I got this car as a graduate student in 2000 already with 100000 miles on. 7 years later and now at 253000 miles, it still runs like the first day I got it! I've only started to use premium maintenance parts on it 6 months ago (synthetic oil, good filters, good spark plugs which I doubt played any part in the reliability). It is still giving me up to 36 mpg hwy!! It has no rust - tiny spots on the front due to stone chips easily fixed with a tiny scraper and a touchup paint pen. Engine uses timing chain, superb reliability. Major maintenance in the 7 years was a starter, a clutch, a muffler, CV joint (shaft). Usual parts: batteries, brakes, fluids and oil, filters and struts.
Engine - super reliable, ample power and sips gas slowly. Body rustproofing - holding up very well at 10 years old! 4 wheel disc brakes w/ABS - works great up here in New England snow. Extremely affordable to buy and own! Expect to get 500,000 miles out of it with no major problems.
Change out mediocre sound system (easily done). Awkwardly placed cupholders blocks radio. Plastic headlight lens tend to fade with age. Polishing with a lens polish helps.
I just handed my 1997.5 Altima down to the kids with 158000 miles on it and expect many more good miles from it. The car has been very comfortable and reliable over the years. I did all the scheduled maintenance and the car has been great. I upgraded to the 2007 Altima and the kids are happy to have my old faithful. It should get another 100k miles easy.
I bought the '97 altima in April of '02. After the 1st 6 months of ownership, it was one thing after another. While it only broke down twice, I never really enjoyed the car w/o some lingering minor problem. The car brakes and ride were noisy from day one. The antenna quit working properly after about a year and a half. I was so happy to be rid of that car this year. My comfort and leg room was not great but I'm 6'3" so I accept certain things in life. Overall, if I had to do it all over again, I don't think I would buy it again. There are worse cars to buy for sure, but there are better. Spent over $2000 in repairs in a 2 year span.
wood grain paneling; controls easy to reach
bumpy ride, loud brakes, cupholders are in a poor position next to audio system