Nissan is a capable, creative producer of quality cars and a company that risked wisely and well with the Maxima sedans and two decades of sporty Zs.

But sales are wan, and worsening. Apparently, people are no longer enjoying the ride and don't care if they never see it. Even television's unfathomable Mr. K, purveyor of both billboard marketing slogans, is quietly hoping his Jack Russell terrier can land a few Alpo commercials. . . .

Last month, the 1998 Nissan Altima mid-size went on sale as a less expensive, larger, longer, wider, smoother and quieter redesign of the company's bestseller. But those who inhale and close one eye when speaking serious opinions say that, as a comeback car, the new Altima just doesn't come far enough. . . .

Could be.

For Nissan, which once delivered zesty and revolutionary cars--due in large part to a wry, feisty, fresh-thinking Jerry Hirschberg, president of Nissan Design International in La Jolla--seems to have put its courage on hold and settled for a constrained and evolutionary Altima.

See it more as a new Windbreaker over old workings.

The 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine is the same as last year; so are the 150horsepower and 154 pounds of torque it produces. Even the new silhouette--despite styling creases and accent edges that imply a more formal, better tailored station in life--is still more minor make-over than major reshaping.

But, explains Nissan, 700,000 loyal Altimasters and misses can't be wrong. When polled, owners and potential buyers said gentle tweaks and mild enhancements are improvement enough, so why mess with a winning shape and proven mechanicals?

Hirschberg has faced his questioners and promised this: "We won't evolve the next Altima. By then, it will have established itself and we can shake the cage."

Churls might ask, with 700,000 buyers already in the cage, how many does it take to create an establishment?

Or,with Altima getting thrashed in the mid-size marketplace by Accord, Camry and Taurus, and by more than 2 to 1, maybe it was time to put the old cage out for the Salvation Army and build an exciting, sassy new one.


Amid all this suspicion and supposition, paradoxes loom huge: Competent Nissan is faltering, brilliant advertising isn't getting its hooks into sales--and yet the 1998 Altima, in its early gears at least, is one of the sweetest little performers in its age group. It's also classy, comfortable and kept affordable by a canny parent that hasn't cluttered the lineup and production costs with coupes, wagons, convertibles and an off-road van.

Nissan is all over the competition on price.

By cost-cutting more than $1,500 from the sticker on the volume-leading GXE with automatic, the Altima is priced to the penny alongside the entry-level, lesser equipped four-cylinder, four-door Honda Accord DX with a 5-speed.

But the upper-class, leat her-lined, automatically transmitted, power-equipped Altima GLE is priced at $19,890 against its counterpart Accord EX at $22,650. While the Toyota Camry four-banger also starts higher and tops out pricier than Altima.

Nods go to Nissan for power and handling.

Altima is beefier than Accord and Camry in horsepower and torque. Our test car--the slightly more athletic SE with a 5-speed--certainly showed itself to be stiffer and flatter, with sharper steering. A chassis with cross members and a tougher underbody platform seems much firmer; tires and 15-inch alloy wheels offer better grip; a standard double overhead camshaft squeezes extra muscle from those four cylinders; and the track is 1.6 inches wider for an improved stance during spirited maneuvering. All of which makes the Altima just that much more fun.

But despite additional horsepower, no matter twin cams, the only engine refinements have been a switch to lighter pistons, with a reduction in camsha t and crankshaft friction.

That adds oomph to performance at lower RPMs, but the car develops tired blood when getting into the 70s. Try sprinting to stay ahead of traffic lumping like cheap chutney, and it's better to ignore your senses and jam the shifter into a gear that seems too low for existing speed.

The interior is very nicely executed. There's a mite more shoulder and leg room, allowing for a broader range of driving positions. All comfortable, all pleasantly insulated from the din of wind, road, tires and madding crowds. And it all feels quite expensive, even solicitous, thanks to concerned touches--such as a center console shaped to hold a tissue box.

External styling, as discussed, will offend no one.

Nor will it impress many.

The changes are far too subtle. The grille looks too much like a Maxima peering from a front end that's a mild, but very routine, rearrangement. Overall, Altima does not stand out in a crowd.


The ultimate sadness of Altima is that it treads no new ground, mechanically or visually, and its future rests solely on being a little more for far less.

That will keep Nissan parallel with four-cylinder versions of the Toyota Camry that was drastically revised last year.

It will not improve Altima's position against the new, improved and incoming 1988 Honda Accord. It now matches Altima's horsepower and offers increased torque. It also will be roomier, and with more equipment for the same price as this year's four-cylinder Accord.

As Mr. K might say: Love cars, love people, love life--but save a little space for small prayers.

1998 Nissan Altima SE The Good: Priced less than last year, less than the competition, and offers more power. Performs as well as Accord and Camry. Roomier, with yawning trunk and fashionable interior. Pleasantly styled. The Bad: That pleasant styling. Mid-range acceleration not best in class. The Ugly: Corporate frowns as Nissan struggles to find something that works.

Cost: Base: $18,490 (includes alloy wheels, power steering, air-conditioning, power windows and locks, lite-deployment air bags, cruise control, keyless entry, 100-watt sound system with CD). As tested, $21,600 (adds anti-lock brakes, leather seats, power sunroof).

Engine: 2.4-liter, 16-valve, in-line four developing 150 horsepower.

Type: Front-engine, front-drive, mid-size sedan.

Performance: 0-60 mph, as tested, 9.0 seconds, with 5-speed. Top speed, electronically governed, 112 mph. Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway, 24 and 31 mpg.

Curb Weight: 2,921 pounds.