With relatively little fanfare but plenty of sustained customer appeal, the Altima has become Nissan's worldwide volume leader and currently outsells the Maxima and Sentra combined in this market. Looking to protect its interests against arguably the toughest field of foes in any segment, the automaker has given the 2010 Altima a round of freshening that adds both visual and functional enhancements to this mid-size, front-driver. In the case of its top-performing variant, 2010 also brings a name change from 3.5 SE to the "sportier sounding" 3.5 SR, which also supplants the more luxury-oriented 3.5 SL on the sedan side of the ledger. We recently spent time behind the wheel several versions of the latest Altima crop, and focused on the now-3.5 SR sedan.

Regardless of trim level, the 2010 Altima revamp starts with a new front end treatment for both the coupe and sedan models. It nets a bolder fascia treatment, more dramatic power-bulge hood contouring and a reshaped grille. The last element adopts the "T-shaped" style cue that Nissan plans to emphasize throughout its entire sedan lineup. Also in the mix are restyled alloy wheels, which mount 215/55R17 tires on the 3.5 SR in place of the 215/60R16 rubber fitted on the 2.5 and 2.5S.

Inside, the entire Altima clan gets treated to a series of welcome upgrades that start with nicer fabric and trim bits as well as even more legible white-lit instruments and higher-res gauge displays. But the biggest and likely most appreciated enhancements were made to the available audio and navigation systems. The standard six-speaker AM/FM/CD audio setup on the 2.5S and 3.5 SR models can now be upgraded with a new nine-speaker Bose AM/FM/CD/MP3/WMA premium sound system that nets a 4.3-inch color display, USB/iPod connectivity, streaming Bluetooth Hands-free Phone System and XM Satellite Radio (which requires a separate subscription) as well as the RearView Monitor. Those two Altima models also can be fitted with a revised Technology Package based around Nissan's next-generation Hard Drive Navigation System. Adding to the aforementioned Premium Audio Package features, this touch-screen system now boasts a 6.5-inch full-color monitor, and a 9.3-gigabyte Music Box hard drive plus Streaming Audio, XM with real-time weather/traffic and restaurant info.

While its name may have changed, the powertrain and suspension tuning on the 2010 Altima 3.5 SR sedan are largely carryover from the 2009 3.5 SE. That leaves it a half step below the enthusiast appeal level of the also-enhanced-for-2010 3.5 SR coupe but still an extremely capable and nicely engaging package. Underhood, motivation comes from a 270-horsepower version of Nissan's brilliant 3.6-liter VQ V6. Where the 2.5-liter four in the base and S version make a serviceable 175 ponies (170 for California models), and the Hybrid's gas/electric combo team to make an even more spritely 198 horses, the SR's upgrade puts the car in an entirely different league when it comes to absolute quickness and overtaking ability. Given virtually non-existent demand for the six-speed manual gearbox, Nissan decided that the sole transmission for the new 3.5 SR -- and all 2010 Altima sedans -- would be a specially-tweaked version of its Xtronic continuously variable automatic (CVT). Boasting a Sport mode that creates six "virtual" gears, the V6/CVT matchup is sufficient to let a 3.5 SR sprint from 0-60 mph in about 6.5 seconds.

Not quite up to its somewhat smaller and lighter 3.5 SR coupe cousin in pure corner-carving prowess, the 3.5 SR sedan's sport-spec chassis tuning coupled with decently weighted power steering, Vehicle Dynamic Control/Traction Control System (two items that also have become standard on all 2010 Altima models) and antilock disc brakes still let it take on most twisty backroads without breaking a sweat while maintaining ride comfort that makes it even more appealing as a daily driver. Pricing for the new Altima sedan lineup starts at $20,620 for a base 2.5, while the 2.5 S opens at $22,560 and the 3.5 SR begins at $25,240. For the more eco-oriented, the 2010 version of the mileage-maxing Altima Hybrid sedan commands a $27,500 price tag.

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