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Car Review: 2003 Nissan Altima 3.5 SE

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SEE ALSO: Nissan Buyer's Guide



MODEL: Nissan Altima 3.5 SE
ENGINE: 3.5-liter DOHC V6
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE: 245 hp @ 5,800 rpm/246 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 4-speed automatic
WHEELBASE: 110.2 in.
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT: 191.5 x 70.4 x 57.9 in.

If you haven't been paying attention lately, Nissan is on the rebound. The Japanese manufacturer has been developing some super automobiles and trucks, with some equally impressive engines, and has come back from near financial disaster to post strong profits. Of course, the strong profits are a direct result of the strong automobiles.

Our tester this week is the Altima 3.5 SE. This is the third generation of Nissan's midsize sedan, and it's a looker. I believe Nissan did an excellent job in the design of the Altima, with a dramatic wedge shape, wheels pushed to the corners for maximum interior space, and a knockout view from the rear, even though the front is more traditional Nissan.

Under the hood is a 3.5-liter DOHC V6 that pumps out 245 horsepower. This is good performance from an engine of this size and it's just about what the Altima needs. We found that we were able to reach illegal speeds in a very short space of time while still achieving good fuel economy. The EPA lists the Altima 3.5 SE as 19mpg city/26 mpg highway, and we averaged just over 20 mpg in a mix of driving experiences.

The power reaches the front wheels through a four-speed automatic transmission with overdrive, which helps in the fuel economy department at cruising speeds. This was a non-nonsense gearbox; just shift it and go and you don't have to worry about anything.

With the redesign, Nissan increased interior accommodations to comfort level for five. The rear passengers don't have any worries about finding enough legroom, while the front passengers can stretch out to their hearts' content. Quite often, we find that in some smaller cars we must move the front seats forward just so the rear passengers don't have to sit with their knees up under their chins.

And of great importance to our family, since we used the Altima in the final mad Christmas shopping rush before the holiday, is 15.6 cubic feet of trunk capacity. So many midsize and full size cars these days have small trunks that make their size almost useless.

The Altima in SE trim offers the maximum in luxury as well. We had heated leather seats (something my wife almost demands in winter), a power glass sunroof and Bose sound system (part of a $3,899 Leather Sport option package). But we also had such serious safety additions as side airbags and ABS and a traction control system (part of a $1,099 ABS/Airbag/TCS option package). So the Altima was well equipped, both for entertainment and performance.

The option packages and a $540 destination charge added to the base price of $23,149 gave a bottom line of $28,687. Obviously, you can have the Altima any way you want it, depending on your cash reserves.

Under the chassis is a four-wheel independent suspension that provided for a smooth ride on Interstates and a sporty ride on twisty roads. This was a good suspension in that it allowed the driver to have the most fun with the Altima when desired, yet "chug along" when the desires went that way. With the V6 engine and Se trim, the Altima rode on 17-inch wheels with 215/55R17 tires, adding to the ride quality.

Altima was named the 2002 North American Car of the Year, and it was a well-deserved honor. It probably has a good chance of repeating, if it's possible to repeat.

© 2003 The Auto Page Syndicate