If the auto industry gave an award for unsung hero, then the Nissan Altima would be a good candidate. Introduced in 1993, this competent family sedan not only out-sold half the cars in its class, but singlehandedly rescued Nissan from becoming an also-ran import brand. Yet while a sales success, the American-made Altima garnered few industry awards, and little public acclaim. So, when it came time for a new Altima, Nissan faced a dilemma; listen to loyal fans and tinker carefully, or go for a big boost in visibility?
Well, they decided to try a little of both, and followed an evolutionary design process that gives the ‘98 Nissan Altima a more mature, upscale appearance, not unlike the Maxima. Yet still maintains the basic flowing design that made it so popular in the first place—a move to keep the nearly 800,000 satisfied Altima owners coming back for more, and one intended to catch the eye of the new buyer, as well.
And the new Altima is easy on the eyes. The slightly raised creases, that run from the outside edges towards front and center, give the hood a distinctive, concave appearance. The tall, expansive greenhouse incorporates a sharper raked windshield that helps lower the drag co-efficient to a very respectable .32. But remains firmly anchored at the rear by the familiar broad-based C-pillars, a look essential to keeping the car’s original character intact. While the slightly upswept trunk lid and taller taillights hint at a personality ready to be seen in a more dignified light.
Its enhanced dignity can also be attributed to its larger size, as the Altima has grown 2 inches in width and 3.4 inches in length, while keeping its 103.1-inch wheelbase. Surprisingly, it handles the added bulk with aplomb, and deftly side-steps the gangly stage commonly associated with adolescent growth. Nissan’s passive rear steering Super Toe Control, combined with its independent, strut-type suspension, enhances cornering precision. While a track that’s been widened 1.6 inches front and rear, and a 20 percent stiffer chassis, do wonders for stability, especially on rough pavement.
Behind the new oval grille, with its bold, horizontal signature bar, is the Altima’s sole powerplant. The 2.4-liter dual-overhead-cam 16-valve, 4-cylinder resides in a rather poorly organized engine compartment. And while its output remains unchanged, producing a class leading 150 horsepower and 154 pound-feet of torque, the engine itself has been carefully massaged.
Lighter pistons, reduced crank and camshaft friction and changes in valve timing all serve to bring more power to the lower RPM range and to quiet the buzzy nature inherent to most 4 bangers. The changes weren’t quite enough, however, for our power-hungry test drivers who could be heard muttering, “needs a V-6,” under their breath. Nevertheless, our 4-speed, auto trans Altima GLE posted a decent 0 to 60 time of 10.4 seconds. But we later tried an Altima SE, and the same engine with a 5-speed manual quickened that pace by a full two seconds. Optional anti-lock brakes brought the Altima down from 60 in a stable, if fairly long, 135 feet. But its firmer pedal feel prompted one staffer to note, “This is the way all ABS pedals should be!”
But it’s not until you look inside the family-sized Altima that you begin to really appreciate the upscale refinement and attention to detail that makes this car Nissan’s best seller. The leather-wrapped, tilt steering wheel fronts a new, tasteful dash that forsakes the original Altima’s dated linear roots in favor of a softer, more organic look. Both air bags are the new de-powered design.
A large, white-on-black speedo and tach anchor the straightforward instrument cluster, with small rectangular fuel and temp gauges on either side. The standard leather-faced buckets in our top-of-the-line GLE were extremely comfortable and offered excellent support. The driver’s side comes with an 8-way power seat with adjustable lumbar support. If you can’t get comfortable in this seat, see a doctor!
Just to the right, and within easy reach, are the practical and well-marked climate controls. And right below is the 100-watt AM/FM cassette/CD stereo, with its 6 speakers placed strategically throughout the cabin. In terms of performance and ease of use, this is one of the nicest stereo systems we’ve seen in some time.
But it is the small touches, like the wood grain insert that surrounds the center dash controls and shifter and the leather accents in the doors, that always made the Altima seem richer than other family cars in its class. And there are detail changes that enhance this car’s exceptional value. Like the cupholders, moved to the center console, where they no longer block stereo and climate controls. The additional 2.2 cubic feet of interior space, provided by the larger body dimensions, is most noticeable in the rear of the Altima. Those destined for the back seat will appreciate the increased head and shoulder room.
All models, with the exception of the entry level XE, now come with a 60/40 split, folding seat back, that when folded reveals a still smallish pass-through. But on the other side of that opening is the cavernous cargo area. At 13.8 cubic feet, this trunk is a dream for the packing impaired. The low lift-over and high swinging lid will make it easy on their backs as well.
And you won’t strain going for your wallet either, with the base model XE priced at a mere $14,990. The more performance minded SE lists for $18,490, while the almost sumptuous GLE carries a sticker of $19,890. Our test model peaked at $21,158.
So, family car value tops our list of hits, followed closely by high interior content. Excellent ergonomics and the new, refined styling are also in the plus column. The lack of a V-6 engine leads our slate of misses, along with a poorly organized engine bay and a cramped trunk pass-through. But a competitive price—it’s cheaper than a comparable Camry or Accord—combined with its improved, quiet ride, smoother engine, and loads of features, makes the Altima an impressive family car. And it’s plain to see Nissan is putting a new spin on an old cliche by making sure that what you get is much more than what you see.
Engine: 2.4-Liter Dohc 16-valve 4-Cylinder
Torque: 154 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 10.4 Seconds
60-0 MPH: 135 Feet