The Altima has been a Nissan mainstay, and like most successful family sedans, there are a variety of models from which to choose.

While the 250-horsepower V-6 is fun, the rising price of gasoline makes the four-cylinder appealing because it uses less fuel and has a lower sticker price.

A redesigned 2007 goes on sale in the fall, but in the meantime Nissan is offering a four-cylinder Special Edition of the 2.5 S with anti-lock brakes and side-impact and side-curtain airbags. The price starts at $20,100 with the automatic transmission, and that is the model I drove. Popular options such as a power driver's seat, cargo net, automatic headlights, remote keyless entry, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls and a trip computer are grouped into Trip and Comfort packages.

The 2.5-liter, 16-valve engine produces 175 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque. Cars sold in California and the Northeast lose five horsepower because of tighter emission controls.

The four-cylinder engine features a silent chain drive and a balancer system that effectively negates vibrations. It has variable valve timing and an electronically controlled throttle. Transmission choices include a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission. The V-6 gets a five-speed automatic.

The 2.5-liter engine is rated at 23 miles per gallon in the city and 29 on the highway. I averaged 29 mpg on a highway trip, but it seemed like more because the 20-gallon fuel tank gives a long range between fill-ups.

The four-cylinder has more than adequate city acceleration. On the highway, it was quiet and smooth, with plenty of reserve power for passing or climbing hills.

Last year Nissan redesigned the Altima's interior with a new instrument panel, three-spoke steering wheel, new upholstery, chrome accents and chrome door handles. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes.

The new instrument panel slopes away from the front-seat passengers so the cabin feels more spacious, and getting in and out is now easier. The speedometer, tachometer and auxiliary gauges are housed in an attractive three-pod instrument cluster.

The center of the dash contains a small storage compartment that probably houses a navigation system on more expensive models. Buttons for the radio were flat and close together.

The Special Edition cloth seats were comfortable and covered in a fabric that looked as if it would be durable.

The split-folding rear seat adds convenience for hauling long items.

The Altima's suspension makes extensive use of aluminum pieces, and that not only helps to keep curb weight in check but it also makes the car handle better. The Special Edition has a fairly plush ride, yet it feels agile and athletic without resorting to the harshness of a sports suspension. Enthusiasts who want scintillating performance should check out the 260-horsepower SE-R.

Anti-lock brakes also have electronic brake force distribution to optimize braking if the car is fully loaded, and brake assist, which applies maximum braking in an emergency stop.

The base price of the test car was $20,100. Options included a power driver's seat, cargo net, automatic headlights, remote keyless entry, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, trip computer and chrome wheels. The sticker price was $23,175.

Three years or 36,000 miles.

At A Glance

Point: The economically priced Altima 2.5 S Special Edition is a good compromise between economy and performance. The four-cylinder engine is smooth, it gets reasonably good fuel economy and has more than adequate power for most conditions.

Counterpoint: Side airbags and anti-lock brakes should be standard equipment.