"If you want Japanese reliability, modest price and a little more pizazz, the Altima may be the car for you."
Good: styling, power, value
Bad: interior feels small, can be noisy

 

The Nissan Altima has always been a kind of "in-between car." In size and price it was in between the Civic and the Accord -- or in between the Camry and the Corolla, if you prefer Toyotas. It suited some people perfectly. But, according to Nissan, not enough. So this year they've waived the white flag on trying to create their own mid-sub-compact segment and have gone right after the Camry and Accord.

The Altima has been completely redesigned from the ground up for the 2002 model year. It's Camry and Accord size now -- longer, wider and taller than the old Altima. It's also Camry and Accord priced, or pretty close. It's actually much closer to Nissan's top of the line Maxima than to its compact Sentra. And for the first time you can buy an Altima with an optional V6 engine -- not that you'd want to, as you'll discover. The new Altima has received high praise for its style (mostly deserved) and its power (mostly lemming auto writers blindly feeding back Nissan press releases). But with the four-cylinder engine, it's a very nice car.

The Altima comes in four versions: the four-cylinder 2.5, 2.5 S and 2.5 SL, and the six-cylinder 3.5 SE. The price ranges from a little over $16 grand for the base version (and we mean base -- air conditioning isn't even an option) to more than $22,000 for the top-of-the-line model with the V6, before you start adding options. We drove the 2.5 SL, which has a Cars.com target price of $20,928.


We were impressed by the power of the 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine -- especially after we learned that IT was under the hood of our test car, and not the six-cylinder engine we presumed we were testing. The four-cylinder engine has 175 hp, which is plenty of power for this car. It's also much more powerful than the four-cylinder engines that come with the Camry and the Accord, and nearly as powerful as those cars' six-cylinder models. It's also all you need. Forget about the V6, it's overkill.

The V6 produces a stupidity-encouraging 240-horsepower. (In fact, the V6 shatters Tommy's proposed 0.6 horsepower-to-weight limit, coming in at a citizenry-threatening 0.78.) This is basically the same engine that Nissan uses to power the Pathfinder sport utility vehicle. So you can imagine how out of place it is in this mid-sized sedan.

The handling and ride were good, in a sporty sort of way. The ride is a bit firmer and more sporting than the Camry's, and about on par with the Accord's. The suspension handled the corners extremely well, and the steering gave a good feel for the road without being overly heavy. Our only complaint is a thumping noise from the rear of the car when encountering the washboard roadways and expansion joints of our fair city.


Here's a puzzle: The Altima feels smaller inside than the Camry and the Accord, although it's larger in nearly every dimension. How can this be? Our only guess is that it's because it's an inch narrower than the Accord. Or the more raked exterior styling of the Altima made some of the space useless space. But the tape measure does not lie: the Altima does offer more head and leg room. To us, it felt adequate, but not commodious. The trunk, on the other hand, was big enough to transport several bodies.


One of the extra touches that you get with the 2.5 SL is leather seats, which we thought were very nice. They're even heated, to battle heinie-o-thermia on frosty mornings. The seats were comfy enough, but seemed just a tiny bit small -- a little too short in the cushion, a little narrow, and a little low in the back.

We liked the dashboard with its gauges set in three round dials, recessed into the instrument panel in a retro sort of way. There are storage spaces all over the place, including a big covered bin in front of the shift lever, and front and rear cup-holders.

The Altima is loaded with accoutrements. In addition to the heated leather seats, there are auto-up and -down windows, a sunroof, an automatically dimming rearview mirror, an in-dash six-CD changer, a power telescope-and-tilt steering column, cruise control and a trip computer. Side air bags and anti-lock brakes are optional.


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Thankfully, Nissan chose not to reinvent the wheel here. Three nice, large, round knobs control ventilation, switches for the lights and wipers are on the stalk where they belong, and there's no hide-and-seek required to find the switches for the power windows and sunroof. Seems elementary, we know. But, you'd be surprised how many car makers screw up these details. Attaboy, Nissan!

We also liked the fact that the Altima has an extra set of radio controls on the steering wheel.


Nissan has given the Altima a sharper, edgier look, particularly in the rear. We liked the sheared-off, bob-tailed look, and we also liked the taillights, which consist of separate lamps mounted behind large clear covers. It's a distinctive look, and goes a long way toward making the Altima look like something other than just another run-of-the-mill, incredibly reliable Japanese sedan.




From the front, the Altima looks -- well, it looks like just another run-of-the-mill, incredibly reliable Japanese sedan. We'd recommend always trying to sneak up on it from behind if you own one.


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Nissan has a reputation as a maker of reliable cars, and we have no reason to think that the new Altima will be any different. They're still a notch below Toyota and Honda in terms of their reliability records, but they're well above average, and pretty darned good. We would expect the Altima to be perfectly respectable in terms of its long-term reliability.


That four-cylinder engine leaves plenty of room for access. Plugs, filters and belts are all easy to reach -- even for the do-it-yourselfer -- all of which translates directly into reasonable repair and maintenance costs.

We didn't see the V6 engine, but we suspect there's significantly less room to maneuver in the engine compartment and, therefore, higher repair costs.


The new Altima represents Nissan's real entry into the highly competitive mid-sized sedan category. Now they have a vehicle that can truly compete with the Accords and Camrys of the world. While the Camry retains its crown as the most boringly reliable car in the universe, despite its recent re-design, and the Accord is sportier to drive but middle-of-the-road in design, the Altima offers some of the same reliability and practicality with a youthful, edgier style, and plenty of performance with the standard four-cylinder. We don't see them knocking the Accord or Camry off the top-seller list, but they should sell more of these Altimas than they did the ones of the last generation. And if you want Japanese reliability, modest price and little more pizazz, the Altima may be the car for you.

Speaking of competition, we think the Altima is going to give Nissan's own Maxima a run for the money. The re-designed Altima is actually an inch or two longer than the Maxima, and its nearly identical V6 engine produces just five HP less than the more expensive car's. We have a hunch that buyers who look at both cars may just end up keeping that extra four grand or so in their pockets.


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