Sporty alternative to the ubiquitous Camry and Accord.

by John Rettie

Base Price (MSRP) $18,900
As Tested (MSRP) $21,990

With its big V6 and sports suspension, the Nissan Altima has suddenly turned into a sporty alternative to the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Completely redesigned for 2002, the Altima offers dramatic new styling. More important, it's bigger in every dimension. About the only thing the 2002 Altima shares with the previous model is its name.

Prior to 2002, the Nissan Altima languished as a wallflower, though a very good one. The Altima was slightly smaller than the Accord and Camry, but bigger and more expensive than the highly popular Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. It was, as the saying goes, neither fish nor fowl. And it only came with a four-cylinder engine.

Now everything has changed.

This year marks the first time Altima has ever offered a V6 option. It's the same 3.5-liter engine that powers the 2002 Maxima, and it's one of the best V6 engines available today. Last year's Altima was smaller than the Camry and Accord, but the 2002 Altima is bigger than either of them. This means roomier seating for four people.

Model Lineup

Nissan Altima is available in four trim levels: 2.5, 2.5 S, 2.5 SL, and 3.5 SE. Two engines are available.

Altima base, S, and SL models come with the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, which is more powerful than last year's four-cylinder. SE models get the 3.5-liter V6.

The base 2.5 model won't be popular as it does not have air conditioning. It does, however, come with power windows, green-tinted solar glass windshield, power steering, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, fold down center armrests in front and rear, 60/40 split folding rear seat and an in-glass antenna.

The 2.5 S adds air conditioning, power door mirrors, remote keyless entry with remote trunk lock, height adjustable driver seat, cruise control, a 6-speaker audio system, seatback pockets, and a lock for the split rear seat. The 2.5 SL adds considerably more items such as alloy wheels, leather trim, power driver seat, trip computer, security system, premium sound system and other convenience features.

In addition to the V6 engine, the SE comes with 17-inch alloy wheels and many of the luxury features included with the 2.5 S. Further options can be added to all but the base 2.5 model.

Walkaround

Compared to most of its Japanese competitors, the new Altima offers distinctly aggressive styling akin to a German car. Styling cues from the Volkswagen Passat can be seen in front with design elements similar to the Audi A6 in the rear. That's not a bad thing as many people regard both of those cars as stylish vehicles.

The wheels are located near the four corners, which helps give the car a more aggressive look as well as helping it handle better. The car's grille and front bumper stick out quite far but are nicely set off by multi-parabola projector-beam type headlights with four bulbs set behind a large triangular-shaped cover. Although the grill opening is fairly large by modern standards it doesn't look awkward.

The rear of the car is the most striking styling element as It has a sloping roof line that is more reminiscent of a coupe than a four-door sedan. It ends in a high trunk line that is set off by bold round taillights, turn signals and backup lights all set behind a triangular-shaped clear cover. The trunk has a large opening and the trunk volume is better than that of both the 2001 Camry and Accord. Gooseneck hinges are used, however, which do intrude into the useable space.

A long wheelbase allows the Altima to have large doors, which makes it look somewhat larger than it is. The base Altima comes standard with 16-inch wheels compared to 14-inch wheels on the Accord and Camry, which improves its looks and its handling.

Interior Features

Compared to the dramatically styled exterior, the interior is sedate, but still stylish nonetheless. The dashboard is set relatively low with three pods in a binnacle located in front of the driver containing the speedometer, tachometer, water temperature and fuel gauge. The instruments are lit with a nice orange glow in the dark.

Sound system controls and display are in an ovoid raised panel in the center of the dash. Climate control knobs are directly below the radio and are well located with a nice feel to them. The vents are flush mounted on the dash rather than being located in protruding pods as in many cars. Even the seams for the passenger-side airbag are totally invisible, despite being located in a large expanse of unembellished dashboard surface. All in all the whole design gives the car a feeling of spaciousness.

It's not an illusion. Front legroom in the Altima is more generous than all but the largest vehicles on the road. It's certainly a class leader in this area, and Nissan claims the Altima is roomier than the Honda Accord or Toyota Camry. Decent sized seats in front complement the legroom. In the rear, there's good head and legroom as well. There's enough room for a 6-foot, 4-inch back-seat passenger to sit behind a 6-foot, 4-inch driver. The center passenger in the rear gets a full seat belt with shoulder harness.

Nissan has provided places to put stuff. Two big cup holders are located in the center console and there's an adjustable elbow rest and a small storage bin. The parking brake, a proper handbrake, is located on the center console. There's even a small cubbyhole at the front of the console under the climate controls complete with a cover. However, when five people are in the car, there are no cup holders in the rear as they are located in the fold down center arm rest.

Getting into and out of the Altima is easy thanks to a slightly higher front seating position than normal. A large door that does not have any rear wheel intrusion, thanks to the long wheelbase, aids getting into and out of the rear seats.

Altima boasts a bigger trunk than Camry and Accord, according to Nissan.

Driving Impressions

The first thing anyone will notice when driving the 2002 Altima is the amount of power that's available. The standard four-cylinder engine pumps out 180 horsepower. That's considerably more power than what's offered by the Honda and Toyota four-cylinder engines, which is what most Accords and Camrys come with. What's more, the Altima's 181 pounds-feet of torque is better than that of its closest competitors, and torque is the force that gives the driver a sense of power, propelling the car away from intersections and up hills. The majority of buyers will be happy with the smooth performance of the four-cylinder engine.

The four-cylinder works well with an automatic transmission, though the standard manual offers quicker acceleration and better fuel economy. The Altima pulls strongly from a start and the transmission shifts promptly between 40 and 60 mph for quick passing maneuvers. The 2.5-liter engine is more economical than the 3.5-liter V6; the federal government estimates 23/29 mpg city/highway for the four-cylinder engine versus 21/26 for the V6 (both with manual transmissions). A 20-gallon fuel tank, considerably larger than most, means the Altima can go a long way between fill ups.

The power rack-and-pinion steering gives precise control with just the right amount of feedback. Ride and handling are exemplary thanks partially to a newly designed multi-link rear suspension, which incorporates aluminum parts to keep the weight of the suspension down. Although it might not be a BMW, the Altima should not disappoint those who want a good handling car without sacrificing a nice ride.

The SE model's 240-horsepower V6 engine is even more impressive. The V6 turns the Altima into a real sports sedan, especially when paired with the five-speed manual transmission. SE models come with a suspension with specially tuned spring rates, shocks, anti-roll bars, and speed-rated tires for sharper handling response. It's great fun to drive. Don't tell Nissan we said so, but it's more fun to drive than the Maxima. That's not surprising given that the Altima is a newer, more sophisticated design.

Final Word

The 2002 Nissan's Altima is an impressive new midsize car. It's one of those somewhat rare family sedans that actually stands out in the crowd and delivers on the expectations set by its looks. Nissan's Maxima has long been a favorite with people who like a car with some pizzazz, but you'll have to spend well over $21,000 to get a Maxima with its standard V6. The Altima is available with a four-cylinder engine for considerably less money, and it's a roomier car. Ironically, if you want performance, the V6-powered Altima is probably a better bet than a Maxima because it's lighter and more responsive, and it costs less.

For those who want something different from the ever-popular Accord and Camry, the 2002 Nissan Altima is an attractive alternative in more ways than one.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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