The third generation Altima is the car that helped steer Nissan back to the path of profitability. Its introduction changed the way Americans viewed the Japanese automaker, giving drivers a sporty alternative to the ho-hum Accord and Camry, while providing better quality and reliability than the only other affordable performance sedan on the market, the VW Passat. In fact, you can see a lot of the Passat's design in the Altima, from its arching rear roof and dogleg rear door design, to its rounded nose and short, high trunk lid. Like the Passat, the Altima is available in a number of trims, from the base four-cylinder economy sedan to a real-life performance variant complete with V6 engine and manual transmission.

 

Why You Want It

While a one- or two-year old model might seem optimal, we assume you're looking back a bit further in the Altima timeline to save a little money. A good call, as this model shares much of the same mechanicals (engines, manual transmissions and rear suspension) as the newer fourth generation car (2007-present). The Altima offers a roomy interior, a large trunk and a cabin packed with features. Upper end models, such as the SL and SE, can be found with leather upholstery, heated front seats, Bose audio, automatic air conditioning, and a key fob feature that allows the windows to be opened remotely. But the real reason you want this car is because beneath its stylish four-door skin beats the heart of a sports car. Strong acceleration, a competent suspension and brakes that stop on a dime are the hallmark of the Altima, a byproduct of being built by the same company responsible for the legendary Z sports cars.

 

Notable Features and Options

Between 2002 and 2005, the Altima line remained fairly consistent. In 2005, the sporty SE-R joined the Altima line up. The most basic Altima 2.5 features power windows and door locks, but necessities such as a radio and air conditioning were optional. Most people purchased the 2.5 S, which adds an eight-way manual driver's seat, AM/FM/CD with six speakers, lockable folding rear seats, cruise control, and remote keyless entry. The luxury oriented SL adds 16-inch alloy wheels, automatic headlights, leather upholstery, eight-way power driver's seat, Bose audio with six-disc CD changer and eight speakers, and Homelink universal transceiver. The SE includes many of the SL features but adds a V6 engine, 17-inch wheels and a cloth seats. All models designated with 2.5 employ a 175-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine mated to either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic; the 3.5 SE and SL are powered by a 245-horsepower V6 (bumped to 250-horsepower in 2006.)

Popular options for the Altima vary according to trim level and include anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control (V6), Bose audio, a power sunroof, xenon headlamps, front seat and side curtain airbags, heated outside mirrors, and DVD navigation.

 

Model Milestones

2003: Outside of some trim and optional equipment shuffling, the Altima remains pretty much unchanged. The SL sedan loses its manual transmission, while the SE gains more optional equipment choices.

2004: No major changes

2005: The sporty SE-R joins the line up and features a 260 horsepower V6 and choice of manual or automatic transmissions. SE and SL V6 models gain a five-speed automatic in place of the previous four-speed unit, and the entire line gets a slight exterior freshening including all-new wheel designs. The Altima's interior receives a major makeover touting a new instrument cluster, center stack and console. A DVD navigation system is offered for the first time on 2.5 SL, 3.5 SE and 3.5 SL.

2006: No major changes.

 

Engines and Performance

Two engine choices power the Altima. The vast majority of previously owned Altimas are power by a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine generating 175 horsepower, which is more than enough power to pull the car. Better still, the four-cylinder delivers excellent fuel economy, achieving city mileage figures in the low 20s, and nearly 30 mpg on the highway. The other engine choice is Nissan's brilliant 3.5-liter V6, an engine that makes 245 horsepower (250 on later models) and delivers V8-worthy performance without V8-like fuel consumption (the EPA rates the 3.5-liter around 20 city and 26 highway.) Choosing between the two is merely a matter of economics and how quickly you need to reach 60 mph. But no matter what your decision, you're guaranteed to have fun behind the wheel.

Whether your driving routine involves everyday suburban driving or a weekend romp through the mountains, the Altima does not disappoint. The suspension allows the car to be tossed into turns with very little sway or undulation, and for a front-wheel-drive car, there is a surprising lack of torque steer, even with the more powerful V6. The steering is precise with no discernable play in the wheel and the brakes are equally impressive in their ability to stop even after repeated use. The cabin is bit noisier inside than with the VW Passat, but its not distracting or irritating in any way. Seat comfort is also first rate, although some of out testers felt the foam used to bolster the seat bottoms and lower back area was a bit soft. In all, the Altima delivers in the areas that count the most: comfort, performance, fuel economy and reliability.

 

Recalls, Safety Ratings and Warranties

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, has issued the following recalls for the 2002-2006 Nissan Altima.

2002: Recalls issued for possible faulty airbag warning light wiring harness that could cause failure to deploy in the event of an accident and also for an underperforming airbag sensor. A recall was also issued for a possible defective solder joint on the crank/cam sensor circuit board that could cause a faulty check engine light reading.

2002-2003: Recall for possible defect that allows ice to form in the fuel tank, and also for a repair to the exhaust hanger, which can catch debris and lodge it near the catalytic converter resulting in fire.

2002-2006: Recall on models with the 2.5-liter engine due to possible engine stall at low speeds. The culprit is a defective crankshaft position sensor and the cure is a simple reprogramming of the engine control module.

2006: Recalls include a possible defect with the piston's rings on 2.5-liter engines that can cause excessive oil consumption, and a possible defect in the rear subframe assembly, which can cause the driver to lose control of the vehicle.

Recall repairs are required by law even if the vehicle is out of warranty. Your dealer can check to see if the repairs where performed and if not, will fix the car at no charge to you

As for safety, NHTSA gives the Altima good scores in its frontal crash test rating, earning four out of five stars for the driver and passenger. However, the Altima scores only average in its side impact test, with the front passenger earning only three stars and the rear passenger, four. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, or IIHS, finds similar results, giving the Altima without side airbags a 'Poor' rating in its side impact crash test. Front side airbags and side curtain airbags were optional on the Altima. We strongly suggest finding a car that is so equipped. If the seller is not sure about the car's equipment, look inside for the letters SRS stamped in the plastic pillars or on the seats themselves. This tells you that car is equipped with side airbags.

The 2002-2006 Nissan Altima came with a 3-year/36,000 basic warranty and a 5-year/60,000 mile powertrain warranty. Nissan does offer an extended warranty of up to 84-months or 100,000 miles on its Certified Pre-Owned Vehicles. But, these cars can be no older than five years and have no more than 60,000 miles.

 

Word on the Web

You've read what the experts have to say, but what about the people who actually live with the third-generation Altima day to day? We've picked through sites like CarComplaints.com (which also list all TSBs for a given year), NissanClub.com and AltimaForums.net to see what owners are talking about. For the most part, outside of events such as the oil consumption problem on the 2.5-liter engine covered by recalls, complaints seem to be limited to 2002-2004 models. Some early 2002-2003 models seem to be plagued with first year build issues, things like poorly connected or placed wiring harnesses that fray and cause electrical problems, air conditioning temperature control mechanism failure, and a sticking automatic transmission shift interlock mechanism. Many of these issues are covered by Technical Service Bulletins that identify a fix for the problems, but unlike with a recall, once out of warranty the repair costs come out of the owner's, not the manufacturer's, pocket.

 

Competitive Set

If you're looking for a family sedan with an abundance of luxury features as well as sport sedan-like handling, you might find the Volkswagen Passat a better fit. But be warned, the 2002-2006 Passat does not have a strong reputation for reliability, with numerous complaints regarding the car's electrical components and engine. The Honda Accord might be a safer bet, but its high resale and somewhat ho-hum styling and driving characteristics might be a deterrent. The Toyota Camry is in the same boat as the Accord offering excellent resale value (which translates into a higher price for the used car shopper), but not much in the way of driving excitement or style. A good alternative to the Altima is the Mazda Mazda6, displaying a sporty attitude, wonderful driving dynamics, one of the nicest five-speed manual gearboxes we've tested, and the option of a four-door sedan, five-door hatchback or five-door wagon. On the downside, the Mazda6 does not have as much rear seat legroom as the Nissan Altima, and its four and six-cylinder engines lag behind the Altima in horsepower and torque.

 

AutoTrader Recommendation

While we like the four-cylinder Altima for its low price and frugal fuel economy, it's the 3.5-liter V6 that draws us in. Available on early SE and later SL and SE-R, the V6 simply is a delight to drive and turns the Altima into a low-cost performance sedan with outstanding road manners. The V6 is also far less trouble prone than the early 2.5-liter engines, and it holds it value better as well.

author photo

Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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