MURFREESBORO, Ark.-Automotive design is much like prospecting for gems at the Crater of Diamonds State Park here. You can scratch, dig and sift the volcanic soil for years and not come up with anything, or you can stumble upon a precious stone lying on the ground on a rain washed summer afternoon.Park officials here, at this the nation's only public diamond mine, say that some visitors have been so lucky. But they speculate that others might have thrown away a fortune because they didn't understand what they had in hand. Those unlucky people easily could have been from Nissan Motor Corp., judging from the looks of the 1998 Nissan Altima, a disappointingly altered version of what had been a true automotive gem. And that's not just me talking. I showed photos of the new Altima to several folks in these parts, including the owner of a 1996 Altima. They all scratched their heads. "What did they do? What did they do to my car?" the Altima owner exclaimed. Similar comments came from a worker at a Fresh Fields store in Northern Virginia, who examined a 1998 Altima GXE in my possession. "They had a neat little car that looked different from everything else," he said, looking at the new, longer and fatter Altima. "Now," he said, "It looks like everything." Background: The Altima saved Nissan's hide in America. The company was losing sales left and right before the elegantly styled mid-size car -- with swooping body lines that flowed from front to rear -- was introduced in 1993. People went gaga over the front-wheel-drive car, buying almost every one that Nissan could turn out -- a bit more than 700,000 cars over the last five years. For a single model in today's competitive market, that's success by any automaker's standard. But Nissan officials figured they had to do something to give their diamond more luster. They figured that Altima buyers, many of them young and single, were getting older, getting married, having children, growing up. Those people,Nissan's designers and marketers said, wanted a bigger, richer-looking car, but one that still could be had at a reasonable Altima price. And they did lots of consumer surveys that they said supported their thinking. The upshot is an Altima that looks like a poor imitation of the Maxima, Nissan's flagship luxury sedan. The new Altima has an almost identical wheelbase to the previous model -- 103.1 inches for the new, compared with 103 inches for the old. But the new car has a greater overall length -- 183.1 inches, vs. its predecessor's 180 inches. And the new car is wider by about two inches front and rear. It still seats five people. They just have a bit more wriggle room. What didn't suffer is the Altima's overall excellent assembly quality. In fact, it's slightly improved. Nissan's engineers say the new car has about 20 percent more body rigidity than the previous model, which was tighter than heck already. Nissan -- thank goodness! -- stayed with its 2 .4-liter, 16-valve, double-overhead cam, inline four-cylinder engine in the new Altima. That little hummer produces 150 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 154 foot pounds of torque at 4,400 rpm. A five-speed manual transmission is standard in the base Altima XE, the better-equipped GXE and the sporty Altima SE. An electronically controlled, four-speed automatic transmission is optional in those cars, but standardin the top-line Altima GLE. Standard brakes also match those of previous Altimas -- power, vented front discs and rear drums. Four-wheel anti-lock brakes are optional. Ah, yes: The new Altimas have Generation II air bags -- the auto industry's code name for new air bags that are engineered to deploy with less force than older air bags. Those new, softer deploying air bags mean that adult drivers had better buckle up. Children under 12, of course, belong in the back seats. 1998 Nissan Altima GXE Complaints: Enough said. Praise: Despite the demise of pas ion in design, the Altima remains a high-quality, mid-size family car that should be on everyone's shopping list -- especially since Nissan wisely has decided to price the 1998 Altima GXE $1,500 below the comparable 1997 model. Head-turning quotient: The young and the restless, both in body and mind, hate the new look. Folks in search of stability and white picket fences seem to like it. Ride, acceleration and handling: Still triple aces in all three categories, despite the fatter body. Excellent braking. The test model was equipped with anti-lock brakes. Sound system: Four-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and cassette installed by Nissan. Very good. Mileage: About 24 miles per gallon (15.9-gallon tank, estimated 370-mile range on usable volume of recommended regular unleaded), combined city-highway, running with one to two occupants and light cargo (13.8 cubic feet of cargo space). Price: Base price on the tested 1998 Altima GXE with automatic transmission is $17,990, compared with $19,498 on the comparably equipped 1997 version. Estimated dealer invoice on the 1998 model is $16,293. Price as tested is $18,959, including $499 in options and a $470 destination charge. Please note that these are preliminary 1998 prices. Purse-strings note: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Value is more substantial, and the 1998 Altima GXE definitely is a good value. Compare with Chevrolet Malibu/Oldsmobile Cutlass, Oldsmobile Intrigue, Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Mazda 626, Ford Taurus, and Chrysler Corp.'s Cloud series (Cirrus, Stratus and Breeze).
|George Moore||IndyStar.com||January 25, 1998|
|Anita And Paul Lienert||The Detroit News||November 26, 1997|
|Paul Dean||Los Angeles Times||August 29, 1997|
|George Moore||IndyStar.com||August 10, 1997|
|Warren Brown||washingtonpost.com||August 8, 1997|
|Larry Printz||The Morning Call and Mcall.com||August 2, 1997|
|Tom Strongman||KansasCity.com||August 1, 1997|
|Bob Golfen||AZCentral.com||July 27, 1997|
|Jim Mateja||chicagotribune.com||July 6, 1997|
|Anita Lienert||The Detroit News||July 2, 1997|
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