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The Nissan Altima is a mainstay in America, having been around for nearly 30 years and earning a reputation for being reliable, affordable, and durable. Have you ever noticed that there are a lot of older Altimas on the road? It’s not at all uncommon for an Altima to last well over 200,000 miles

Clearly there are many excellent reasons to buy a Nissan Altima, whether it’s new or used. However, there’s one model year in particular — or to be more precise, one annoying issue that primarily affects one model year in particular — you should be aware of if you are shopping for a pre-owned Altima.

So much for the steering column

Reports from numerous 2009 Nissan Altima owners on indicate that the cars have faulty electronic steering column locks (ESCL). The issues with the ESCL essentially disable the Altima’s push-button ignition, making it impossible to actually start the car. 

In January 2016, a Chicago-area mom and her daughter got stranded in freezing temperatures when their ’09 Altima wouldn’t start. Her husband came to the rescue and had the Altima towed to a local Nissan dealership, but he was met with an unpleasant surprise when he met the tow truck driver there.

The man told NBC 5 Chicago,

“There was two other cars being brought in that same exact day with the same exact issue. And so I went over to the tow truck driver and said, ‘Hey what’s going on?’ And sure enough he said, “The lady’s button wouldn’t start the car.” 

Far from an isolated incident for the Nissan Altima

When NBC 5 Chicago started digging in 2016, they uncovered 746 complaints on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website, all of them alarmingly similar — and expensive. Between the cost of having the Altimas towed and the steering column lock repairs, many people reported spending over $1,000.

As it turns out, Nissan was well aware of the problem. The company issued multiple technical service bulletins, or TSBs, which indicates it was a widely-known issue.

However, importantly, Nissan never issued a recall related to the faulty electronic steering column locks. In 2013, the company did extend the warranty as it applied specifically to the ESCL from three years/36,000 miles to six years/unlimited miles, whichever came first. 

Unfortunately, that wasn’t an ideal fix for all Nissan Altima owners. Many people didn’t experience any issues with the ESCLs until even the extended warranty period was over.

Finally in 2017, after a great deal of public pressure — and even more complaints to the NHTSA — Nissan issued an ESCL Service Campaign. Under the campaign, Nissan will “replace the Electric Steering Column Lock (ESCL) with an electronic steering column box free of charge for parts and labor.”

While that sounds wonderful, it’s both notable and concerning that Nissan went this route to rectify the problem as opposed to issuing a recall. 

“Beware of the Clunker”

Because of the 2009 Nissan Altima’s very annoying bad electronic steering column locks, awarded the car its “Beware of the Clunker” badge, which the company defines as, “Has significant defects but does not deserve the “Plague” rating: either the defects occur at high mileage, they don’t cost a fortune to repair, or they aren’t widespread.”

If you have any doubts, rest assured: The 2009 Altima didn’t make’s Worst Vehicles list. The 2013 Altima did, however. Truthfully, the Nissan Altima is an exceptionally safe and reliable vehicle, and with Nissan’s ESCL Service Campaign, you shouldn’t shy away from buying one if you’ve been considering it.


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