PALO ALTO, California - When Nissan redesigned its midsize sedan for the 2002 model year, it turned out to be as big as the "flagship" Maxima. Although the current Altima has been a a good seller, ranked Number Four in U.S. sales for 2005, the previous (smaller) generation was not. For that one, Nissan emphasized its low selling price.
With this new version, both the concept and design are described as "evolutionary." Nissan addressed perceived weaknesses of the 2002-06 model, including torque steer, interior quality, and steering effort.
Built on an all-new "D" platform, the Altima's "stance is still aggressive," said Pete Haidos, Nissan's director of product planning, but in a slightly smaller size. Wheelbase has shrunk by an inch, and length by 2.5 inches. Claiming to offer the "same room inside," a shorter wheelbase was needed to keep weight down, considering the car's new features. Wheel arches are considerably more pronounced. Taillamps were reworked, but kept the basic look of the prior generation.
Nissan made its goal clear, seeking to create the best-performing, front-drive sedan in world. Lower engine mounting is meant to reduce "torque steer" to near-zero, and body rigidity has improved. Dropping the engine means half-shafts are more parellel to the ground, which is said to help cut torque steer even with a V-6 engine.
As before, two engines are available. The fourth-generation 3.5-liter V-6 generates 270 horsepower (up 20) and 258 pound-feet of torque. Nissan's 2.5-liter four-cylinder, in its second generation, develops 175 horsepower. Both engines work with dual exhausts.
Either a six-speed manual gearbox or a continuously variable transmission (CVT) may be installed. Nissan has been developing CVTs since 1979, and they've been in production for 15 years - though not in U.S. models until more recently. This one provides a kickdown just like a regular automatic, Haidos said, with "no rubber band feeling." Shift modes are provided for normal, economy, and sport operation.
Seat cushions have been lengthened, and the seatback made taller. The glovebox is now deemed "jumbo-size," because no part of the air conditioner is behind it anymore. An Intelligent Key with pushbutton start is standard on all Altimas.
Curtain-type and seat-mounted airbags are standard. A new dual-pivot brake pedal is supposed to provide normal "feel" at both low and high speeds. A navigation system with Real-Time Traffic information is available.
Antilock brakng is standard with V-6 models and optional for four-cylinders. Traction control is standard with the V-6, and some Altima models may be fitted with optional Electronic Stability Control.
Phenomenal handling on twisty two-lane roads is the byword for a V-6 Altima. With manual shift, this is a truly enjoyable automobile to toss around a bit, in the low gears. A beautifully-behaved clutch adds to the pleasure, but the shifter is just a tiny bit clanky. Sometimes, too, it seems like you're in 5th or 6th gear when you're actually in 3rd or 4th.
Overall, the Altima is a seriously substantial car, providing plenty of room up front in every direction. Super visibility is due to plentiful glass. With its taut suspension and close-to-sporty behavior, as well as excellent steering feel, the V-6 Altima offers fine road feel and connection to the pavement. Drivers enjoy a high confidence level, and the low cowl produces a good view ahead. Although the taut suspension does result in greater body motion on imperfect surfaces, it's not really uncomfortable.
A four-cylinder stick-shift sedan also yielded fine ride quality despite adept handling. You hardly notice lesser bumps, and the Altima makes quick work of deeper ones. Even the four-cylinder delivers plenty of exuberant energy with only moderate engine noise, making it a sensible choice.
Nissan has taken the lead with continuously variable transmissions (CVTs). In this installation, the CVT performs with satisfying smoothness (as expected), without excessive engine noise when accelerating.
Long seat bottoms offer good thigh support. The higher back also is satisfying, but back support isn't quite up to par. Especially with leather upholstery, you may sometimes feel as if you're about to slide downward. Gauges are basic and familiar-looking, but easy to read.
Placed on sale in November, the Altima sedan comes in five trim levels: four-cylinder 2.5, 2.5 S, and 2.5 S with SL package; plus the 3.5 SE and 3.5 SL with a V-6 engine. Prices start at $17,950 for the Altima 2.5 with manual shift. A stick-shift 3.5 SE stickers for $24,000.
Nissan's new hybrid-powertrain Altima goes on sale this winter. Though it uses Toyota's hybrid system, it's not the same as a Camry. Nissan expects a fuel-economy estimate of 41-mpg city/36-mpg highway from the EPA. "Camry is a little bit more refined," Haidos noted.