EXPERT REVIEW

Orlando Sentinel's view

The new Altima sedan may be just the vehicle to reverse Nissan’s declining fortunes.

The company’s sales have been slowly winding down in recent years in the United States. And for the first time since World War II, Nissan is losing money. The company posted a loss in the fourth quarter of 1992.

But the new Altima sedan seems to be right on target in terms of performance, styling and value.

PERFORMANCE

This week’s test car is a top of-the-line Altima GLE. It sported a 150-horsepower 16-valve four-cylinder.

Performance can be summed up in one word: crisp.

The Altima’s passing power is nothing shy of superb. You are tempted to think there’s a V-6 under the hood as you easily hustle past slower-moving traffic.

Even fully loaded, the Altima is a quick and responsive performer. I packed the test car with four adults and was mildly shocked to find no drop in performance.

However, the engine is not as smooth-running as the television commercial showing crystal glasses resting on the hood of a running Altima would have you believe.

The engine can get a little buzzy as it approaches the upper limits of its 6,000 rpm rev range.

Fuel economy is respectable. The test car averaged 20 mpg in city driving with the air conditioner on and 27 mpg on a 140-mile round trip to New Smyrna Beach.

A word about the car’s four-speed automatic transmission: The one in the test car was suspect. Shifts from third to fourth gear upon hard acceleration were sometimes poor. When cold, the transmission did not shift smoothly into reverse.

HANDLING

For a small car, the Altima GLE has an unusually smooth, sturdy and quiet ride.

The Altima was outfitted with four-wheel independent suspension, four-wheel power disk brakes and power assisted rack and pinion steering.

At first the steering seems a bit a heavy, but the extra pressure it takes to turn the wheel helps to make the compact Altima feel like a bigger car.

The test car came outfitted with Nissan’s optional anti-lock brakes. The system is not too touchy; it engages at just the right time and does a credible job of slowing the car in a panic situation.

Unless you really push the 3,000-poundAltima hard, you are not likely to make the car lose its composure. The body stays straight and does not lean much to either side unless you’re blasting through a tight curve.

FIT AND FINISH

The Altima is a roomy and comfortable small sedan that is thoughtfully designed and assembled.

Cloth-covered bucket seats were standard in the GLE test car, though one can opt for what Nissan calls ”gathered leather.”

In more than 400 miles of driving, I found the seats to be comfortable. But one slight improvement could be made: The headrests, which can be adjusted in height, should also be adjustable to tilt to an angle comfortable for the driver. I found that my head wouldn’t touch the headrest unless I leaned back and stared at the roof.

Passengers complimented the rear seats, which also are a bit firm. Legroom for rear passengers also drew praise.

The trunk is spacious for a small car. Loading and unloading is easy because the lip of the trunk lids extends down to the bumper. That way, you don’t have to lift cargo into the trunk; it slides in at bumper height.

The test car came with an interesting innovation: heads-up display or ”HUD.” The vehicle’s speed is projected on the lower left portion of the windshield in bright digital numbers. With HUD, the driver need not takes his eyes off the road to read the car’s speedometer. Altima’s HUD also displays the turns signals and the car’s warning lights.

HUD is not a Nissan invention, though. It has been optional on several General Motors cars for about the last five years.

Though the accouterments of the Altima are generally first class, there is room for a few minor improvements.

I noticed that passen ers fumbled around the door panels for the power-window switches. Also, the unlighted switch es are difficult to locate at night.

The pop-out cupholder is underneath the radio. Placing two cups in it means you can’t change stations or adjust the radio’s volume. Also, a sudden stop might cause the contents of a cup to slosh into the radio.

The test car was assembled flawlessly.

The car’s styling is unusually classy for a Japanese car. The Altima has touches of Nissan’s Infiniti luxury sedans.

You might have winced at the $19,000 price, but the test car came loaded with options, such as a power sunroof, power windows and door locks and a CD player. Lesser priced version start at about $13,000.

Sales of the Altima, built in Nissan’s Tennessee plant, are off to a brisk start, and the car appears to be sizing up as a major hit for Nissan.

Truett’s tip: Nissan’s new Altima is a cut above most compact sedans. It upholds Nissan’s tradition of exceptional performance and outstanding quality.

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