"Nissan seems to have made a conscious decision to build brand character with niche cars."
Car enthusiasts often get nostalgic about steeped-in-tradition sporty nameplates such as the Chevrolet Corvette, the Ford Mustang, the Porsche 911, and the BMW 3-series. Car enthusiast and associate editor David Zenlea, however, recently filled the notebook of our Four Seasons Nissan Altima with happy remembrances of yesterday’s mid-size Nissan.
“Whenever I think of the Altima,” he wrote, “the redesigned-for-2002 model comes to mind. It had clear taillamps, optional seventeen-inch aluminum wheels, and could be ordered with a 240-hp V-6 and a five-speed manual. Keep in mind, the Toyota Camry of that period had a 192-hp V-6 and looked incredibly bland.
“In other words, the 2002 Altima was pretty cool, at least as far as Japanese mid-size sedans go. Customers noticed. Sales rose from about 137,000 in 2000 to 202,000 by calendar year 2002. Mid-size competitors rushed more powerful V-6 models to market. Meanwhile, young enthusiasts like me woke up to the fact that Nissan was a sporty and youthful brand. At around the same time, the 350Z resurrected the legendary Z-car.”
Readers should note the likelihood that no Z-car will again be mentioned in our 2013 Altima’s logbook. Zenlea went on to explain why: “With the new-for-2013 Altima, Nissan has gone in a very different direction. Rather than try to shake up the segment, this car aims directly for the middle. It seems to me to be the definition of average as far as new mid-size cars are concerned. It’s neither the blandest-looking car in the segment nor the most exciting. It’s quiet, comfortable, and well equipped. The interior materials are acceptable. Some of the switchgear, for instance the seat-heater controls, is pretty old and cheap looking, but I prefer it to the touch-sensitive icons that are currently en vogue.
“The Altima is still a very powerful car, but it’s hardly head and shoulders above anything else in the segment. It isn’t in any way exciting and isn’t in the same class, dynamically, as the Ford Fusion and the Honda Accord. The only remaining hint of character comes from the torquey, somewhat rowdy V-6.
“All of this faint praise is hardly damning. The Altima provides everything mid-size-car buyers have asked for. It’s also important to view the Altima in the context of Nissan’s entire lineup. The company seems to have made a conscious decision to build brand character with niche cars (Cube, Juke, 370Z, GT-R) and to let its mainstream cars, like the Altima, shift back toward, well, the mainstream. It’s hard to argue with that strategy, judging by the car’s continued strong sales. Still, I miss the cool, progressive Altima of my youth.”
Indeed, as the Altima of Mr. Zenlea’s affection has given way to less exciting models, the Nissan has taken bigger bites out of the class-leading Toyota Camry’s lunch. That doesn’t sound very tasty to us, but plenty of mainstream car buyers appreciate that the Altima has grown up.