It's no picnic being the little guy. That's the lesson the previous Nissan Altima learned over almost a decade, having always been a notch smaller than the Japanese midsize standard-bearers, the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Rather than have a single vehicle to cover the mainstream family-sedan segment, Nissan used a two-prong attack with the four-cylinder Altima and the V-6 Maxima, but neither hit the mega-volume sweet spot. So when Nissan redesigned Altima for 2002, it made sure to directly target the segment's heavy hitters. Today's Altima matches or exceeds the Accord and Camry in nearly every measurement, inside and out. And its engines, both the four-cylinder and the V-6, are the strongest in the class. With its potent powerplants and firmer suspension tuning, the Altima edges a bit more toward sport and away from comfort and refinement. This is particularly true of the Altima SE-R (a special sporty model that joined the lineup in early 2005) and is also evident in the 3.5 SE. The 2005 Altima stands strong in this high-demand segment, offering distinctive style, personality, and performance among vanilla competition.
Compared with its rather bland peer group, the artfully rendered Altima looks distinctive without going to the extreme like the latest Nissan Quest minivan. The Altima's appearance shares much with larger platformmate Maxima, but to some eyes, the smaller car's styling is cleaner than its more garish sibling's. The Altima's rising waistline (the line that follows the base of the door windows) hinders visibility to the rear, however, and its long 110.2-inch wheelbase contributes to a rather large turning circle, which reduces maneuverability in urban driving and tight parking spots. The 3.5 SE has 17-inch alloy wheels, foglights, and an available rear spoiler, but it's the SE-R that gets the major boy-racer exterior treatment, adding lower body sill extensions, larger-diameter dual exhausts, a restyled grille, and 18-inch wheels.
Inside, the Altima is spacious, with comfortable front seats and a roomy back seat. When the current Altima was first introduced, its interior suffered from a surfeit of hard plastic and cheap trim. But for 2005, Nissan significantly improved both the layout and the materials, with a new instrument-panel design, center console, trim finishes, seat materials, headliner, steering wheel, and chrome door handles. The Altima now boasts one of the nicer cabins in the midsize class, though the Honda Accord and Volkswagen Passat are still the leaders in plastic quality and panel fit. Controls and switches in the Altima are straightforward and logical. The top-of-the-line SE-R has distinctive, sporty trim, with leather bucket seats designed for better lateral support and edged with contrasting stitching. Heated seats and leather upholstery are standard on the 3.5 SL and the SE-R and optional on the other models.
The Altima offers a number of safety features, but many of them cost extra. Traction control is available on the V-6-engine cars only (which admittedly need it more than the four-cylinder does), but you can't combine this safety aid with the manual transmission. Anti-lock brakes are standard only on the SE-R; all other models make you pay extra for them. Stability control is not available. Active head restraints (which protect against whiplash) are standard across the board, but side and curtain airbags are optional on all models. It's worth noting that the Altima--like nearly every other model tested--fared poorly in Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) side-impact crash tests performed on cars without the side airbags. However, the Altima received good scores in the IIHS offset front crash and in the government's front crash test.