There comes a time in oneís life when one must decide which fork in the road to take - no pun intended, this being an automotive kind of place and all - and so it was that I found myself at LAX on February 1st 1999. I decided it was time to cross the pond and try life on the West Coast for a while, leaving behind the cold and the rain in London, for a sunnier time in LA.
In mentioning this hallowed site I had managed to procure a Nissan Altima GXE from the nice people at A & M, for my first week in the City of Angels, knowing that to not have wheels in this town is not an option - unless running the gauntlet of the public bus system is oneís idea of true adventure. Forgoing this test I gladly accepted the Altima and headed to Santa Monica.
Having lived in France I am used to driving on the other side of the road, and in fact I have driven in LA before, hence the freeways held no fear for me. I was glad, however, to avoid rush hour, when even the most ponderous of hedgehogs may traverse all 5 lanes with no fear of being run over by passing traffic - in that itís not passing, itís just sitting.
The Altima hummed along happily at 70mph and actually offered quite a firm ride. I always seem to be surprised by this in US cars, forever expecting to encounter the car equivalent of a wet sponge when taking a corner. Mind you, the weight of my luggage in the deceptively large trunk probably played a small part in keeping all 4 wheels firmly rooted to the tarmac. (The kitchen sink was only omitted at the very last moment).
Once installed chez family Levine - Bruce, Janet, Josh, Ari and Delta, thank you - it was time to start apartment hunting, necessitating much traversing of the city, or the Santa Monica region, at least. As I have said before, Iím not a huge fan of automatics, per se, but I can fully appreciate their appeal. They facilitate the car in becoming a multi-purpose vehicle, in that the driver can do many things whilst driving. But is this a good thing? I found myself much more likely to use my phone, drink my latte and generally look around than when driving a manual, but maybe thatís just me. Mind you, I wasnít even using cruise control! Letís not even contemplate that one.
Having said all that, the US road systems seem so much more logical than the UK ones. Names going one way, numbers going the other -one need never get lost. Iíve even discovered an area where the names are all parts found on a ship and are in alphabetical order. Brilliant! Unless youíre dyslex ic, I suppose.
Anyway, the Nissan proved to be the perfect little run-around for my initiation week. It was comfortable, roomy and quiet and had all the mod cons; dual airbags, cup holders - great for propping up oneís cell phone - a CD player, electric mirrors (which offered good visibility all round) and electric windows. The wind-screen wipers proved to be very efficient, as I found out over the course of 5 days, when LA became very reminiscent of London and I had no opportunity to feel remotely homesick. Even the temperature dropped to a welcoming, homely level. The car maintained a good, firm grip in even the wettest conditions on the freeway, which I am assured can become as slick as an ice rink in wet weather, due to the oil build-up on the tarmac.
The car has nice, clean lines from the outside which give the car quite a classy feel. However, I do not understand the willingness of car manufacturers to use grey plastic for dashes and trims. The same goes for taupe. It doesnít matter what sort of Ďdesigní you use within the plastic, or how nicely all the dials etc are laid out - which they were - , grey plastic just looks dull and cheap. Call me a fashion victim, but black is best. To paraphrase Coco Chanel, thereís nothing better than the LBD (Little Black Dash). Here endeth the rant.
Fuel consumption was excellent - I used less than a tank in a week filled with driving - and that included lugging around a bootful of luggage and good use of the accelerator pedal, which did not fail me. The 2.4 litre engine, which develops 150 bhp at 5,600 rpm responded well at all speeds, although I have to admit to sticking to pretty flat roads, so I would be interested to know itís response on a steep incline. The brakes were extremely responsive, for which I was grateful since sudden moves from the left or right, without any indication, seem to be the norm here. I fear that my descriptions of driving in LA will give heart palpitations to the people at Nissan upon reading them! Fear not, I have driven in Paris - this is kindergarten by comparison.
The Altima proved to be an amiable companion; easy to drive, good fuel economy, nice to look at and with plenty of mod cons. Plus there was ample room in the back to go 2 or 3 up, and not just for people of incredibly short stature. If one considers that this space did not compromise the room in the trunk, and that the car did not feel or drive like a big car, I think the designers have done a good job on the proportions of the vehicle. The one point which I felt did let the car down was the turning circle. More like a turning block I think. Banging-a-Uey (doing a U turn) is surely something which everyone does on a fairly regular basis when faced with wrong-turns or hold-ups, but doing a 6 point turn gets frustrating for both the driver executing it and those who are waiting. Just a quibble on my part.
That aside, with a base price of $17,990 the Altima has positioned itself in a good price range for people looking for a stylish, family car, with comfort and safety highlighted as features without compromising space and economy. And judging by the amount of Altimas that I saw on the road, it is not a secret waiting to be discovered.
Stay tuned for more tales of LA driving. No doubt my freeway fun has only just begun and I wait with baited breath for my first car jacking. I jest. For all the horror stories that one hears of this place, I fear that London is by far the more scary. Although, the people....now thatís another story.
Facts and Figures: Base Price: $ 17,900 Model Tested: $ 19,657 Engine: 2.4 litre, 16-valve DOHC, 4-cylinder HP: 150 hp @ 5,600rpm Torque: 154ft-lbs @ 4,400rpm Front-wheel drive 5 speed manual or electronically controlled 4 speed automatic Power steering