The mid-size David, somewhat more Goliath than before.
by Phil Berg
Base Price (MSRP) $15,140
As Tested (MSRP) $20,757
Since its 1993 introduction, Altima's strength has been its slightly smaller size, lower price, and more nimble handling than the mid-range, mid-size Nissan Maxima, Toyota Camry, or Honda Accord. Faster, roomier, and more sophisticated than a compact, Altima has offered a real, between-floors alternative that some people find just right.
That's why we were a little surprised when Nissan redesigned the Altima last year, making it longer and more powerful than before. But we needn't have worried, because neither the extra inches nor the increased horsepower diminished the Altima's unique charm. In fact, the newest Altima is sleeker-looking and quieter, yet even more responsive than before.
For 2001, Nissan has focused on making Altima an even better value, with a new Limited Edition option package for the already value-oriented Altima GXE.
Four models are available, all powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine.
The basic XE lists for just $15,140, but to get air conditioning you'll need a $1,999 option package that also includes a 100-watt CD stereo and cruise control.
The $16,340 GXE adds luxury touches including a folding rear seatback, a lifting adjustment for the driver's seat, cloth trim for the inner door panels, and fancier wheel covers. To get air conditioning, you still have to pay $999 for a ``value option package'' that includes larger tires, CD stereo, cruise control, power locks, remote entry, lighted vanity mirrors, variable wipers, and an overhead console with map lights and sunglasses holder. The new-for-2001 GXE Limited Edition package lists for $1,375, and includes all of the above plus a power driver's seat, remote keyless entry with vehicle security system, floor mats, and special LE badging.
Traditional with Nissan is an SE sport model, which gives you the largest wheels and tires, a firmer suspension, rear disc brakes, a monster six-speaker CD stereo, and a driver's seat lumbar support. The SE lists for $18,640.
The top-line GLE has a softer, more luxurious ride than the sporty SE. And it comes with an eight-way power driver's seat, side-impact airbags, leather upholstery, and automatic transmission, for $20,390.
The SE can be ordered with leather for $1,299, but then Nissan requires that you also buy the $849 power moonroof. Automatic transmission, fortunately, is an $800 stand-alone option on XE, GXE, and SE.
After last year's major restyling, the Altima remains visually unchanged for 2001. It still sports last year's longer, sleeker look, with unique front-end styling for the sporty SE. Headlight clusters include integral turn signals and cornering lamps, even the fog lamps on SE and GLE. In the rear, bright red taillights and a rear deck lid finisher contribute to a wide and elegant theme.
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.
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 only large enough for youngsters.
The Altima has always been a highly refined sedan, with smooth steering and good behavior over bumps. The latest version is even better, especially on rough pavement. When you push the Altima around a corner, the steering feels light, yet it retains a good feel of the road surface. This is a tight and nimble sedan. It corners with confidence, feels lighter on its feet than the larger mid-sized cars.
There are four different suspensions on the various Altimas. 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 keep Altima's hood low and its lines lean. Still, this engine won't win any 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.
The overall gearing of both the five-speed manual and the four-speed automatic were altered in 2000 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 was shortened slightly for faster gear-changing. It feels great, and could change your mind about needing an automatic 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.
SE models get four-wheel-disc brakes, and you can feel the improvement over the standard 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 that you can slow the car down in any unexpected circumstance.
The slightly larger Altima is still a sweet package, a high-quality sedan that's still trimmer in size compared to the larger and more popular Camry and Accord (not to mention Ford's Taurus). If you like trim, maneuverable sedans, Altima is still a great buy.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.