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I vaguely remember a time when I noticed the homely Nissan Altima. It was sometime in 2006 and the midsize sedan introduced cool, wrap-around rear taillights. The lamps inside the casing were colorful, staggered, alive. But save for that delicious chunk of chocolate-covered almond, the Nissan sedan has been pure vanilla.

Until now.

“That’s a beautiful car,” said Mrs. Payne as I pulled the all-new, made-in-Tennessee, 2019 Nissan Altima into the driveway this fall. Stop the presses. Unlike her car-mad husband, my wife is an auto appliance shopper. Give her a sedan with reliability, room, attractive looks and all-wheel-drive for winter and she’ll drive it. Brand be damned.

Nissan has always tested well on the three Rs — reliability, ergonomics and room — and the Altima’s rear seat easily accommodates my sprawling, basketball-player frame. Heck, the subcompact Sentra I recently rented has more back seat room than many mid-sizers. That simple formula has made it an appliance mainstay in the midsize aisle. But it’s the looks and all-wheel drive that are game-changers for the new offering.

No longer an appliance, this Altima stirs emotion.

Good thing, too, because sedans aren’t packing them into the dealership like they used to. SUVs are the new, new thing — but they are also the new vanilla. Five-door box, tall stance, snooze. Nissan knows this and has been on the cutting edge of crossover design with spicy confections like the Murano (introduced in 2015) and its floating roof, sculpted flanks, and V-motion grille.

The V-motion design really takes hold with Altima. The Murano’s funky grille stands out like someone hung a Georgia O’Keefe painting on the front of the two-row ute. Its multiple surfaces are attention grabbing for sure, but not everyone’s cup of tea.

The Altima’s grille, by contrast, is simpler, more elegant — a natural pool into which the sedan’s long, flowing lines flow. Unlike the bulbous, monotonous Altimas of old, the ‘19 is a symphony of lines playing in harmony. The wraparound lights and floating roof waterfall across snazzy, tire-wrapped pin-wheels to a low, clamshell hood. Los Angeles design studio, take a bow.

From ugly duckling to swan in a generation, the Altima — like competitors Honda Accord, Chevy Malibu, and my segment favorite Mazda 6 — offers sleek designs to compete against upright utes.

It’s the all-wheel drive system, however, that really expands the Altima sedan’s bandwidth.

Only Subaru’s Legacy and the (retiring) Ford Fusion offer AWD in the midsize sedan market. Want AWD for Michigan’s brutal winters? We have a Nissan Rogue box over here — or you can have the Altima.

Interestingly, the all-wheel drive system only comes paired to the base 188-horsepower, 2.5-liter engine. Nissan explains the decision as a way to make AWD available in all trims of the car right down to the base model — which is good news to Mrs. Payne, who could price the sporty AWD SR model competitively against her smaller, AWD Impreza Sport hatch (alas, the Altima does not come in a hatch/wagon). The AWD Altima is also attractively priced next to its stablemate, the Rogue SUV — coming in $1,000 cheaper at $25,995 (consistent with the FWD base model, too).

As Nissan studies AWD take rates in the sedan segment, the pricing allows exposure of AWD to as broad a demographic as possible.

What it doesn’t do, however, is pair AWD with the most appealing engine option — Nissan’s new, variable compression, 2.0-liter, 248-horse turbo-4 which replaces the outgoing, normally aspirated V-6. Variable compression (or VC-T) engines are engineering marvels. Without scrambling your brain with the tech details, it allows the turbo-4 to stretch its performance legs while also maximizing efficiency. The payoff? A 3 mpg gain over the Altima’s ol’ V-6.

The Rogue doesn’t get the engine either, which means sedan customers get exclusivity to go with their designer wardrobe. Want the VC-T with AWD? You’ll have to cough up another 10 grand for the premium Infiniti QX50.

The VC-T turbo-4 is a treat to drive around Metro Detroit, its torque surging over 3,000 rpms. For all its fancy engineering degrees, the biggest revelation might be its CVT (continuously variable transmission) partner, which manages the feat of feeling like an 8-speed auto tranny while retaining the fuel economy of a CVT.

This was music to my ears after driving a classic CVT in a Lexus NX hybrid which droned on and on like a Bob Woodward interview. The Altima’s electronically stepped shifts not only sound good, but they are smooth when you stomp on the pedal for added low-end torque.

YUNK! Went the Volvo S60 automatic I recently tested as it downshifted under duress. Not the Altima.

Happily, the CVT was also paired to the 2.5-liter four in my $30,175 blue tester. The Altima is no Mazda 6 or Accord (the class athletes), but it’s perfectly content being pushed through the twisties. Push too hard and it will, well, push — no fancy torque-vectoring tricks here — but it’s in Michigan winters that the AWD hoofs will pay their dividend.

Nissan has foregone fancy, torque-shifting twin clutch packs like GM has outfitted to its Buick and Chevy Equinox AWD models — the better to shift torque away from a rogue wheel spinning in the snow. But the Japanese maker still claims that it can electronically use anti-lock brakes to sedate that wheel and get your car moving again.

Inside, the Altima closes the gap to luxury-class vehicles with a tidy, horizontal dash resting on a “gliding wing” of wood. With the 8-inch tablet screen suspended above the console, I could not only keep my eyes on the road while operating the touchscreen, but also throw my phone, fries, loose change in the ample storage bin beneath. Standard tech abounds from USB ports front and rear to smartphone app connectivity.

A new Nissan wouldn’t be complete without available Pro-Pilot Assist which has become synonymous with Star Wars ads showing Nissans avoiding various sci-fi creatures. Appropriately, drivers should treat it as a sci-fi toy — a peek at the autonomous future, but a consistent road guide no more reliable than Jar-Jar Binks.

Keep your eyes on the road — and on an all-wheel drive Nissan Altima, homely no more.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Nissan Altima

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front and all-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan

Price: $24,645 base including $895 destination fee ($30.015 SR AWD as tested) 

Powerplant: 2.5 liter inline-4 cylinder; 2.0-liter, turbo-4

Power: 188 horsepower, 180 pound-feet torque (2.5L); 248 horsepower, 280 pound-feet torque (2.0L)

Transmission: CVT (continuously variable automatic)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.0-8.1 seconds (Car and Driver est.)

Weight: 3,418 pounds (2.5L SR AWD as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 26 city/36 highway/30 combined (2.5-liter with AWD); 25 city/34 highway/29 combined (2.0L turbo-4)

Report card

Highs: Altima is a looker; rare sedan with all-wheel-drive

Lows: Pro-pilot assist still a toy; AWD comes only with base, 2.5-liter engine

Overall: 4 stars

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