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The 2013 Nissan Altima undergoing testing on Michigan roads. Credit: Jim Dunne, Car Spy.

We’ve been hearing lots, in recent months, about the problems faced by the “Japanese” as a result of the huge earthquake and tsunami that struck the country’s northeast coast last March.  While it’s true the industry was briefly sidelined, and while Toyota and Honda have struggled until recently due to production shortages, Japan’s number two automaker was quickly back in action and, if anything, the Nissan Altima sedan has been doing better than ever in recent months.

That’s all the more impressive considering the current model isn’t exactly the newest offering in the hotly competitive midsize segment.  But Nissan has plans to build on the Altima’s current momentum with an all-new version that’s due to market a little less than a year from now carrying a 2013 designation.

Legendary spy photographer Jim Dunne captured this image of the next-gen, 2013 Nissan Altima out and about in the Detroit suburbs wearing minimal camouflage as it was put through some testing.

While we’ll have to wait awhile to get some more details – perhaps at the New York Auto Show? – we’ve learned that a key element in Nissan’s strategy is to develop a more cohesive design theme that will become obvious with the next updates of its mainstream sedan line-up, including the Altima, Sentra and Maxima.

We got a first look at some of the changes with the recent redesign of the subcompact Nissan Versa: the more pinched grille and stronger character line visible under this Altima’s camouflage.

The roofline of the new Altima sweeps back a little further, though the car does not quite complete the migration to the coupe-like-sedan styling that so many other manufacturers have been adopting of late.  But the new design should bring to mind the Nissan Ellure Concept of 2010.

Under the hood, the big news will be the addition of an all-new, in-house hybrid system sharing some of the basic mechanicals as the new Infiniti M35h.  Nissan was slow to embrace hybrid technology, focusing primarily on the battery-electric drive in the Leaf.  The maker’s first hybrid simply licensed technology from Toyota – which may be why Nissan almost seemed embarrassed admitting the original Altima Hybrid was even in the line-up.

This second-generation Nissan Altima Hybrid will feature a downsized 2.5-liter inline-four.  What’s intriguing about this system is that it delivers plenty of power on demand by pairing both an electric motor and a twin-screw supercharger.  As with the Infiniti, the Altima hybrid will opt for a lithium-ion, rather than older-style nickel-metal hydride, battery.

Along with the hybrid, the 2013 Altima line will hang onto the sedan’s existing I-4 and V-6 engines, but as its competitors have accomplished Nissan is expected to bump up both fuel economy and horsepower numbers.  Considering where makers like Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota are going, Nissan will have to deliver in the mid-30 mpg range with its base car to remain competitive.

Indeed, it won’t be an easy market to enter.  By the time the 2013 Nissan Altima arrives we’ll be looking at the full range of powertrains for the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu – which launches early in eAssist Eco trim – as well as a Ford Fusion that is expected to adopt a striking new styling theme, and an all-new Honda Accord.  If Nissan gets any reprieve it’s the fact that the recently updated Toyota Camry hasn’t quite set the world afire.

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