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Buying a Used Nissan Altima: Everything You Need to Know

In the trifecta of Japanese family sedans, the Nissan Altima usually places a tight third behind the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry. Like its more popular rivals, the Altima has a good history of faithful service, exceptional build quality and frugal fuel consumption. While it may not always be as cutting edge as the competition, the Altima has always put itself out there as a stylish and sporty family sedan offered at good price. If you’re seeking a comfortable sedan that is safe, roomy and affordable, a used Altima will probably do the trick.

Which Altima Should I Buy?

The Altima began its life as a small sticker placed next to the Stanza badge on Nissan’s midsize family sedan. That was in 1993, but by 1994, the Stanza name was gone, heralding in the Altima as Nissan’s middle child. Slotting between the compact Sentra and the upscale Maxima, the first and second generation Altima ran from 1993-1997 and 1998-2001, respectively. These models were only offered as sedans and were powered by a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine. There were a few trim levels available, running from basic XE to the luxury GLE. The SE trim was the sportiest, with white-faced gauges, body-colored trim and bigger wheels.

By today’s standards, an Altima from this period would be about the same size as a Honda Civic or a Hyundai Accent. You won’t find many of these in good condition running around, but if you do, they won’t cost more than a few thousand dollars, if that. On the plus side, the first two generations of Altimas had relatively few issues. The engines ran strong and there were no glaring rust or corrosion issue to speak of. It was just a good, solid little car. Original owners reported short life spans for CV joints, tie rods and some manual transmissions. There was also an issue with the master power window switch shorting out on the driver’s side.

The third generation Altima ran from 2002-2006. This Altima grew to become a proper midsize sedan, with a generous rear seat, a better suspension and an available V6 engine. At the time of its debut, Nissan had fallen on hard times, but the Altima helped steer the company back to profitability. It also took a big share of the midsize family sedan market for itself. The Altima was more dynamic and sportier than either the Accord or Camry of the day, and the sporty SE trim was so good that it almost eclipsed the larger Maxima. The Altima gained 4-wheel disc brakes and a multi-link rear suspension, which gave it a sporty character that was more in line with Volkswagen’s Passat and Jetta. Upper end trims such as the SL and SE offered heated seats, Bose audio, a leather interior and a key fob that allowed the windows to be raised or lowered remotely. Front side airbags were available on the Altima, but without them, it scored rather poorly in its side-impact crash test. Our advice is to try and find a used model with front side-impact and side-curtain airbags.

Power for this generation came from either a 175-horsepower 2.5-liter 4-cylinder or a 260-hp 3.5-liter V6. Both engines offered a good balance between performance and fuel economy. The sporty SE-R trim that debuted in 2005 had no equal from Honda, Toyota, Ford or Chevy. It came with the V6, a 6-speed manual transmission, performance brakes and a larger wheel and tire combo. Car & Driver clocked a zero-to-60 mph time of around 6 seconds, which even by today’s standard is darn quick. For the most part, this generation holds up well, although there was a major issue with excessive oil consumption on early versions of the 2.5-liter engine and some rusting floorboards in some years. Pricing for a nice condition 2006 Altima with 150,000 miles can run as low as $3,500 for a base 2.5 S, or up to around $5,000 for a V6 SE with under 100,000 miles.

The fourth generation Altima showed up in 2007 and ran until 2012. If you’re seeking a low-priced Altima that still has modern safety and tech features, this is where you’ll find it. This Altima was slightly shorter than the previous model, but passenger and cargo volume remained unchanged. In this time period, the Altima line expanded to include a coupe (2008-2013) and a hybrid model, although not many hybrids were sold because sales were limited to about 10 states. The bread-and-butter car remained the sedan, and improvements were made to the engine, suspension and seats. Trims were renamed 2.5, 2.5 S, 3.5 SE and 3.5 SL. Engine choices remained the same, only the 3.5-liter V6 got a bump in hp to 270.

New features on the Altima included keyless entry and push-button start, an available rear-view camera, Bluetooth cell phone connectivity, Intelligent Key entry and GPS navigation. Sadly, Nissan axed some of these features after the 2008 model year. Anti-lock disc brakes were made standard in 2008, while the previously optional VDC traction and stability control system was added to all trims in 2010. The fourth generation Altima is also the first to offer a CVT automatic transmission. The transmission helped improve fuel economy, but not everyone was happy with its performance or reliability.

An Altima from this model year range can run the gamut from $5,000 for a 2007 2.5 S with less than 100,000 miles to as high as $10,000 for a 60,000-mile 2010 3.5 SR. The coupes don’t hold their value as well as the sedans, with a low mileage V6 selling for well under $10,000.

In 2013, the fifth generation Altima arrived, bringing with it a quieter cabin, more technology and better crash test scores. Although much of the mechanical and suspension parts carried over from the last generation, this version took on a more radical look, mimicking the Maxima sedan and the Murano SUV. The engines remained largely unchanged, but the manual transmission option was lost. By this point in the Altima’s timeline, rivals such as the Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata and Toyota Camry were overtaking it in size, technology and innovation. One area the Altima continued to dominate was fuel economy, with the 2.5 models earning an estimated 38 mpg on the highway. The Altima’s interior was made more luxurious and given better quality plastics, and Nissan’s NASA-inspired Zero Gravity Seats were designed to reduce fatigue on long drives. Other options included a heated steering wheel and 9-speaker Bose sound system, as well as blind-spot detection and lane departure warning. Nissan’s NissanConnect infotainment system included Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. In 2016, the SL Tech Package added forward emergency braking, forward collision detection and adaptive cruise control, but by 2018, the collision warning and braking systems were made standard.

This is the model range you’ll want to shop for if your budget is in the mid teens to low 20s, and you’re looking for the latest driver assists and smartphone compatibility. A look at the Autotrader.com classifieds shows a 2013 Altima 2.5 SV with around 80,000 miles selling for $10,000. The V6 cars bring about $2,000 more. We found a few late model Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) Altima SLs with the V6 and with less than 50,000 miles selling in the $15,000 range.

Is the Altima a reliable used car choice?

For the most part, buying a used Nissan Altima is a pretty good idea. Be sure to watch for the models and years that have known issues, and always have a mechanic give the car a thorough inspection before you buy. The V6 cars are less trouble-prone than the 4-cylinders, and the older automatics more reliable than some of the earlier CVTs.

Can the Altima comfortably fit four adults?

So long as we’re talking about a 2002 or newer version, the answer is yes. Rear seat headroom gets a bit tighter on the fifth generation, but the Altima offers plenty of room for passengers. It also has a fairly good size trunk, on par with an Accord and a Camry but smaller than a Hyundai Sonata.

Is the Altima a safe car?

The 2002-2006 model scored poorly in the IIHS side impact crash test but earned a Good rating in the small overlap front crash test. The 2007 model scored much better all around, while the fifth generation 2013 car earned an IIHS Top Safety Pick + rating. Later models equipped with advanced driver assists such as forward collision warning and braking earned even higher marks for safety.

Does the Altima hold its value?

When it comes to resale, a late model Altima sits in the middle of the road. It’s KBB five-year values are nowhere near those of the Honda Accord, the Hyundai Sonata or the Toyota Camry, but they are on par with the Ford Fusion, the Volkswagen Passat and the Chevrolet Malibu and better than the Chrysler 200, the Dodge Avenger and the Mitsubishi Gallant.

What are some known issues with the Nissan Altima?

The most common Altima complaints center around the 2002-2006 cars equipped with the 2.5-liter engine. There were a number of complaints about excessive oil consumption that often lead to engine damage or failure. There was also a class action lawsuit brought by owners of the 2002-2006 cars for defective floorboards that suffered premature rusting. Altima’s equipped with the early versions of the CVT automatic transmission have had more than a few complaints regarding slow shifting, leaking coolant and complete failure. Nissan extended the CVT’s warranty on some 2007-2010 Altimas to 10-years/120,000 miles. In addition, 2011-2012 models had some issues with faulty ignition switch software, while the 2009-2010 Altima had an issue with a steering wheel lockout mechanism that sometimes prevented the car from starting.

How Does the Nissan Altima Stack Up With the Competition?

Used Nissan Altima vs. Used Honda Accord

The Accord will always have superior resale and reliability figures compared with the Altima, but the Altima offers a sportier image for less money. A late-model Altima also has a better infotainment system and interior layout.

Used Nissan Altima vs. Used Toyota Camry

Like the Accord, the Camry will hold its value better than the Altima and generally prove more reliable, although the Camry was part of the massive Toyota unintended acceleration recall. The Camry also offered a high-mileage hybrid in all markets (the short-lived Altima hybrid actually leased its technology from Toyota). On newer models, the Altima’s infotainment system supports both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto whereas the Camry only supports Apple CarPlay.

Used Nissan Altima vs. Used Ford Fusion

The Fusion offers more models, more engine choices and the option of all-wheel drive. The Fusion is a better driving car, with better steering feedback and cornering abilities. However, newer Fusion models have had a lot of issues with their transmissions and their quirky Ford Sync and MyFord Touch infotainment system.

Is the Nissan Altima Good Vehicle?

For the most part, the Altima is a good used car value. Avoid the problem years mentioned above and you should be fine. A comparably equipped Accord or Camry will cost more than an Altima, which means your used car dollar will go further with the Nissan. If the numb steering and droning CVT automatic don’t bother you, the Altima should make a fine used car. Find a Nissan Altima for sale

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