The quiet revolutionary. by Ray Thursby
There's a definite place within the ranks of compact cars for a vehicle that doesn't assault the eyes with trendy, short-lived styling, challenge service personnel with exotic hardware, or pressure the bank account with irresistible options customers just can't live without.
A car, in short, like the Nissan Altima.
You might not even notice a member of the three-model Nissan sedan family in a crowd. It lacks the distinctive ovoid styling cues of the newer Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique, for example, or the aggressive, cab-forward presence of the Dodge Stratus. And it does without a long list of model choices, drivetrain options and other sticker-inflating gimcrackery.
Fact is, in a field that is filled with everything from Honda Accords to Hyundai Sonatas -- with the Mazda 626, Mitsubishi Galant and a number of others in between -- the Altima has carved out a highly successful niche for itself during the past three model years by being unobtrusive, understated and an especially good value.
To those basic virtues are added a few surprises along the way, comfort/convenience features that allow Nissan to unblushingly bill the Altima as a small luxury sedan.
A look at sales figures shows how correct Nissan's product planners were: the Altima has sold well since the day it was introduced, and continues to do so, a performance that's had a profoundly positive impact on the company's fortunes in the intensely competitive North American market.
And all without smoke, mirrors or gimmicks.
Nissan's La Jolla, California-based design team is responsible for the Altima's exterior. Far from being avant-garde -- as West Coast designs so often are -- the Altima relies on quiet, efficiently good looks for its appeal. The rounded nose is unadorned, free of excessive brightwork, the profile is smooth and the tail is neatly contoured, with only a pair of large taillights for decoration.
Even so, there are nice touches everywhere. A shape that might be bland is made better-looking by smooth contours and subtle modeling, the wrapover doors increase ease of entry/exit and the few applications of bright trim around windows and on the door handles add the right touch of class.
The Altima's body has more than quiet good looks to recommend it. The unibody structure is commendably rigid, and all seams and gaps are narrow and uniform. Precise panel fit allied with a low-drag shape and flush glass has much to do with the Altima's noteworthy lack of wind noise.
There are few external clues to differentiate the base Altima XE from the GXE, SE and fully-equipped GLE versions. The SE and GLE ride on stylish aluminum alloy wheels, while the others make do with steel rims and wheel covers, but all have dual outside mirrors and tinted glass. The more expensive pair also have added fog and front cornering lamps, though these are subtly integrated into the front end design.
All members of the Altima family use the same 2.4-liter dual overhead cam 16-valve four-cylinder engine, and all but the GLE have a standard five-speed manual transmission. A standard four-speed automatic transmits power to the GLE's front wheels; automatics are optional in the others.
Suspension -- MacPherson struts at all four corners -- is also the same across the entire model range, although the sportier SE gets a larger rear anti-roll bar and four-wheel disc brakes. When anti-lock brakes are ordered -- a $999 option for all models -- four-wheel discs are part of the package.
The Inside Story
With almost as much passenger space available as in the larger Maxima, the Altima provdes a comfortable environment for four or five. Seats in all four Altimas are upholstered in high-grade cloth, with leather optional in the SE and GLE. The SE has the best front seats, in our opinion; they have more pronounced side bolsters and fit their occupants snugly.
Like other Nissans, the Altima has a stylish cabin. The instruments -- a standard array including speedometer, tachometer, and fuel and coolant gauges -- are clearly marked and all controls, from light switches to climate control panel are generally easy to find and use.
There is one exception here. The sound systems supplied in the SE and GLE have small and sometimes confusing pushbuttons that are tricky to operate when the car is moving.
The SE's AM/FM/cassette audio system is optional in XE and GXE models, offered in packages that also include air conditioning.
The SE comes with a manually-operated air conditioning system as standard equipment. The GLE's air conditioning is integrated in an automatic climate control system.
In terms of amenities, the GXE, SE and GLE are standouts for cars in this class. All three feature a center armrest in the rear with a pass-through feature to the roomy trunk, plus power windows, mirrors and door locks. Option package for XE and GXE add air conditioning and audio systems. The standard power glass moonroof that comes with the SE and GLE is available as an option ($849) on the GXE.
Regardless of model, Altima interiors are nicely done, displaying high assembly quality and good materials. The wood trim applied to the top three models is a matter of individual taste, though no one will complain about the standard tilt steering or rear window defogger. Front seatbelts have adjustable top anchors, and a pair of cupholders is supplied.
Dual airbags, of course, are standard equipment, as they are in all 1996 passenger cars.
Ride & Drive
With its slightly sportier character the SE is more fun to drive than the other Altimas, but not quite a threat to the tigers of this class -- the Ford Contour SE V-6, for example, or the Mazda 626 LX V-6. On the other hand, the ride is uncommonly smooth, thanks to all-independent suspension, bolted to separate front and rear subframes that isolate the suspension (and thus noise and vibration transmitted by the front and rear struts) from the body shell.
Steering and brakes require minimal effort from the driver.
Pushing the Altima to its cornering limits provokes tire squeal, body roll and increased steering input, but it takes real excess to make the Nissan lose its composure.
Most owners -- probably all, in fact -- will never intentionally work the car that hard. We think they'll be perfectly happy with its calm, composed manners in all driving situations. And if an emergency situation arises, calling for quick, decisive response, we think the Altima will give a good account of itself.
The engine, too, goes about its business with little fuss. It is large enough and sufficiently power to deliver good performance at everyday rpm levels. That's a good thing, because the engine does sound a little strained as it reaches maximum speed.
Either transmission is a good choice. The automatic suits the car's character -- and the engine's power characteristics -- quite well. So does the easy-shifting five-speed, which extracts a little better straight-ahead performance from the car, something that's true for all manual transmissions, regardless of the car. However, most Altimas go out the door with automatics, and owners seem to be generally pleased with their performance.
Most cars in this class offer a V-6 engine option. The Altima does not, but it's one of the few cars we'd say doesn't really need to. The standard engine does a good job, and is economical to boot.
There is no single compelling feature that sets the Altima apart from the competition. It is attractive, comfortable, poised, performs well and is assembled -- in the U.S. -- with great care. But so are many other compact sedans.
It has a full list of features, both standard and optional, that justify the price, but so do various Fords, Hondas and Toyotas.
What makes the Altima worth a first and second look is the combination of ingredients. It's true that nothing really stands out -- with the possible exception of the attractive interior design -- but there's also nothing that really annoys or offends.
Therein lies the Altima's appeal: it does many things well, without calling undue attention to itself.
For those seeking sensible transportation with a touch of luxury, understatement may be the strongest statement of all.
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© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.