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After years of slugging it out (and ending up on the canvas) with the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, Nissan's Altima is ready for a rematch. A "training" program for 2002 has resulted in a bigger, faster and stronger Altima, and Nissan is confident that its middleweight is ready to take on the best in its class.
Introduced in 1993, the original Altima wasn't a bad effort. Far from it, as Nissan's mid-size family sedan entry was well built, had more power than its four-cylinder rivals and usually sold for less. A redesign in 1998 gave this platform four more years, but it still existed in the shadows of the popular Accord and Camry.
Well, now things are different. The completely redesigned 2002 Altima is vastly improved over the old model. A larger body with a more spacious cabin, available V6 power and a sophisticated chassis highlight the big changes to Nissan's mainstream midsizer.
The new Altima has been increased in virtually every dimension. At 110.2 inches, the wheelbase is up by 7.1 inches, which means that rear passengers have more room to stretch their legs out. Length is now 191.5 inches, an increase of 5.7 inches; height is bumped up 2 inches and width increased by 1.3 inches. Overall, the '02 Altima has 9 more cubic feet of passenger room, yet a weight increase of only 70 pounds compared to the '01 version. The use of aluminum for the hood and trunk panels contributes to the minimal weight gain. The bigger Altima is also stronger; structural integrity has been increased by 170 percent, meaning less chassis flex and a decrease in noise, vibration and harshness. And this more commodious cabin is wrapped in a handsome and aggressive new body style that Nissan claims was inspired by a crouching tiger. Umm...OK. In any case, the Altima's newly buff bod possesses a presence that the old Altima never had.
Borrowing an idea from Audi with its different "Atmosphere" interior schemes, the Altima is available with three distinct choices for interior decor. Charcoal, Blond or Frost cabin colors are accented by simulated wood or faux titanium accents on the dash and door panels. The dashboard features a sporty, three pod instrument layout and an uncluttered center stack with the stereo up high to afford easy access. Thoughtful and uncommon features in this class include a tilt and telescopic steering wheel, a power point inside the center console (ideal for charging a cell phone) and, on higher-end models, steering wheel-mounted controls for the stereo and a trip computer. The only gripe we had concerned the displays for the stereo and climate controls; they washed out in direct sunlight, making them hard to read.
Four models will be offered: the base 2.5, 2.5 S, 2.5 SL and 3.5 SE. The 2.5, although it has a tilt/telescopic steering wheel, multi-adjustable driver seat and intermittent wipers, is otherwise lacking in luxury as neither air conditioning nor a stereo is included as standard equipment. Nissan expects the 2.5 to account for only 1 percent of total Altima sales. When we asked, "Why bother?" the rep's answer was so that Nissan could offer Internet shoppers a low starting price point for the Altima. We figured that Nissan doesn't want to give away any marketing advantage. If Honda and Toyota offer strippo versions of the Accord and Camry, why shouldn't Nissan with the Altima?
As far as the rest of the lineup goes, the "S" adds air conditioning, cruise control, a stereo with CD player, power windows/locks/mirrors and keyless entry. SL upgrades include leather seating, trip computer, power driver seat, security system, auto-dimming rearview mirror, HomeLink universal transmitter and a Bose audio system with in-dash six-disc CD changer and steering wheel controls. The 3.5 SE versions aren't as loaded as the SL, but have a few features more than the S, such as the trip computer, security system, illuminated visor mirrors and a V6 engine. Options include a leather seating/Bose audio package, high-intensity discharge (HID) headlights, a power sunroof and a "Cold" package that comes with heated outside mirrors and seats.
In terms of safety, the Altima offers the latest technology in occupant protection: side-impact curtain airbags. These roof-mounted bags offer protection for rear-seat occupants as well as those riding in front and are combined in a package that includes front seat side-impact bags. Other peace-of-mind features include dual-stage front airbags that vary the force of deployment according to the severity of the impact (for example, full-force deployment would be used only in a severe impact), optional traction control (for automatic V6 models), optional antilock brakes that incorporate state-of-the-art technology and a standard LATCH (lower anchors and tethers for children) child seat anchor system.
As with the naming of most German cars, the Altima's numeric nomenclature refers to the engine size in liters. Thus, the 2.5s are powered by a 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine, while the 3.5 SE has a 3.5-liter V6. Both engines are potent the four-cylinder engine puts out 180 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque while the V6 cranks out 240 horses and 246 lb-ft of twist. As of this writing, the Altima's underhood muscle crushes the competition, whose fours top out at around 150 horsepower and whose sixes develop around 200 ponies. Both Altima engines boast continuously variable valve timing and "drive by wire" throttle control that replaces the traditional cable with a more precise electronic controller. The new engines are environmentally sound, as well; the inline four qualifies as an Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) and the V6 rates as a Low Emission Vehicle (LEV). Transmission choices for either engine are a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic.
Four-wheel disc brakes are standard, with an antilock system (ABS) optional. Included with the ABS are EBD (electronic brake force distribution, which gives the most braking power to the wheels with the best grip) and Brake Assist (which supplies full braking power when the brake pedal is applied suddenly, such as in a panic stop situation).
Nissan engineers also gave the suspension a serious overhaul. The all-independent design uses aluminum components to save weight, and the rear suspension is a multilink arrangement borrowed from the Skyline, Nissan's home-market supercar. Big rubber is standard on all Altimas: Four-cylinder models wear 205/65R16 treads, while the V6 version gets 215/55R17s on alloy wheels.
So, does it all work? Based on our initial impressions, we can answer that with a resounding yes. We first sampled an automatic 2.5S, whose powerteam impressed us with its smooth and solid pull from 2,000 rpm to redline as well as its quick downshifts and jolt-free gear changes. Handling dynamics were on the sporty side, with crisp turn-in response and a lack of body roll when flicking the 2.5 S through twisty sections of tarmac. A compliant ride and easily modulated braking completed this Altima's well-rounded performance.
Next up was the 3.5 SE with the five-speed. The V6's power was apparent right off the bat, and its delivery was so unrestrained that we had to keep an eye on the speedo for fear of getting a ticket. Working the manual gearbox, we noted a satisfying feel and slop-free action through the gates, even when driving aggressively. Running through a series of S-curves, handling composure was similar to the 2.5 S, with a slightly sharper feel in the transitions. We would assume the increased athleticism is due to the wider and lower-profile tires that the 3.5 SE has over the 2.5 models. While we were simulating a panic stop, a stab to the (ABS-equipped) 3.5 SE's brake pedal resulted in a dead-straight and drama-free arrest of momentum.
After the ride-and-drives ended, we reviewed our notes taken at the product briefing and saw that Nissan expects Altima sales to account for 25 percent of the company's total sales. With such a knockout on its hands, we don't imagine Nissan will have trouble hitting that mark.