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.