Affordable chic.

by Matthew Phillips

Introduced four years ago, the Altima is an ongoing success story for Nissan, filling the gap between the compact Sentra sedan and the larger Maxima. Assembled in Smyrna, Tennessee, the mid-size front-wheel drive Altima contends in the fiercely competitive family sedan market against other smaller mid-size entries such as the Ford Contour, Mercury Mystique, Mazda 626, Chryler Cirrus and Dodge Stratus -- to name just a few.

Positioned as "The Affordable Luxury Sedan," the Altima promises Japanese-quality construction, spry performance and a touch of cachet -- all at an affordable price. The car has been a strong player for Nissan ever since its debut, and was singled out by J.D. Power in 1996 as the best mid-size car under $20,000 in terms of initial quality. Although newer designs have come along since its introduction, and a major makeover is just around the corner, this is still an appealing sedan that combines solid engineering, competent performance and value in a stylish package.


The Altima is available in four models -- XE, GXE, SE and GLE -- in ascending order. All share the same 150-horsepower four-cylinder engine and all but the GLE have a five-speed manual transmission as standard equipment. A four-speed automatic is an $800 option in the XE, GXE and SE, standard in the GLE.

Every Altima comes with standard dual air bags, side door beams and automatic seatbelt pre-tensioners. The only safety item missing from the standard equipment list is antilock braking, which is a $499 option across the board.

The basic Altima XE starts at $16,219, which includes basics like tilt steering column, rear-window defroster, intermittent wipers and cupholders, plus power windows. From there, you can add an XE Option Package which includes air conditioning, AM/FM/cassette audio and cruise control for $1899. If you are looking for more, we suggest you check out the GXE, SE or GLE, all of which come very well equipped with the option to upgrade even further.

Our test car was the top-level Altima GLE, which carried a base sticker price of $21,319 with freight. It comes very well-equipped with the automatic transmission plus leather seating surfaces, alloy wheels, air conditioning, security system, premium AM/FM/cassette sound system, power windows, mirrors and antenna, steering-wheel mounted cruise control, remote keyless entry and several other niceties like woodgrain trim and lighted vanity mirrors. The only two options are a two-way power moonroof ($849) and ABS ($499), which boosted the total to $22,667 including destination charges.

Although the GLE's standard leather upholstery sweetens that deal, it's clear that you can enjoy the Altima's solid virtues for less with judicious additions to the XE or GXE models. Or, for a sportier flavor, the SE.

The Altima looks good on paper and good in person -- this is because the Altima bears more than a passing resemblance to Infiniti's handsome J30. In a class that boasts precious few lookers, the Altima sports smooth and wind-sculpted lines that appear every bit as contemporary as they did when the Altima first arrived.

Except for chromed, flush-mounted door handles and window trim, and its polished aluminum alloy five-spoke wheels, the GLE's exterior is monochromatic. The result is a smart looking sedan with an upscale aura.

Underneath the sloping rear deck lid lies a spacious trunk that boasts 14.0 cubic feet storage space. While it lacks a fold down seat, the Altima does have a rear seat pass-through that can accommodate long objects such as skis. We also managed to fit a six-foot Christmas tree in the trunk -- with the lid completely closed. Try that with a Ford Contour.

Other features of note include a power antenna mounted on the rear deck and body-colored, power mirrors that can be folded back, a feature that's quietly disappearing from other cars in this class.

The Inside Story

Inside, the Altima GLE scores high marks with room and comfort. Every Altima benefits from an open and airy cabin with excellent all-around visibility. The dash and the windscreen are positioned low and forward respectively, giving the front passengers ample personal room coupled with an excellent view over the hood. The cockpit is sufficiently spacious, but it could benefit from a wee bit more elbow room. Regardless, the interior has a warm, luxurious feeling, thanks to its woodgrain and leather.

Up front, the leather buckets provide a great driving position and adequate lateral support, a particulalry effective blend for highway cruising. Rear seat leg and head room rates as average for cars in this size class. The Altima is rated for five passengers, but like so many smaller mid-size sedans is really better suited to two in the rear. A rear seat plus is the handy flip-down console/armrest with integrated cup holders.

In general, all interior controls are logically laid out and easy to locate and use. Climate controls are located high in the middle of the dash, easily accessible by the driver and passenger alike. The fan knob could be larger, but the controls are otherwise well-designed. However, we'd prefer to see the audio controls, which are adjusted more frequently, at the top of the stack.

Unlike some mid-size cars, the Altima's radio controls are large enough to operate with gloves on. The standard 50-watt AM/FM/cassette system has plenty of power, but if plenty isn't enough, Nissan offers a 160-watt upgrade that includes a CD player.

Our sole complaint with the Altima's otherwise excellent control layout lies with the steering wheel position, which feels slightly left of center. But this is one of those small design idiosyncrasies that quickly becomes transparent after a few miles on the road.

Ride and Drive

The Altima suspension provides a balanced ride that's tuned more for smooth ride than attacking twisty back roads, but manages to deliver a sporty feel even so. Front and rear MacPherson struts mounted on a sub-frame cushion jolts to the cabin, while front and rear stabilizer bars reduce body roll in cornering maneuvers. If you want a little more authority in handling responses, we recommend that you check out the SE model, which firms up the suspension with firmer shocks and a larger rear stabilizer bar.

Like most front-wheel drive vehicles, pushing the Altima to its handling limit will yield understeer -- the tendency for the front end to go straight when pushed too hard in a corner. That said, the Altima confidently handles its 3020-pound curb weight without drama and reacts predictably in emergency maneuvers.

Our test car's braking performance was very good, thanks to the four-wheel discs that go with the optional ABS.

All Altimas are powered by Nissan's 150-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. Unlike most of the Altima's competitors, there's no V-6 option. However, the Altima four is more powerful than virtually all its competitor's four-cylinders and provides more than adequate power for stoplight getaways and freeway merges.

As always with smaller cars, we prefer a manual transmission -- better fuel economy, better performance. But the performance of the Altima automatic is above average for four-cylinder cars in this class, and fuel economy ratings are respectable at 21/29 mpg city/highway.

Final Word

The Nissan Altima GLE has an appealing combination of attributes that make it a good choice in the world of small mid-size family sedans. It's understated and stylish. It outperforms many of its four-cylinder rivals. It's fun to drive, well built and with all the available options, does in fact deliver luxury at a sub-luxury price.

The Altima GLE packs a lot of features into its price tag. But if $22,000-plus doesn't quite fit your budget, you can still enjoy this car's solid virtues -- as well as some frills -- with one of the other models. In fact, from a value point of view, the GXE may be the best bet.

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© 1997 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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