Mid-size advantages at an economy car price.

Base Price $15,510
As Tested $20,857

Nissan has always prided itself on building cars for people who like to get the feel of the road. It has succeeded once again with the Altima SE. It's a standout from the stable of the company's smaller mid-size sedans because it offers excellent handling in an affordable and comfortable car.

The Altima distinguishes itself from the pedestrian looks of most mid-size sedans. And it performs admirably. But the ultimate appeal is value. Nissan has touched all bases by creating a car that falls in between slightly bigger, higher priced mid-sized sedans and the more economy-oriented lower end of the category. With a price range of $17,000 to $21,000, it's difficult to find a better return on your investment.

The SE comes with a sport-tuned suspension that provides taut response, yet is damped well for rough pavement. The Altima SE corners well, brakes well and steers crisply. The Altima XE and GXE share the same stabilizer bars and the same independent suspension design as the SE, but the latter has shock and spring tweaks plus lower aspect ratio tires. The higher-priced GLE, meanwhile, is tweaked for a softer ride and more sedate driving experience.

All Altimas are powered by a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine that puts out 150 horsepower.

Walkaround

Redesigned for 1998, the Altima stands out with aerodynamic styling. Lots of glass provides the driver with excellent visibility. Yet the car has a lovely balance from the sloped front end to its short and high rear deck. A half-window extension on the rear passenger side leads to a full but graceful C-pillar and to the long rear window and sloping rear deck. This transition to the rear with a well-drawn C-pillar is what gives the Altima its sense of balance. Narrowed and rounded at the back, the wrap-around taillights are bordered by the angled trunk opening, creating a trademark rear view that doesn't rely on a company logo, unusual in the sedan class these days. A low-key rear spoiler is found only on the SE.

With a drag coefficient of just 0.32, the Altima doesn't sacrifice aerodynamic efficiency for styling. Body-matching bumpers, side mirrors, door handles and trim give the SE an upscale appearance. The Altima line's standard flush-mounted halogen headlights are complemented on the SE by fog lights, well-integrated on the lower bumper and in the same location where the parking lights are found on the other models.

A body-color front grille bar further distinguishes the SE. Six-spoke 15-inch aluminum alloy wheels (which are the same size as the standard wheels) comprise the most noticeable departure from the rest of the line and give the SE a performance appearance without getting too jazzy.

The Inside Story

The interior is ergonomically well-tuned and comfortable in a way that supports the Altima's role of offering ''affordable luxury.'' Most pleasing is the ample light and viewing provided by the greenhouse. Nissan says this gives the sensation of being in a larger car. In fact, the interior dimensions for passengers are only slightly bigger than standard for the mid-size class and much of the extra glass is found in the rear behind the seating area. Despite so much glass exposure, road noise is acceptable for a car of this class.

The interior achieves its pleasing and clean lines by the use of textured composite materials in place of more expensive appointments. Most attractive is the front dash, with its open arc above the driver's side instrument panel. It allows clear viewing of the white face tachometer and speedometer in various sun conditions, but without the bulky enclosure of most dashes. The front passenger's side, meanwhile, is completely unencumbered, adding to the sensation of roominess.

The long gearshift lever matches up well with the center console's storage compartment, putting the right hand at just the appropriate height for shifting even if the elbow is rested on the console. The steering wheel of the SE (and GLE) is leather-wrapped as is the gearshift knob, and the cruise control is mounted on the steering wheel.

Nice additions to the interior found on the SE include easy access to the power port at the base of the center section of the front dash and fold-down rear seats to expand trunk space. The SE alone carries a retractable, center-mounted armrest in the rear seat. The four-way adjustable front bucket seats are standard for all but the XE. The SE's leather seat option carries an eight-way adjustable driver's seat that is well worth the investment and a driver's lumbar support adjustment. The cupholders are where they should be: firmly mounted in the center console, out of harm's way.

Ride & Drive

The recent make-over of the Altima included the addition of cross members to the underbody; this brought greater stiffness to enable the suspension to work more efficiently. A wider track (59.3 in. at the front and 58.9 in. at the rear) improved performance and stability. The solid front (21 mm) and rear (16 mm) stabilizer bars are also standard. The alloy wheels come wrapped with P205/60R15 Firestones. Add these elements to the SE's tuned suspension and the result is excellent road feel and handling for a car of this class.

Whether turning, braking or shifting, the driver never loses the sensation of being connected to the road. The SE handles well in fast corners over uneven pavement. It is balanced well and doesn't get upset by hard throttle changes. It's an easy car to control on bumpy, twisting back roads. Both the brakes and the power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering provide good feedback and offer excellent response. Put all that together and the SE is a satisfying car to drive.

Super Toe Control, which helps keep the rear tires upright in cornering, acceleration and braking maneuvers, greatly improves the overall stability of the SE. It always feels firmly planted. Pushed to the limit, the Altima exhibits a fair amount of understeer - the front tires lose grip before the rear tires. That's the best balance for most drivers, but highly skilled drivers may find it a little limiting.

Altima's 2.4-liter engine has been massaged to give better torque response at the low end and the manual transmission is geared well for the engine. With 152 foot-pounds of torque and 150 horsepower, Nissan's 2.4-liter engine deserves praise for its smoothness and gutsy response.

Our Altima came with ABS and we found it steady and progressive with good pedal feel and little front-end dive. As responsive as the Altima is, it also offers a smooth ride quality on the highway.

Final Word

Nissan's line of Altimas provide good value. The Altima SE comes with a well-tuned sports suspension and a nice package of upgrades. Even with the leather seat package and ABS options, the SE is priced under $21,000. With its combination of performance, responsiveness, safety and comfort, the Altima SE is an attractive buy.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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