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A Look Back at the Nissan Altima

For the past 25 years, the Nissan Altima sedan has been a core component of the company’s lineup. Its introduction was a major step forward in combating the growing popularity of the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry. Before the Altima, Nissan’s only contender in the midsize sedan fight was the Stanza, a simple car lacking both the power and sophistication of its rivals. With the Maxima priced at the upper end of the family sedan market and the compact Sentra too small, Nissan needed a new car and a new name to successfully hit the sweet spot of family sedan sales. The Altima did just that, and more.

The Altima Makes Its U.S. Debut

In 1993, Nissan launched the all-new Altima, although the Stanza name also appeared on a tiny sticker just to the left of the Altima badge. This dual-naming scheme was due to a regulatory issue, and only lasted one year. Styled at Nissan’s San Diego, California design studio and assembled in Smyrna, Tennessee, the Altima was an immediate sales success. While the new Altima helped Nissan make significant inroads with midsize car buyers, it still fell short of the benchmarks set by the Accord and Camry, which not only continued to grow in size and power, but also offered a coupe and wagon model.

Upon its introduction, the Altima was offered in four trims: Base XE, mid-level GXE, upscale GLE and the sporty SE. Regardless of trim, all Altimas were powered by a 150-horsepower 2.4-liter engine paired with either a 4-speed automatic or 5-speed manual transmission. The base XE featured manual windows with a bare-bones interior and was produced in limited numbers. Further up the trim line, the Altima offered such unique options as a head-up display (93-94 model year only), automatic climate control and a high-powered audio system with 6×9 rear speakers. These features were dropped in 1997, but the Altima GLE gained standard leather seating, while the GXE offered a Limited Edition model. The sporty SE trim offered 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, sport seats, a rear spoiler, sport suspension, alloy wheels and fog lights.

A New Altima, but Not Much New

The second generation Altima arrived in 1998, still powered by a 4-cylinder engine offering the same power and fuel economy of the outgoing model. Styling again came from Nissan’s California studio, but the Altima’s overall look seemed to have lost its edge. Trim lines also remained the same, although the volume-leading GXE did gain more features. The second generation Altima had a more sophisticated interior with higher quality materials and more standard features. A folding rear seat was made standard on all but the base XE trim, and all models featured a new glovebox and cup holders. While the overall interior volume remained at 108 cu. ft., the new design made the cabin feel larger and more inviting. The SE gained white-faced gauges, while the GLE added standard leather seating.

Sales were not as strong as Nissan had hoped, so the Altima got some major upgrades in 2000, including a boost in horsepower from 150 to 155, a new front end and new tail lights. Side-impact airbags became standard on the GLE and were made available on the SE and GXE.

Nissan Goes Big

With the all-new 2002 model, Nissan finally had an Altima that could challenge the Accord and Camry head on. The third generation car was not only larger and more luxurious, it had a sporty look and style, an available 3.5-liter V6 engine and vastly improved ride and handling. Nissan’s Sales and Marketing VP Al Castignetti explained it best when he was quoted as saying, “The concept behind the third generation Altima styling and engineering was simple — stop copying Accord and Camry, as we had been doing, and carve out fresh territory of our own.” The formula worked because Altima sales took off, and the Altima was recognized as the 2002 North American Car of the Year.

The Altima’s improvements were numerous. Interior volume grew from 108 to 118 cu. ft., while the rear suspension was elevated to a more advanced multi-link design. Four-wheel disc brakes were also standard. The Altima’s growth spurt actually made it larger than the 2002 Nissan Maxima. The most notable model in the lineup, however, was the SE, which featured a 240-horsepower V6, 5-speed manual transmission, sport suspension and unique sport seats. So good was the 2002 Altima SE, that it began to cannibalize sales from the more expensive Maxima. Still, many credit the Altima with a major sales turnaround for Nissan that helped moved the company back to profitability.

In 2005, the Altima received a modest makeover with a new front face, taillights and wheels. A new DVD-based navigation system was offered, and horsepower for the V6 increased to 250. A new SE-R model debuted, with an even more powerful 260-horsepower V6. The SE-R also gained a 6-speed manual transmission, a stiffer suspension, performance exhaust and larger brakes.

While the third generation Altima was a massive success, the car was not without its problems. Early 2002-03 models suffered from excessive oil consumption, as did some V6 engines. This problem usually occurred later in the car’s life and after it was out of warranty. Early Altima’s also suffered issues with excessive rust on the driver and passenger side floorboards.

A Smaller Altima with More Luxury

The 4th generation Altima was launched in 2007, revealed with a 1-inch shorter wheel base but a much more sophisticated design overall. Interior dimensions remained the same, but interior quality was vastly improved. The Altima’s styling was toned down a bit, mimicking the rounded look of the Nissan Maxima. Power for the Altima came from either a 175-hp 2.5-liter 4-cylinder or 270-hp 3.5-liter V6. A 6-speed manual was the standard transmission, while the traditional automatic was replaced by a new Continuously Variable Transmission, or CVT for short.

The Altima featured a number of upscale luxury features previously unknown to the model, including Intelligent Key entry and push-button start, a rear backup camera, Bluetooth phone connectivity and ABS with electronic brake force distribution. The Altima also featured no less than nine cup holders throughout the cabin.

The biggest change to the 4th generation Altima came in the form of two new models: a coupe and a hybrid sedan. The Altima Coupe was introduced in 2008 and featured the same engine and transmission options as the sedan, but rode on a shorter wheelbase and bore a striking resemblance to the Infiniti G35 Coupe. The Altima Hybrid was a low-production model sold only in states that followed California’s strict emissions standards. Nissan licensed Toyota’s hybrid-drive system for use in the Altima, but sales never took hold and the hybrid model was discontinued after 2011 model year ended.

Longer, Lower and more Luxurious

2013 marked the debut of the 5th generation Altima, a car that grew in size but ironically dropped 120 pounds over the previous version. The same 2.5 and 3.5-liter engines carried over, each with more power and better fuel economy. The coupe didn’t make the cut, however, carrying over for its last run in 2013 atop the old platform. Cool new features like NASA-inspired Zero Gravity front seats made their debut, and trim lines for the Altima sedan were reduced to just five models: 2.5, 2.5 S, 2.5 SV, 2.5 SL and 3.5 SL. The 6-speed manual also disappeared, leaving driving enthusiasts to look elsewhere. With this generation, it was clear Nissan was moving away from its sport sedan image to a more family-oriented flavor. While the 5th generation Altima sold well, critics noted it was not as fun to drive as the Mazda6, nor as technologically advanced as the Kia Optima, Honda Accord or Chevrolet Malibu. In 2016, Nissan brought back the sporty SR trim, but not the manual transmission many hoped would accompany it.

A New Beginning

The 2019 Nissan Altima was recently unveiled at the New York International Auto Show, and it appears Nissan is ready to reclaim the Altima’s mantle as an affordable performance family sedan. The new model boasts a number of firsts, including a 248-hp turbocharged 4-cylinder engine replacing the previous V6 and the option of all-wheel drive. Nissan’s revolutionary Pro-Pilot Assist semi-autonomous hands-on driving assistant will be available, as will a host of cutting edge connectivity features and standard driver assist safety technologies.

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Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo is a longtime contributor who started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2002 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He’s well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to translate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations. Joe has worked for a number of outlets as... Read More about Joe Tralongo

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