Versus the competiton:
Don’t you love those car and truck commercials which feature the sponsor vehicle performing exciting acts of derring-do . . . with a line of type the bottom of the screen, even smaller than what they use to spell out details, which says, “Professional driver on closed course. Do not attempt.”?
We’ve been treated with a heavy dose of such visuals touting the new Nissan Altima. I was accordingly a bit disappointed that my first taste of the revised model was to be the four-cylinder version, instead of the V-6 beastie featured in the ads.
In the end, however, the emotion changed to a deep appreciation for what Nissan hath wrought.
The 2002 edition is totally different from the one that preceded. The progenitor’s theme was budget-priced luxury feel, while the watchword with the new is excitement.
The generation introduced in 1998 is generally regarded as a flop; this one is probably going to cannibalize sales of Nissan’s own Maxima, it’s so appealing. The exterior projects a sophisticated, clean, modern luxury look.
The new Altima is bigger in every dimension than its predecessor, most notably in wheelbase, which has grown by 7.1 inches, to 110.2. This promises, and delivers, not just more interior room but a better ride, too, with less pitching a given.
The track – the distance between the centerlines of the tires on each axle – is up nearly two inches in front and a bit more than two inches rear, for greater stability in the roll axis. The new Altima is also two inches higher, with a higher seating position to give smaller drivers a more-commanding sense of the road. We big folks might have preferred more headroom, but there’s enough seat movement to allow fairly accommodative tailoring.
As a result of the dimensional differences, interior volume has jumped by nearly 9 percent, to 103.2 cubic feet, which bests arch-rivals Toyota Camry and Honda Accord which, curiously, both afford the same 101.7 c.f.
Not only does the new edition feel roomier, it feels much more solid, a function of its greatly-enhanced torsional rigidity. Subjectively, the sensation was of moving up-market a couple of notches.
The Altima is produced in four series: Base, S, SL and SE. The cheapest point of entry is $16,889, with freight. That gets you a base series with four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission; this “value leader” probably exists only in the minds of the advertising department, since it lacks air conditioning and other popular enhancements such as keyless entry, cruise control and remotely-adjustable mirrors. The S and SL stages feature more goodies and can be had with a manual or automatic transmission, but still have the four-banger. The SE is distinguished by having a 3.5-liter V-6. It starts at $22,889.
The “S” I tested didn’t seem so austere, but cost-cutting was evident on the inside, the various plastics not even trying to look inviting. T hree “environments” – different interior trim details – are offered, the least offensive of which is probably charcoal, rather than blond or frost.
The base engine is a 2.5-liter double-overhead-cammer which is appreciably more potent than the old 2.4. This one spits out 175 hp (up 20) and 180 foot-pounds of torque (up 24). Those are boosts that register on the seat-of-pants meter.
Indeed, it was surprising how lively the tested Altima S was, especially since it had the automatic transmission. The V-6-powered SE would be a whole ‘nother ball game, with its 240 hp and 246 foot-pounds, but the four-holer gets the job done quite well.
It felt peppy from standing starts, and on the highway, handled merges and passes with facility. Its power peak is achieved at a lofty 6,000 rpm – a number it attains with eagerness – but thanks to infinitely-variable valve timing and a dual-stage intake, it makes usable amounts of go just beyond idle range.
With the automatic, it is EPA-rated at 23 mpg city, 29 highway. I was pleased with my tally of 23.8, considering the see-if-it-will-break exercises and the monsoon rains the car had to endure. Mere 87-octane gas suffices. I was particularly impressed with how stable the car felt when running swiftly through deep standing water. It doggedly maintained its course even when one front wheel was in deeper than the other.
The Altima S rides on 16-inch wheels wrapped in grippy, all-season 205/65 tires. Its steering was fairly light and quick, with good on-center feel and fidelity to the line dialed in on the freeway, though it was far too numb to be described as sporty. Nissan does not cite a turning radius, but it seemed rather large for a car of this class.
Ride quality was very good. Shocks and springs seemed well matched, damping road roughness without becoming too floaty.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has released results of its side-impact tests, but not yet those for frontal collisions. Unfortunately, there are better places to be T-boned than in the Altima. NHTSA gives it just three stars for frontal occupant protection, four for those in the rear, on its five-point scale. The Accord, without side air bags, gets four stars front and rear, while the 2002 Camry has not yet been tested. (The 2001 four-door Camry got three stars front and rear.)
You’d fare better in a frontal impact, according to the smash-em-ups at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). In their test, which involves an offset crash at 40 mph into a deformable barrier, simulating a head-on crash with another vehicle, the 2002 Altima garnered a score of “good,” their top rating. Their dummy moved around more than they like, and showed the possibility of some harm to its left foot and leg, winning merely “acceptable” in those two categories. The 2002 Camry did better, and was rated good and a best pick in the class of inexpensive midsize cars. The 2002 Accord was the worst of the three, with an overall rating of “acceptable,” the second-highest.
The new Altima suffered an average of $775 damage in IIHS’s suite of four, 5-mph bumper bashes. This is anomalously much worse than the $428 recorded for the 2000 edition, probably because the new bumper integration, while sleek, leads to more body damage. The Camry’s average repair was $527; 2002 Accord has not been tested.
Brakes on the S are ventilated discs front, solid discs rear. They produced a satisfying, well-modulated pedal feel as well as ingratiatingly short stopping distances.
Dual front air bags are standard, of course. If you want to up your survival odds, for $749 you can add a package which brings antilock, brake assist, front-seat side air bags and head curtain air bags – a good investment, I’d say.
The entertainment center on the S had a package upgrade which gave it six speakers and an AM-FM-CD front end. It was adequate. Audiophiles are offered a Bose upgrade for $899, which must be bundled with other options packages. The tester had but one addition, a $1,679 “convenience package,” which, among other small bits, brought the enhanced stereo, alloy wheels, power driver’s seat with adjustable lumbar support, trip computer, auto on/off headlamps and steering wheel controls for radio and air conditioning. With that addition and freight, total suggested price was $21,068.
At that, payments would be $427, assuming 20 percent down, 10 percent interest and 48 coupons. Edmunds.com transaction surveys suggest you can probably shave $1,000 from the bottom line with some savvy negotiating.
It’s possible to special-order an Altima, because they’re made in Tennessee, by a workforce which seems to be still sorting out the details of fit and finish on a new model. There were a couple of rattles and a couple of interior panels did not fit to today’s standards.