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.