America's most popular mid-size cars--in order of September sales superiority--are Honda Accord, Ford Taurus and Toyota Camry. Nissan's new Altima sedan aims to topple that triumvirate. It could take a ton of shoving. As veteran incumbents, Accord, Taurus and Camry have enjoyed long, splendid terms in office. Altima is only a heartbeat away from the Stanza it replaces--a car that pattered few hearts and was outsold 7-1 by the Accord. Each of the triumphant trio is a reliable, well engineered, Euro-styled motor car of high value. A 3.0-liter V-6 is standard with Taurus. That engine is an option with Camry, and a new powerful six-banger should be available in the upcoming remake of Accord. Altima's only engine is an inline-four. Honda comes as a sedan, wagon and coupe. Taurus is available as a wagon and a super high-performance sedan. Thanks to shared mechanicals, the larger-engined version of the Camry is actually a Lexus ES300 in a less expensive suit. Altima, built in Smyrna, Tenn., is available only as a four-door. There are only $5 and $10 price differences--nickels and dimes no longer apply in this economy--among Altima, Accord, Camry and Taurus. And by any general measurement of shoulder and trunk space, wheelbase and width, the old guard still outscores Altima. So where is Nissan's opening? PERFORMANCE AND STYLING Although Altima's engine is four cylinders, it has been transferred from Nissan's 240SX sport coupe. That translates to 150 horsepower--or 10 horsepower more than Taurus gets from its V-6and 25 more than Accord. And for those still hung up on the snobbery and throb of six-cylinders, Nissan will refer potential customers to its muscular Maxima. In the looks department, Camry was new for '92, but Accord and Taurus have received only face lifts for the last few years. As with real noses and eyelids, cosmetic enhancement eventually shows through. Altima, however, is kissing fresh from Nissan Design International at La Jolla. This was the studio that brought us the Infiniti J30, all ovals and capsules with just a hint of droop. That the Altima displays similar lines--right down to elliptical door handles that are an Infiniti hallmark--is no coincidence. Even the basic Altima XE--opening a four-vehicle lineup stretching to a $20,000 version with power sunroof, automatic air, anti-lock brakes and CD--is thoroughly equipped. It delivers power steering and mirrors, tilt wheel, remote releases for trunk and gas cap, tachometer and driver's-side air bag for $13,300. There's also cut-pile carpeting and a sliver of richly polished faux wood across the dashboard to justify press release references to "luxury appointments." A Nissan spokesman says it will be a warm January day in Detroit before anyone else produces "this kind of car for that kind of money." He also agrees that Accord, Camry and Taurus fans carry loyalties larger than many religions. So who knows when, if ever, the mid-size market will quiver before the threat of Altima the alternate. This would certainly be an opportune moment for a successful total invasion. Nissan, struggling hard to realign its reputation away from pure performance cars, recently announced a monumental $178-million loss for the first half of this year. The test car was a GXE production prototype, always a risky proposition. They are prone to minor misalignments or careless connections made during their mechanical infancy. Despite this potential for isolated squeaks and wobbles, the Altima--equipped with a four-speed automatic--performed like a well-maintained second-generation car. The set and feel of its components, from the fit of doors to suspension response, were taut and well-orchestrated. It is a balanced car, one that is sedate in turgid traffic but crisp a d responsive when the road opens. Whether feathering or stomping, the combination front disk/rear drum brakes gives precisely what foot and mind request. The automatic transmission allows smooth application of power--thanks to electronic enhancement--that continues through hefty kick downs for emergency moments. And bless those who equipped the car with an overdrive button to add to the pleasure of afternoon outings around coastal twisty bits. On the aforementioned asphalt corkscrew, the rear suspension of the car is an absolute wonder. It causes the rear wheels to toe in with angles that answer cornering and braking forces. It's a form of passive four-wheel steering similar to that of the new Volvo 850. It adds much to the security of the car's rear end during those times when maneuvering requires one's undivided attention. As a handler, the Altima is a Boy Scout and a clear equal of Accord, Camry and Taurus. All are honest, loyal and true, with zero bad habits. As a performance car, some might find Altima lacking. They could also dispute Nissan's claim that its 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine matches a V-6. One Honda driver who sampled the Altima resorted to stealing Lloyd Bentsen's line: "This car is no Honda Accord." Altima's lines are fluid but relatively unexclusive in this era of teardrops and jelly beans, slippery ovoids and flying wedges. The front end is jarring. There's a double-gash grille, with the top slit backed by a mesh that looks like a set of mini-blinds. Beneath that, a broad gape is broken by three intake dams. Not a pretty sight. The interior is marked by a simplicity and a predictability that boil down to ergonomic reliability. And it is not over plasticized. Bucket seats are supportive and adjust well. All is as it should be--save the driver's power window and locking switches. It's difficult to separate the two by finger touch. The door switch is marked bya symbol that could be a key, could be a baby's rattle. Should Nissan get into revamping Altima doors for 1994, the company might consider junking mechanical seat belts. What once was a quick, convenient fix to meet passive restraint regulations has become gross nuisance. These days, with driver's-side air bags almost universal, there is neither reason nor requirement for mechanical belts. Their time is done. It remains to be seen if Altima's time has come. 1993 Nissan Altima GXE The Good Definitely a middleweight contender by handling, finish, value. Styling edge on competition. Well priced. Pleasant, familiar interior. The Bad Mechanical seat belts. Four-cylinder engine not up to six-cylinder snuff. The Ugly Mesh and gash front grille. Cost Base $14,849 As tested, $16,199 (automatic transmission, air conditioning, cruise control, AM-FM cassette stereo, driver's- side air bag). Engine 2.4-liters, 16 valves, four cylinders, developing 150 horsepower. Type Four-passenger, front-drive, mid-size sedan. Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, with automatic, 9.5 seconds. Top speed, estimated, 118 m.p.h. Fuel consumption (automatic) EPA city and highway, 21 and 29 m.p.g. Curb Weight 2,972 pounds.
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