New and exciting products were a big part of the solution when Carlos Ghosn first blew in to right Nissan's wagon in 1999, and one of the first eye-openers to come out during his watch was the new, larger Altima of 2002. It quickly became a bestseller in America, surpassing all targets to sell a record (and almost Accord- and Camry-like) 255,000 units last year. But products grow stale in hypertime nowadays, and as Nissan's overall sales cool off in a most un-Honda- and un-Toyota-like fashion, a new Altima has arrived to lead another charge.
Its predecessor made waves because it was boldly styled and offered a lot of power for the money. The new one broadly extends the formula--with more subtle, Infiniti-inspired lines--while addressing the primary concerns buyers and the media had about the last model, mainly the quality of interior plastics (notably better now, especially if you don't look too closely--at the back of the glove box, for instance); soggy handling (now sharper, thanks to wider use of aluminum in the all-independent suspension, tauter damping, and reduced body roll); and pronounced torque steer (reduced by equalizing half-shaft angles).
The old package seemed pretty good to us, but, honey, they shrunk the Altima's wheelbase 0.9 inch, placing it even more squarely in the Camry league--the two cars now share a wheelbase exactly. The change allows for a 2.5-inches-shorter car, addressing the complaints of some female owners that it was too long. While the resulting incursion into front legroom and headroom is negligible, there are three counterintuitive inches of additional rear legroom to make up for it.
Because more oats are always in good taste, Nissan's ubiquitous 3.5-liter V-6 has been massaged to deliver twenty more horsepower (up to 270 hp) and 258 lb-ft of torque, thanks to lower-friction materials and improved cylinder-head cooling. An even more dramatically revised version of its class-topping QR25 2.5-liter four boasts greater power in California (up to 170 hp from 158 hp),while holding steady everywhere else at 175 hp, with a dividend in reduced NVH. Both models deliver superior acceleration and improved fuel economy. With the standard six-speed manual, the V-6 model posts 29 highway mpg, while the large-displacement four returns a commendable 35 mpg. While other manufacturers continue to ponder the CVT, Nissan cozies up further to the stepless transmission. Its newfound ability to read drivers' wishes to deliver instant acceleration--and mileage on par with the manual--make it an appealing alternative.
The Altima is still not the keenest driver's machine, but it's faster, crisper, and safer than ever, and it's less stodgy than a Camry. At this price--less than $20,000--it's back in the race.