You've got to watch the little guys, the down-and-outs. They have a way of coming back and knocking you silly. All it takes is imagination and the will to win against the odds. Anyone doubting that should take a look at the 2002 Nissan Altima.

It's a contender.

It's going to rock the world of mid-size family sedans.

That means it's going to take sales away from the market-leading Toyota Camry, even the all-new 2002 model, which I'll review in a future column. It's going to do big damage to the Honda Accord, which won't be substantially redesigned until the 2003 model year.

It means really tough going for the nation's Big Two car companies, General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., whose mid-size family sedans are footnotes to truck sales.

It could mean tent folding for the Chrysler car group of DaimlerChrysler AG, which has nothing to compete against the new Altima.

Nissan is upstaging its rivals by outthinking and outflanking them. It's about time. Barely five years ago, Nissan Motor Co. and its North American group, Nissan North America Inc., were on the road to bankruptcy. They were moving in that direction by trying to compete with sameness.

The rival Camry and Accord were bland and boring. Nissan figured that the Altima, which actually began life in 1993 as a hip, retro-styled sedan, should be bland and boring, too. The company scrapped the attractive retro package and replaced it with a motorized ode to mediocrity. It got clobbered in the marketplace.

Now, in its third generation, the Altima is offering something new -- a highly styled, comfortable, wonderfully road-worthy car at an extremely competitive price.

Styling is important. It conveys attitude. The new Altima's low-slung front end with its wide-mouthed grille conveys a sense of power. The high-pocket rear is accented by stacked, round backlights. It looks wealthy, sporty.

The interior is magnificent. It is attractive without being kitschy. There's no fake wood, none of that silliness (at least not in the test car), and there is no fancy, dash-mounted navigation screen, which is of limited use anyway if you can read a paper map and you already know where you are going.

Instead, the new Altima's interior is a work of simple elegance -- three big, round gauges behind the steering wheel; a brushed aluminum, dash-mounted center console; and truly spacious seating for five adults. Leather-faced seats are an option. Overall, the new Altima is larger than its predecessor. The 2002's wheelbase is 110.2 inches, 7.1 inches longer than the old car. Body length, the part of the car that stretches over the wheelbase, is now 191.5 inches, 5.7 inches longer than the old model. The new car is also taller and wider.

Yet, largely through the increased use of aluminum in body and suspension parts, the new Altima feels lighter, tighter than anything in its past . Throw in the optional 240-horsepower V-6 engine, a first for the Altima, and you have a screamer.

I hated giving this one back. I drove it every chance I got. It absolutely thrills me when the little guy gets up from the mat and throws a knockout punch, or dusts himself off and knocks one out of the park. Nissan has done that with the new Altima. The company deserves a standing ovation.