by Phil Berg

The sportier side of mid-size.

Base Price $15,140
As Tested $19,908

Nissan's Altima is just right for some folks: smaller, more nimble and less expensive than the Maxima, Accord, Camry and other mid-size cars, yet faster, roomier, more comfortable and more sophisticated than compact cars. It handles like a sports sedan.

For 2000, the Altima boasts a lot of changes that make it an even better car than before. For starters, it's nearly three inches longer. Fresh styling gives it a sleeker look. And refinements are everywhere, many aimed at reducing noise and harshness. The engine has been tuned for more power, the transmissions have been improved, steering response is sharper, and the suspension is firmer. If you can't justify the expense of Maxima, the Altima is an excellent choice.

Model Lineup

Four models are available and all come with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine.

The basic XE is $15,140, but to get air conditioning you'll need a $1,999 option package that also includes a CD stereo and cruise control.

The $16,340 GXE adds luxury touches including a folding rear seatback, a lifting adjustment to the driver's seat, and fancier wheel covers. The GXE offers a $999 option package with air conditioning, larger tires, CD stereo, cruise control, power locks, remote entry, lighted vanity mirrors, variable wipers, and a new overhead console with map lights and sunglasses holder.

Traditional with Nissan is the SE sport model, which gives you the largest wheels and tires, a firmer suspension, rear disc brakes, a monster 6-speaker CD stereo, and a driver's seat lumbar support. The SE is $18,640.

The top-line GLE has a softer, more luxurious ride quality than the sporty SE. And it comes with power seats, side airbags, leather seats, and an automatic transmission for $20,390.

Automatic transmissions are available as an option on XE and GXE for an additional $800, but add $950 to the cost of an SE.

Walkaround

With more than a dozen modifications, the Altima gets a longer, sleeker look for 2000. For starters, the car is more than two inches longer. The front fascia was lowered (and the SE gets a special treatment). There's a new grille, new headlights that integrate the turn signals and cornering lamps, new (optional) fog lamps. In the rear, a revised fascia with new bright red taillights and a new rear deck lid finisher continue the wider, more elegant styling theme.

Interior Features

The front seats feel large enough for football players and we like them. They are well bolstered to hold you in place while driving quickly and offer enough lumbar support that your lower spine won't complain on long drives. All models but the XE offer optional side airbags, which are standard on the high-line GLE.

The gauges are large, easy to read, and look like sports car dials, especially on the SE and GLE models, which have a tachometer standard.

A new center console on automatic cars adds more bins, as well as extra cupholders for rear passengers and a plug for their cell phones. This sounds inviting for busy adults, but in reality the rear seats are spacious only for youngsters.

Driving Impressions

The Altima has always been a highly refined sedan, with smooth steering and good behavior over bumps. The new car is better, especially on rough pavement. When you push the new Altima around a corner, the steering actually feels lighter than last year's car, yet it retains good feel of the road surface. This a tight and nimble sedan and it corners with confidence. If you hit a bump in the middle of a corner, the outside wheel doesn't make the crashing noise that normally happens when a suspension bottoms. Honda solves this problem with finely tuned rubber bump stops; Toyota doesn't solve this problem. This newest Altima feels lighter on its feet than the larger mid-sized cars.

There are now four different suspensions available on the Altima. The base XE gets firmer anti-roll bars front and rear -- a rare feature for any entry-level sedan. The GXE gets its own separate shock absorber tuning to take advantage of its stiffer body, made so by the addition of bracing in the floor; it also gets larger and slightly lower-profile tires than the XE. The SE gets the sportiest pieces, including the stiffest springs, stiffest shocks and thickest anti-roll bars. The SE's tires ride a bit harsher than the GLE's, but promise more grip. Both the SE and GLE get new blow-off valve shock technology, which softens big bumps; they also get an upper front strut brace.

Displacing 2.4-liters, Altima's engine is large for a four-cylinder. By not offering a V6, Nissan was able to achieve the Altima's trim lines and low hood. Still, this engine won't help you win drag races against V6-powered sedans. But it's a very smooth engine, even when you rev it up to its 6600 rpm redline; that's where many four-cylinders scream and rattle and where the best ones, like this one, shine. It pumps out adequate torque at lower revs, but fails to make the nearly 3000-pound Altima a speed machine, especially when attached to the automatic transmission. Nissan's four-cylinder engine gains 5 horsepower for 2000, due to a bit of hot-rod tuning to the valves and a new exhaust manifold. In addition, Nissan claims 11 significant changes it made to the reduce engine vibration and harshness.

The overall gearing of both the five-speed manual and the four-speed automatic has been altered for better acceleration. The shift schedule of the automatic was reprogrammed so it hunts less when you're in the mountains. The five-speed transmission feels tight and direct, all good for fans of manual transmission cars. This unit has always felt like a sports car shifter, and for 2000 the lever has been shortened slightly for faster shifting. It feels great, and could change your mind about needing an automatic transmission for your boring commute. Acceleration feels noticeably quicker than before and Nissan claims the new gearbox lowers the time required to get from 0 to 60 mph by almost a second.

Back in 1996, the Altima came with a viscous limited-slip differential that helped keep the front wheels from spinning if you accelerated quickly out of a corner. That's no longer available. Now the cure for wheelspin is to lift your foot off the throttle, which the otherwise slick manners of the Altima don't encourage you to do very often.

All SE models get rear disc brakes, and you can feel the improvement over rear drums when you hustle the Altima down hilly curves. The brake pedal feels tight, like the rest of the Altima's controls, and it makes you feel confident you can slow the car down in any unexpected circumstance.

Final Word

The deal is sweeter for a new Altima, since all of the refinements and improvements come at what amounts to just about a $150 increase. Fewer are pegged for rental fleets as well. The new Altima is a high-quality sedan made even better. We like the trimmer size compared to the larger and much more popular Accords and Camrys. If you like trim, maneuverable sedans, this is a great buy.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

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