Review: 2003 Nissan Altima 3.5 SE


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SEE ALSO: Nissan Buyer's Guide

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD WITH CAREY RUSS

    Face it. Mid-sized, middle-class family sedans are not known for 
excitement. Sure, there are mid-sized sports sedans that can dust 
just about any street-legal sports car ever made, but they're out of 
most budgets, and a suspension tuned for serious corner carving is 
probably not going to make the occupant of the child safety seat 
happy. And you probably don't want to be in the car when that 
happens....

    There is the visual excitement angle, too. Although the popular 
mid-size sedans are getting a little more daring in style, they're still 
pretty conservative. But there is an alternative that combines 
distinctive style, a spacious, comfortable interior, and good 
performance. It's the 2003 Nissan Altima.

    The newest Altima has been a success for Nissan since its debut 
in the 2002 model year, and no wonder. It's much larger and 
roomier than the original Altima, produced from 1992 to 2001 
(with revisions in 1998), and, unlike its ancestor, is available with a 
V6 engine as well as a four-cylinder. The four, at 2.5 liters and 175 
horsepower, is in no way an entry-level powerplant. The 3.5-liter 
V6 gets a power boost this year, from 240 horsepower to 245. 
Very unusually, both engines can be matched to a five-speed 
manual transmission.

    I've just spent a week with a near top-of-the-line 2003 Altima SE 
V6. I drove a four-cylinder Altima 2.5 S about a year ago and was 
impressed by its space, power, and comfort. The SE only adds to 
the comfort and power specification, and is a near-luxury car at a 
far from luxury price. 

APPEARANCE: Stylistic resemblances between the current Altima 
and the original? Both have Nissan badges and four wheels. The 
new Altima is considerably larger, with an aerodynamically-rounded 
shape that has more than a hint of its upscale cousin, the Infiniti 
Q45. Are the passengers important? Look at the length of the 
greenhouse. The base of the windshield comes nearly to the rear of 
the front wheels, and the rear edge of the highly-sloped backlight 
goes almost to the rear of the trunk lid. Multi-element faired 
headlights cut back into the front fascia and a well-defined 
character line cut into the hood and continuing under the 
trapezoidal grille balance any possible excessive roundness in front. 
A strong shoulder line that rises toward the rear does the same for 
the sides, and suggests a sporty wedge shape. Contemporary clear-
covered taillights are featured at the rear.

COMFORT: The interior space promised by the exterior styling is 
delivered. The original Altima was at the small end of the mid-size 
class. With its longer wheelbase and wider stance, the new Altima is 
at the large end of the class, especially inside. And it makes the 
most of that room with an efficient design that makes time spent 
inside a pleasant experience. A choice of interior ``environments'' 
that includes color schemes and materials allows personalization. 
For the driver, visibility is good and the sloped instrument panel top 
gives a feeling of spaciousness and reduces glare. Instruments are 
easily visible in a shaded pod, with headlight and wiper controls on 
stalks and the main audio and climate controls in the center stack. 
Auxiliary controls are on the tilt-and-telescope-adjustable steering 
wheel. Rear passengers are treated to a very spacious seat, and the 
central tunnel is small enough that three-abreast seating is not 
uncomfortable. Leather seating surfaces and heated front seats and 
mirrors are among the contents of the `` Leather Sport Package'' on 
my test car; the ``Premium Leather Package replaces the standard 
``titanium''-colored plastic trim, new this year, with simulated 
wood. Don't be fooled by the short rear deck - it covers a huge 
trunk, and the rear seat folds with a 60/40 split when it's necessary 
to carry long items. 

SAFETY: The 2003 Nissan Altima has dual-stage front airbags that 
sense seatbelt use and collision severity and deploy accordingly. 
Front seat side-impact airbags and ceiling-mounted side-curtain 
airbags are available.

ROADABILITY: The Altima's long wheelbase and wide track not 
only add to passenger space, they add to ride comfort and handling 
ability as well. A rigid chassis structure and fully independent 
suspension with struts in front and  a multilink design in the rear 
ensures comfort on the road, and handling that is at the top of its 
class.

PERFORMANCE: The Altima's 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine is an 
impressive powerplant, and the 3.5-liter V6 is even more so. It gets 
an increase of five horsepower for 2003, to 245 at 5800 rpm, with 
246 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm. As with the four, the V6's dual 
overhead cam, four valve per cylinder design and variable valve 
timing and variable induction system give it excellent power 
characteristics at all engine speeds and quick throttle response. The 
four-speed electronically-controlled automatic transmission that is 
the most popular choice suits either engine's excellent torque 
characteristics very well, but manually-oriented drivers can have 
their Altimas outfitted with a five-speed manual transmission. 

CONCLUSIONS: Dare to be different in the mid-size family sedan 
class and accept no compromises with the 2003 Nissan Altima.

SPECIFICATIONS
2003 Nissan Altima 3.5 SE

Base Price			$ 23,149
Price As Tested		        $ 28,687
Engine Type			dual overhead cam 24-valve
                                  aluminum alloy V6
Engine Size			3.5 liters / 213 cu. in.
Horsepower			245 @ 5800 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			246 @ 4400 rpm
Transmission			4-speed automatic
Wheelbase / Length		110.2 in. / 191.5 in.
Curb Weight			3,246 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower	        13.2
Fuel Capacity			20 gal.
Fuel Requirement		91 octane unleaded premium gasoline 
                                 recommended
Tires				P215/55 HR17 Bridgestone Turanza EL42
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc,
                                 antilock optional
Suspension, front/rear		independent strut /
                                 independent multilink
Drivetrain			front engine, front-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		19 / 26 / 22
0 to 60 mph				est. 7.2  sec
Coefficient of Drag (cd)		0.32

OPTIONS AND CHARGES
Leather Sport Package - includes:
  Bose(r) audio system, power glass sunroof, leather
  appointed seats, Homelink(tm), automatic
  temperature control, heated seats and outside
  mirrors, rear spoiler, high-intensity discharge
  headlamps						$ 3,899
ABS/Airbag/TCS package - includes:
  Side airbags, antilock brakes, traction control
  system						$ 1,099
Destination charges					$   540

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