EXPERT REVIEW

chicagotribune.com's view

Having driven the Nissan Altima in the SE sports form, we tried it in the top-of-the-line, luxury GLE version.

The GLE gets the nod, if for no other reason than it comes with 15-inch, all-season radial tires as standard, and the SE comes with “summer tires.” When moisture grips the road, you want all-season radials, not low-profile, high-performance summer tires, designed for speed.

As with the SE, the 1993 GLE is wider, roomier and quieter than the Stanza, which the Altima replaces. The GLE’s four-wheel independent suspension with front and rear stabilizer bars also means good road manners.

The GLE comes with the same 16-valve, 2.4-liter, 150-h.p., 4-cylinder engine as the SE, but only with a four-speed automatic transmission. The SE comes with a five-speed manual. The engine offers good pep, but it’s not a powerhouse. Still, the engine/transmission is relatively quiet. The car is spared the squeaks and rattles that plagued the Stanza. The mileage rating is 21 m.p.g. city/29 highway.

Nissan bills Altima as a midsize sedan, yet it’s built on a 103.1-inch wheelbase and is 180.5 inches long. The midsize Honda Accord, by comparison, is built on a 107.1-inch wheelbase and is 185.2 inches long. In our opinion, Altima is a compact, like the Chevrolet Corsica, which is built on a 103.4-inch wheelbase and is 183.4 inches long.

If you’ve been swayed by those TV commercials featuring the glass balancing act on Altima’s hood, take note of two things: The car is on a platform to level the front end so the glasses will balance on what is a sharply sloping hood, and the + stating that prices start at about $13,000 doesn’t mention that the top-of-the-line GLE, which with the automatic, starts at $18,349. The baseXE model, with a five-speed manual, starts at $13,000.

At $18,349, the compact Altima starts bumping up against the larger Toyota Camry, the Accord and even the Acura Integra. It may be priced like those rivals, but it isn’t in that league.

On the plus side, a driver-side air bag is standard. However, a passenger-side air bag isn’t available, and anti-lock brakes are part of a $1,195 option package. Little niceties include automatic safety belts, a massive trunk and a coin holder in the dash.

What counts most is that Altima is proving to be a success for Nissan. Nissan has said it will boost Altima output in the first quarter to help meet demand.

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