Ingrid Loeffler Palmer, Contributor
Years ago, in the tiny one-stop-sign-town of Maybee, Michigan, my mother's oldest brother was sittin' on a tree stump one day when a few of his younger siblings came along. They noticed that the stump he was sitting on was that of a Cedar tree and somehow, my uncle emerged from this encounter with the nickname Cedar. And it stuck. Well, Uncle Cedar is now well into his eighties and living in Florida, and I doubt he's spending much of his time sitting on uncomfortable tree stumps. That is, unless he's been riding around in a 1998 Nissan Altima GXE.
My first comment after driving the Altima on the highway for 45 minutes was: "My back is killing me this justifies a massage!" The driver's seat has no lumbar support at all; you might as well be sitting on a tree stump for all your back will know. If I had purchased this car myself, I would surely have invested in a small back pillow to ease the pain.
Back pain aside, however, the redesigned 1998 Altima has a lot going for it. When the first-generation car debuted five years ago, it was an instant success, snatched up by young and old alike. This year, Nissan gave their hot-selling midsize sedan a complete makeover, adding standard luxuries such as wood-tone trim, dual airbags and CD players on most of the models-while keeping the cost down.
Nissan engineers struggled to satiate their customers by not changing too many features on the new model, yet still making needed improvements. They retained the thick A- and C-pillar structure, but added a few inches in both length and width for a roomier interior. The 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine makes 150 horsepower at 5,600 rpm, treating both drivers and passengers to a gutsy show of power and making up for the fact that there is only one engine option on all four trim levels. And, thanks to the 20 percent increase in platform rigidity, the '98 Altima handles well and is still fun to drive.
Even our test car, which wasn't equipped with any of the fancy optional items like power sunroof, alloy wheels and remote keyless entry, offered a feeling of luxury at an affordable price. Granted, you won't get the same charge that occurs when you slide behind the wheel of a plush Mercedes-Benz, but then, you won't get those $650 monthly payments, either. And that in itself can be a luxury.
Having had a chance to drive the Altima earlier in the year, our editorial staff voiced several opinions about the 1998 models. Interior ergonomics felt right and stereo performance was excellent; on that, we could all agree. One editor was happy to see that the car had shed its lozenge-shaped exterior in favor of more distinct styling, including cuts and creases on the hood which make the vehicle's corners more visible to the driver. Yet others mumbled about the cheap tin feel of the metal and likened it to driving around inside a tuna can.
Other complaints included the smashed-looking stout rear of the car, the lack of interesting color options for '98 (too many "putrid" earth tones), and its "buzzy engine." We were also disappointed that the Altima didn't have ABS since it is standard on many competing models.
"Well, the Altima is all grown up," commented one fellow editor as he stepped out of the GXE after taking it for a spin around Colorado's Front Range. He mentioned that the ride was smoother, the build more solid and the interior more sophisticated than its predecessor. While I agreed with most of his comments, the Altima still has a way to go before it rises to the pinnacle of adulthood.
The common denominator, though, was that the car just didn't excite anyone. The fatal flaw in Nissan's plan to "not mess up the Altima" was that they were too cautious in their redesign. We would've liked to see things jazzed up a little.
Nissan boasts that the Altima is "the affordable luxury midsize sedan," but we have to point out that there are similar buys out there: the Ford Contour/Mercury Mystique both offer a V6 and a lower price tag, the Chevrolet Malibu LS comes with more standard equipment and a V6, the Buick Century throws in a V6 for the same price, the Subaru Legacy L Sedan gets you all wheel drive for an extra $1500, and the Plymouth Breeze, Mitsubishi Galant ES, Mazda 626 LX, Honda Accord LX and Dodge Stratus ES are all in the same price range as the Nissan.
Still, for the $18,539 sticker price, this family sedan remains competitive in its class-even if you can tell where the cost-cutting came in. Don't disregard this smooth-driving car, but we suggest you look at all your options and be sure to check for comfortable seats.
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