima generations are pretty decent when it comes to comfort and practicality. It’s a decent option for those looking for a sedan and doesn’t value driving excitement.
Nissan Altima Years To Avoid
So, now you know the Nissan Altima generations. But what years should you avoid? Well, based on the number of complaints, here are the Nissan Altima years to avoid:
- 2002. Mostly due to gasket leak issues. The 2000 and 2001 model years also had similar complaints, but 2002 saw the most complaints from owners and is best avoided.
- 2005. This model year had a lot of complaints regarding the engine, although not quite as bad as the 2002 model year. But it had a wide range of problems, ranging from bad motor mounts to excessive oil consumption.
- 2009. The most common complaint with this model year was a steering wheel lock failure. More on this in the next section.
- 2013 to 2015. As expected, there were tons of complaints about the CVT transmission in these model years. The 2013 model is the worst one, and you’ll want to avoid it at all costs.
As mentioned, there are a few more bad model years such as the 2000 and 2001 models. Plenty of models from 2000 to 2010 received a lot of complaints, but the ones we mentioned above are the worst ones.
Don’t worry, we’ll let you know about the better model years you should buy later on. But first, let’s take a look at the common problems of the Nissan Altima.
Nissan Altima Problems
Even if you buy a supposedly reliable model year, some reliability problems might still occur. That’s why you should know the common problems that plague the Nissan Altima. In some cases, you may be able to do preventive maintenance. Even if you can’t, you’ll know what to expect and how much you should pay if something goes wrong.
Anyway, here are the common Nissan Altima problems you should know:
1. CVT Transmission Problems
Problems with Nissan’s CVT transmission range from it vibrating, hesitating, and the worst case scenario: failing altogether. The best-case scenario is you’ll notice the transmission vibrating and the car engaging limp mode to reduce potential damage.
So, what exactly is wrong with Nissan’s CVT transmission? The problem seems to stem from a defective cooler, causing the transmission to overheat and fail. Although there’s no confirmation, we think this is the most likely explanation.
Transmissions get hot during operation. So, they have transmission fluid to reduce friction and keep the temperature in check. Additionally, transmissions have cooling lines shared with the engine’s cooling system to further help keep the temperature in check.
It’s possible that the cooler Nissan use for their CVTs is not quite up to the job. Causing the transmission to overheat which eventually leads to various transmission problems including complete failure. Many owners have said that installing an upgraded cooler has fixed the problem, although we can’t guarantee this will work for every car.
We think the best course of action is to just avoid the problematic model years, which are the 2013 to 2015 models. We also recommend staying away from the 2008 and 2009 model years as there are complaints about the transmission as well.
If you have no choice, or if you already have a Nissan with a CVT transmission, keep up with regular transmission fluid changes (to learn more, check out our explainer on should I change transmission fluid after 100k miles and how often should you change transmission fluid, as well as should you change transmission fluid on high mileage cars). You should change it every 30,000 miles, and make sure you use the correct transmission fluid. CVT requires a different type of fluid than conventional automatic transmission.
2. Head Gasket Leaks & Excessive Oil Consumption
The head gasket sits between the engine block and the cylinder head (the top part of the engine). It acts as a cushion between the two components. And more importantly, as a seal to prevent oil and coolant from going into the combustion chamber.
Like many other car parts, the head gasket has a limited lifespan. Experts suggest around 200,000 miles, although a more realistic estimate is around 150,000 miles. However, many early 2000s Nissan Altima is known to have the head gasket leak at as early as 75,000 miles.
Second, it may cause an external leak. In this case, you will see coolant or oil (depending on where it leaks) coming out of the top of the engine. Specifically, you’ll see the leak coming from beneath the valve cover.
As mentioned, the Altima also suffers from excessive oil consumption. Unlike the Toyota Corolla—which was caused by faulty piston rings—the Altima’s oil consumption is a result of faulty head gaskets. This problem mainly affects the 2002 and 2005 model years with the 2.5L engine. However, there are reports of this happening in other early 2000s model years.
Head gaskets are relatively cheap, usually costing no more than $300. However, replacing them can cost up to $2,000. This is because replacing the head gasket is a lengthy process that involves disassembling the top part of the engine. You can learn more about the costs here.
3. Bad Motor Mounts
A car engine is mounted to the chassis, and in most cars, there are anywhere between two to four engine mounts. And usually, there are another two for the transmission.
Engine mounts are made from rubber, and they will harden over time. Once that happens, the mount will amplify vibrations coming from the engine and from the road, such as when you’re going over a pothole or a speed bump. This will make the car uncomfortable to drive.
Engine mounts are made from rubber, and within 5 – 7 years the rubber will start to harden. However, it’s not uncommon for engine mounts to last well over 10 years. I’ve bought several used cars and the mounts were fine even up until year 10.
In the Altima, we’re seeing reports of the mounts failing in just year six. And in some cases, it fails as early as 60,000 miles. This seems to affect both the 2.5L and 3.5L V6 models. Granted, the average mileage this problem appears is around 97,000 miles. And this isn’t as widespread as the other problems here, but we believe this is still worth noting.
The average replacement cost seems to be around $350 including labor, but it’s likely to be cheaper if you only have to replace one of them and do it at an independent shop rather than a dealer.
4. Steering Wheel Lock Failure
Modern cars now have a steering wheel lock mechanism as a theft prevention measure. The mechanism is usually a metal pin that engages the column when you take the key out of the ignition. Or if you have a keyless system, it will engage/disengage when you press the ignition button.
This system works very well and is usually trouble-free. However, many 2009 Nissan Altima owners have complained that their steering lock actuator won’t disengage. This disables the ignition, leaving owners stranded.
Worse still, a few owners have reported that their Nissan Altima’s steering would lock when doing a tight turn. This leads to the car suddenly shutting off in the middle of the road. You don’t need us to tell you how scary and dangerous that is.
Nissan did a recall on this in 2017. However, some owners note that their 2009 Nissan Altima was not included in the recall for whatever reason. And they’ve had to pay out of pocket to replace the lock actuator, which can cost up to $960 including labor.
Best Nissan Altima Years
Now you know the Nissan Altima years to avoid and its common problems in detail. But how about the best Nissan Altima years? What are the good model years you should consider? Well, here are our recommendations based on the number of complaints:
- 1993 – 1999. All the 90s model seems to have very few complaints, and there are no notable problems. Just look out for signs of a blown head gasket, as there are reports of them failing as early as 110,000 miles. That being said, the complaints are few and far between.
- 2004 and 2007. If you’re looking for something newer than the 90s model, consider these two model years. They will feel relatively modern and have the fewest complaints of all the 2000s model years. Note that there are complaints about the crankshaft sensor for the 2004 model and transmission failure for the 2007 model. But again, they’re few and far between.
- 2011. If you want the fourth-generation model, this is the safest model year to buy. Since this came with a CVT, there are still complaints of transmission failure. But nowhere near as much as the other model years for this generation.
- 2017 – 2020. If you can splurge, we recommend these model years. They have very few complaints and seem to be far more reliable. Not to mention, they’re still relatively new, so they will still feel very modern.
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Those are the model years we recommend based on the number of complaints. The good news is that there are good model years from every generation. So, regardless of which generation you like, there’s at least one model year that you can choose from.
FAQs About Nissan Altima Years To Avoid
Got any more questions about Nissan Altima years to avoid and the Altima in general? These answers might be helpful for you:
Are Nissans Good Cars
Nissan doesn’t make the most exciting cars in the world, but they’re typically very spacious, practical, and comfortable as long as you don’t equip them with larger wheels. While reliability isn’t great, they can still be quite reliable. We recommend avoiding any Nissan with a CVT, and avoiding mid-2000s Nissan models with an automatic transmission as they’re known to have issues as well.
Where Is Nissan Made
Nissan is a Japanese carmaker with factories all over the world. And they have three factories in the US, which are at Smyrna and Decherd, Tennessee, and Canton, Mississippi.
Are Nissans Reliable
They’re exactly average if not a little below the industry standard according to J.D. Power’s dependability study. They’re not the worst when it comes to reliability, we think that title is a battle between VW, Ford, and BMW. But Nissan isn’t exactly the best either, and if you want the most reliable car, we think it’s better to look at Toyota, Honda, or Hyundai.
Are Nissan Altimas Good Cars
They’re good, just a little boring. The engines have respectable power, but the CVT transmission makes them dull to drive and acceleration can feel lazy. They have a lot of space, but not the most comfortable car you can buy.
How Long Do Nissan Altimas Last
Provided that you skip the bad model years and keep up with general maintenance, you can expect a Nissan Altima to last up to 200,000 miles before requiring major engine repairs. Mind you, modern cars have gotten so much better and this is the case with almost every car these days. The important thing is to avoid problematic model years, keep up with general maintenance, and change worn-out parts to avoid further damage.
What Does SR Stand For Nissan
SR stands for Sport Rally. This is the name Nissan uses for their higher-end trims with sporty pretensions.
What Does SV Mean On A Nissan Altima
SV stands for Standard Value, and this is the mid-level trim that sits below the SR and SL trim. SV models have more features and equipment than the standard S trim, but at a lower MSRP than the SR and SL trims, offering better value hence the name Standard Value.
Nissan Altima Years To Avoid: Final Thoughts
The Nissan Altima, like many other cars, has some terrible model years that you should avoid at all costs. The Nissan Altima years to avoid are 2002, 2005, 2009, and 2013 to 2015 model years. These model years have a lot of complaints for different issues, and you should avoid them at all costs.
The 1990s models all have very few complaints, but they’re getting quite old so it’s not going to be for everyone. For those looking for more modern options, the 2010 to 2012 models have fewer complaints. The 2004 and 2007 model years also seem safe to buy. There are complaints, but they mostly seem like isolated issues.
If you have the budget, the 2016 and 2017 models seem to be reliable and will feel much more modern. The 2018 to 2021 models also seem to have very few complaints, although it’s possible that reliability issues just haven’t had a chance to appear yet since they’re still relatively new.
If you’re looking for options, consider the Toyota Camry or Honda Accord. We all know that these two cars are virtually bulletproof. You can also consider the Hyundai Sonata or Kia K5 (just be wary of the Hyundai Sonata life expectancy), but you’ll want the 2017 model year or newer. As almost all Hyundai and Kia engines from 2011 to 2015 are notorious for catching on fire.
Whichever car you choose, don’t forget to take a thorough test drive to find the one that fits your needs. And once you’re serious about purchasing a used unit, consider doing a pre-purchase inspection (PPI). This will let you know of any potential problem spots and should cost no more than $250. Good luck!