SEE ALSO: Nissan Buyer's Guide
The Altima was a very important car for Nissan when it was introduced in late 1992. It was a bold leap forward from the conservative old Stanza, and the first entry in the company's revitalization strategy. It is a car for the American marketplace, designed in Southern California and assembled in Tennessee. The Altima's rounded styling was a vision of future Nissan styling trends. Its construction, done at the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, saw one of the first uses of single side pieces for increased rigidity and consequent improvements in noise reduction and suspension comfort. It was, and is, assembled to tight tolerances, a fact made memorable by the "ball bearing" TV commercials of its introductory year. But that was the 1993 model year. In the automotive product cycle scheme of things, the first-generation Altima is getting old.
I should age so well. Just how well the original design was can be measured in comparison to newer designs. It compares very well, as I discovered during a recent stint in a 1997 Altima GLE. It felt comfortable, quiet, and economical, with good space utilization. It is a completely contemporary car.
The GLE, called "the affordable luxury sedan" by Nissan, is positioned at the top of the Altima line, and leans heavily toward luxury. It is an Infiniti for the middle class, with standard leather seating surfaces and woodgrain trim, and a full complement of comfort and convenience items. But, the Altima's success is due to a full model lineup, with a model for most every midsized sedan need. Besides the GLE, the basic XE and well-equipped GXE are aimed at the heart of the family sedan class. The SE has a performance-tuned suspension and sporty upgrades to its interior and exterior. All share the same tight construction and good powertrain.
APPEARANCE: Nissan Design International did a good job on the Altima. The car's rounded, organic shape is wearing well. Styling that was radical a few years ago is still contemporary. The Altima is at heart a very functional, unpretentious car, saved from plainness by its many curved surfaces, rounded masses, and tastefully discreet use of chrome trim. A short, simple hood and rear deck highlight the most important part of the car: the large passenger cabin. Minor revisions have been made to the grille and taillights over the years, and different wheels serve to differentiate the various trim levels. All 1997 models have body-colored horizontal slats over a black honeycomb grille, flanked by oval headlights. GLE models have 5-spoke polished alloy wheels.
COMFORT: Inside, the Altima is larger than compact but on the small end of midsized. Still, efficient space utilization ensures room for four on a regular basis, with a fifth passenger in the center position of the rear seat not unreasonable. Interior appointments and fit and finish of the GLE model are best described as "baby Infiniti." Leather seats, door trim, and steering wheel cover, and woodgrain highlights on the doors and instrument panel set the tone. Power windows, mirrors, and door locks, and remote keyless entry come with the GLE trim level, as do air conditioning and a very good AM/FM/cassette sound system. All interior material are of high quality, and good design and the large window area of the car give it a light, airy, elegant feeling. The front reclining bucket seats are firm and comfortable. The instrument panel is well-designed, with a dark top to reduce glare. Instrument and control design and placement is logical and useful. A locking glove box is useful, and door pockets and console storage provide space for small items. The rear seat doesn't fold, but does have a center ski pass-through to the sizeable trunk.
SAFETY: Every 1997 Nissan Altima has dual airbags, 3-point outboard seat belts, height-adjustable for the front seats, child safety rear door locks, front and rear crumple zones, and side-impact protection beams. A front disc, rear drum braking system is standard, with antilock 4-wheel discs optional.
ROADABILITY: Nissan's patented Intelligent Body Assembly System (IBAS) uses fewer, larger pieces in construction of the Altima's chassis/body structure. This makes for very good chassis rigidity, tight tolerances, and a lack of annoying squeaks, rattles, and shakes. It gives increased comfort with improved handling - a winning combination. The Altima GLE's fully-independent suspension is tuned for comfort and balances a smooth ride with nimble handling.
PERFORMANCE: All Altima models have a dual overhead cam 2.4- liter, 16-valve, 4-cylinder engine that makes 150 horsepower. It has power at all engines speeds and a small appetite for fuel. Although a 5- speed manual transmission is standard on lesser models, the GLE drives its front wheels through a 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic. It shifts well, and adds to the GLE's near-luxury character.
CONCLUSIONS: The Nissan Altima is aging most gracefully. The top-of-the-line GLE gives near luxury comfort and convenience at a very middle-class price.
SPECIFICATIONS 1997 Nissan Altima GLE Base Price $ 20,899 Price As Tested $ 22,717 Engine Type inline 4-cylinder, dual overhead cam, 16 valves Engine Size 2.4 liters / 146 cu. in. Horsepower 150 @ 5600 Torque (lb-ft) 154 @ 4400 Transmission 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 103.1 in. / 189.5 in. Curb Weight 3,032 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 20.2 Fuel Capacity 15.9 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular Tires P205/60 R15 General XP2000 II Brakes, front/rear disc / drum standard, antilock disc / disc optional Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent multi-link Drivetrain front engine, rear-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 21/29/25 0 to 60 mph 9.5 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) 17.0 sec Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.34