2020 Nissan Altima vs. 2020 Subaru Legacy: Which AWD Mid-Size Sedan Is Best?
Nissan has challenged Subaru’s all-wheel-drive dominance in the family-sedan segment, so we set out to choose a winner.
By JOEY CAPPARELLA
Nov 5, 2019
2020 NISSAN ALTIMA 2.5 AWD
Quiet powertrain confident handling,stylish looks.
Poor rear visibility,some chintzy interior finishes.
2020 SUBARU LEGACY SPORT
Expansive outward visibility,lots of tech features.
Noisy engine,sloppy handling responses,unbecoming exterior design.
All-wheel drive is Subaru’s thing. The “Symmetrical AWD” badges emblazoned on nearly all Subarus and the brand's accompanying marketing that constantly proclaims the advantages of four-wheel traction have made that abundantly clear to consumers. While it’s hardly a Subaruexclusive feature, no other automaker has so effectively cornered the conversation on why you need AWD in your next vehicle (Spoiler alert: You don’t).
All-wheel drive is a legitimate differentiator for the Subaru Legacy, however. It’s the only affordable mid-size sedan that has consistently offered four driven wheels. Yet, it was recently joined by the Nissan Altima, as the new-for-2019 sixth-generation model added an all-wheel-drive option that costs $1350 extra. Now that the Legacy isn’t the only AWD mid-size sedan, we set out to see if it’s still the best. (Certain trim levels of the Ford Fusion also offer AWD, but the Fusion is not long for this world, so we left it out.)
Both the Altima and the Legacy were recently redesigned. The longer, lower, and wider Nissan is boldly styled, with an aggressive nose and sharp creases along its sides. Our SR test car’s attractive 19-inch wheels and Sunset Drift Chromaflair orange paint only served to further accentuate its athletic proportions. The Subaru looks comparably dowdy, with a tall greenhouse and an awkwardly styled front end, and the half-hearted Sport trim level's black wheels and small lip spoiler don’t help.
The Altima and the Legacy are nearly indistinguishable on a spec sheet, though. Both are powered by naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinders and route power through a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Of note is that the Subaru's all-wheel-drive setup also can be paired with the Legacy's optional 260-hp turbocharged 2.4-liter flat-four, whereas Nissan's is only available with the Altima's base powerplant. The numbers for our two test cars are extremely close, with the Nissan making 182 horsepower and 178 lb-ft of torque, and the Subaru making 182 ponies and 176 lb-ft. These two examples are priced within a few hundred dollars of each other as well, and their EPA fuel-economy estimates reside within a tiny margin of difference. The Legacy eked out the win on paper with its combined/city/highway figures of 30/27/35 mpg versus the Altima's 29/25/35 mpg.
On the Road
Away from their spec sheets, however, the Nissan comes out ahead in most of our testing metrics. It makes better use of its engine at the test track with a decent 7.4-second run from zero to 60 mph, beating the Legacy by 0.6 second. The Nissan also proved more efficient in our hands, averaging 31 mpg to the Subaru's 28 mpg. And handling-wise, the Altima gripped our skidpad at a solid 0.91 g, far outperforming the Subaru's 0.84-g result and coming close to some sports sedans.
Even beyond these objective numbers, the Altima proves to be the more pleasant car to drive. It's the one we'd rather pilot every day, owing to its more comfortable ride and responsive handling. The Nissan's firmer suspension tuning manages its body motions far better than the Subaru's, which allows for floppy up and down and side to side motions on bumpy or curvy roads. While both cars' CVT transmissions cause the engine to occasionally drone at high rpms under harder acceleration, the Nissan's inline-four feels smoother and quieter than the Subaru's raspy and coarse boxer-four, and the Altima's transmission more effectively mimics the gear shifts of the conventional automatic transmissions that most drivers are familiar with.
The Inside View
Take a seat inside the Legacy, and you'll enjoy a clear view out of its large windows. Subaru may have sacrificed some style in designing this sedan's tall profile, but we think many will appreciate the confidence of the elevated seating position. In contrast, you sit a bit lower in the Altima, and its relatively smaller windows can make it feel a bit confining. Rearward visibility is particularly bad in the Nissan. The slightly raised rear end caused by the hardware of the all-wheel-drive system (AWD models sit 0.5-inch taller by Nissan's measurement), as well as the housing for the centermounted brake light on the parcel shelf, makes it difficult to see cars behind you out of the rear window.
It's essentially a toss-up between the two in terms of interior materials and quality. Both sedans use a fair amount of hard black plastic and black upholstery with only some bits of contrasting trim to alleviate the gloom. The Nissan has an 8.0-inch touchscreen stuck on top of the dash like an iPad, while the Subaru's cockpit is dominated by a huge 11.6-inch vertically oriented touchscreen. While this giant screen may be a surprise-and-delight feature, we didn't think it used all those extra pixels as well as it could. The display for Apple CarPlay, for instance, only uses a small fraction of the screen to mirror your phone. Plus, we prefer the simplicity of the Altima's volume and tuning knobs to the hassle of the Subaru's myriad non-physical controls that live within the touchscreen.
Neither car has a clear advantage when it comes to rear-seat accommodations, as both are spacious for two passengers and a bit cramped for three—a common refrain among mid-size sedans. The Altima holds a slight edge in cargo capacity, holding eight carry-on-size boxes to the Legacy's six. Both have split-folding rear seats to expand the trunk for larger items.
The Bottom Line
Nissan's new Altima is the clear overall victor here. It is simply better than the Legacy in nearly every regard. It accelerates quicker, handles more sharply, looks better, and sips less fuel. It's only marginally more expensive (a difference that could be addressed by dropping some of our test car's extraneous accessories), and we think it's a more desirable sedan. Even if the Nissan didn't offer all-wheel drive, we'd pick it over the Legacy. The fact that it does have that feature is merely a bonus, and if you're shopping for an affordable all-wheel-drive mid-size sedan, you should be glad that Subaru is no longer the only game in town.