by Bob Storck
NACIMIENTO, Calif. — This winding road is one of the least traveled and best-kept secrets among West Coast sports car drivers. It winds up from the gorgeous Big Sur coastline over the crest to the grassland valleys beyond. It is a delight in a good handling car, and in the new Nissan Altima — the company’s new midsize sedan and finally, a true competitor for the Camry and Accord — it is a delight.
Nissan is calling the Altima the "cure for the common car," and they are highlighting its superior dynamic characteristics. In the past the Maxima has been considered sportier and more of a driver’s car than Camry and Accord, but had to be de-contented to compete with those models, especially since it did not offer a four-cylinder version. Now, the Altima will take on the fat middle of the family-sedan segment, leaving the Maxima to drift up into more luxurious, more sporting territory when it is redesigned in a couple of years.
In its new fighting trim, the Altima is convincing evidence that Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn’s “Revival Plan” (which included a big investment from France’s Renault) has not only taken root, but is putting out some great results. Nissan’s designers and engineers started with a clean sheet of paper when designing the 2002 Altima, including an all-new platform. In comparison with the previous Altima, the new one’s wheelbase has been increased 7.1 inches, overall length is up 5.7 inches and the ’02 Altima is 1.3 inches wider. Track has been increased by 1.8 inches in front and 2.4 inches in the rear for better handling.
The ‘02 Altima features an all-new front suspension with an extensive use of aluminum parts, and a rear multi-link independent suspension adapted from the Japanese-market Nissan Skyline super car. To help with handling (and looks) the standard 205/65R16 tires come on either steel or aluminum-alloy wheels; V-6 models have standard 17-inch aluminum-alloy wheels and 215/55R-17 tires.
A new 240-horsepower, 3.5-liter 24-valve V-6 is available for the first time in the Altima this year. The engine is part of the VQ engine series, recognized as one of the “Ten Best Engines” by Ward’s Auto World magazine for seven consecutive years. For silent, smooth operation, a new timing chain was added, as well as a dual exhaust system. The V-6-powered Altimas qualify for Low Emission Vehicle (LEV) status and the all- new four-cylinder equipped Altimas qualify for Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) status.
Either engine has a choice of five-speed manual or four-speed electronically controlled automatic transmissions. Automatic V-6 Altimas offer a traction control system as well.
As for safety, the Altima has standard four-wheel disc brakes with an optional four-wheel, four-channel, four-sensor anti-lock braking system (ABS). ABS-equipped Altimas have Electronic Brake force Distribution (EBD), which optimizes brake force depending on load condition (passengers and cargo) and Brake Assist, which senses hard or panic pedal application and helps provide maximum braking capacity. The Altima also comes with standard dual-stage supplemental airbags that sense seatbelt use and collision severity and deploy accordingly, seatbelts with pretensioners and load limiters and the LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren) child seat anchors and tether system.
The Altima’s newfound sense of style telegraphs the degree of change: it’s a handsome shape with a touch of generica in the roofline, relieved by a fast C-pillar and a chiseled nose and front fascia. The combination headlights come with optional xenon bulbs on V-6 models and the large, round taillights wear snazzy clear lenses.
The large cabin is up 9.2 cubic feet from the previous Altima with a 1.9-inch increase in front legroom, and a 2.6-inch increase in rear legroom. Instead of the usual interior color selections, there are distinctive “environments” that encompass both seat cloth or (optional) leather color and interior surface trim finish. The three atmosphere choices feature Charcoal, Blond and Frost colors. Wood-tone trim is also available, too.
In the cockpit, there’s a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, height-adjustable center console armrest and gated automatic transmission shifter. The HVAC and audio controls are grouped in a single unit, reducing complexity. Power windows and locks are standard and windows can be opened remotely via key fob for cabin venting. The instrument panel is designed to fall away from the occupants for increased legroom and improved ingress and egress.
The 2002 Nissan Altima will be available in four different models – the base 2.5, mid-grade 2.5 S, luxurious 2.5 SL and the V6-powered 3.5 SE. Options range from an automatic transmission to leather-appointed seats, audio systems, front seat side-impact airbags and roof-mounted side-impact curtain airbags.
Just last week, the Altima began production at the award-winning Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tenn. As soon as we get our hands on one for a full road test, we’ll report back in.
2002 Nissan Altima
Base price: $17,000-$26,000 (est.)
Engine: 2.5-liter four-cylinder, 175 hp; 3.5-liter V-6, 240 hp
Transmission: Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 191.5 x 70.4 x 57.9 in
Wheelbase: 110.2 in
Curb weight: 2999-3273 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 23/29 mpg (2.5-liter/five-speed); 19/26 mpg (3.5-liter/four-speed)
Safety equipment: Front airbags
Major standard equipment: Air conditioning, tilt/telescoping steering, rear defroster, power windows and door locks
Warranty: Three years /36,000 miles
Copyright © 2001 by the Car Connection