Carmel, California Size certainly matters. The old Altima was too small to be a mainstream competitor to the Toyota Camry, the Honda Accord, and the Ford Taurus, even if you overlooked its lack of a V-6 engine option. In the past, Nissan has claimed that it adopted a two-tier strategy to take on the big guns, with the Altima at the bottom end of the price scale and the Maxima fulfilling the V-6 market. That theory has never quite stood up if you look at the overall sales figures, even if the Maxima has consistently been the best-selling V-6 import sedan.
For 2002, Nissan finally has gotten around to making the Altima a serious contender in this class. The new Altima is bigger, offers an optional V-6 engine, and is good enough to worry its more successful Japanese-brand rivals. In the meantime, Nissan is trying to position the Maxima upscale.
The Altima is the first car built off a brand-new platform that will see other uses in the United States and will spawn products in other parts of the world. With a 110.2-inch wheelbase and a 191.5-inch overall length, the Altima is 7.1 and 5.7 inches, respectively, longer than the outgoing car, and it's taller and wider, too. In terms of interior room, the car has 103.2 cubic feet of space, 9.2 cubic feet more than the outgoing car and a couple of cubes more than the current Honda Accord. Despite being larger than the old Altima, the new four-cylinder 2.5S automatic sedan weighs only 57 pounds more than the outgoing GXE automatic, partially a result of using aluminum in the suspension and on the hood and trunk lid.
This new platform uses a strut-type front suspension with lower control arms and a multi-link setup at the back that replaces the old strut arrangement. The SE V-6 models have a sportier suspension, with stiffer springs, dampers, and anti-roll bars. All Altimas have four-wheel disc brakes with vented front rotors, but ABS is a stand-alone option that also features brake assist and electronic brake force distribution. Base Altimas have sixteen-inch wheels with 205/65 all-season tires, but the SE comes with seventeens and 215/55 tires. Traction control is offered only on the V-6 automatic.
There are two engines: a DOHC 16-valve in-line four and a DOHC 24-valve V-6. The four-cylinder engine increases in capacity from 2.4 to 2.5 liters and is essentially a new unit that also gets variable valve timing. Power and torque have risen from 155 horsepower and 156 pound-feet to 180 horses and 181 pound-feet, comfortably exceeding both the 2002 Camry and Accord. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, but most customers will shell out for the four-speed automatic. The 3.5-liter V-6 is part of the stonking VQ engine family and makes a most healthful 240 horsepower and 246 pound-feet of torque, smoking the Accord and the Camry. Unlike the Accord, the Altima V-6 can be ordered with either a four-speed automatic or a five-speed manual.
Externally, the Altima is certainly handsome, with a more aggressive stance than its immediate rivals. It's hardly groundbreaking, however. The interior is pretty nice, although Nissan toyed with us at the New York auto show by revealing a car that had more interesting surface treatments than the production model. (The customers in this segment, apparently, prefer dull to flashy.) There are some fine techno finishes, but the standard air-conditioning controls and some of the detailing are less than stellar. It's better than the domestics but no Volkswagen Passat. You can't fault the comfort level, though, because there is plenty of head room, front and back. With the driver's seat set for my admittedly stunted five-foot, eight-inch frame, there is enough rear-seat leg room for me to stretch my legs out completely. It's like a limo. Honestly. The driver has a good time of it, too, with a tilt and telescope steering wheel as standard.
There are three four-cylinder Altimas: the base 2.5, which Nissan says will account for less than one percent of sales; the 2.5S; and the 2.5SL. The base model is a stripper, but the S has cruise control with steering wheel controls, a six-speaker CD radio, air conditioning, power mirrors, and remote keyless entry. The SL gets leather, an eight-way power driver's seat, a Bose eight-speaker audio system with in-dash CD changer, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and a trip computer, among other amenities. A convenience package takes the S up to SL levels, save for the Bose audio and leather seats. The V-6 comes only in SE trim, with a leather package that takes it up to 2.5SL standards. One option we could do without is the hideous woodgrain trim on the center console and window-switch panel.
The Altima is great to drive, something we couldn't have said about the previous car. Along twisting, bumpy roads, it's poised and entertaining, with a fluency that only the new Ford Mondeo (Europe only) betters among front-wheel-drive, mid-size sedans. Where a Passat would be wallowing horribly, both four-cylinder and V-6 Altimas ride flat and true, with great bump absorption and a compliant ride. The four-cylinder, particularly, is very tossable. It changes direction neatly, turns in crisply, and doesn't suffer from big understeer. The V-6, too, was engaging, with a little more initial understeer, a bit more grip, and a stiffer, less cosseting ride. Despite all that grunt, there was no noticeable torque steer, although there is some steering tug as the car follows surface changes. The only disappointing aspect of the chassis is the steering, which is accurate and direct but a little inert and lacking in feel.
The brakes are really good, with excellent progressivity. They're well up to the performance of even the manual V-6, which Nissan says will do 0 to 60 mph in about 7.0 seconds. The four-cylinder engine is lively, but you need to have it spinning above 3500 rpm to keep it on the boil, and it's quite noisy at the top end. The V-6, on the other hand, provides meaningful thrust from 2500 rpm all the way to the 6500-rpm cutoff and is as smooth as a British aristocrat. The automatic transmissions are, typically for a Japanese car, paragons, but the cable linkages on the manuals are notchy.
Most buyers won't drive their Altimas like sports cars, so they will be more interested in the refined highway cruising; in this setting, engine and tire noise are muted, although wind whip is only average. The freeway ride, particularly on the four-cylinder models with sixteen-inch tires, is superb. This is a very easy car to guide along a highway. Just like a Camry, in fact.
The Altima is a mighty fine effort. It's not as good as a Passat inside, but then nothing in this class is. Still, it's roomy, refined, and easy to live with, and it has more verve than the opposition. That's a quality we used to expect from Nissan, and we're glad that spirit seems to have been rediscovered. The Altima is not trying to be a Camry, and that's definitely a good. Nissan says the Altima will be priced comparably to the Accord and the Camry (no surprises there) and expects to make 190,000 in 2002, up from the old model's 135,000 volume. As with its direct rivals, only 20 percent of sales will be V-6s, which is all right with us, because there's a liveliness and lightness to the four-cylinder that actually makes it more appealing.