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Car Review: 2005 Nissan Altima 3.5 SE

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2005 Nissan Altima 3.5 SE

The middle can seem like a safe, inviting place. Nothing extreme, nothing controversial, no one offended. But that middle, almost by definition, is the home of boredom. No extremes, no controversy, no offense... no interest. And, alas, in regard to styling, road manners, and general ambiance, the mid-level, middle-class, mid-size sedan is most likely to be a product of that middle, and, well, boring. Such cars are bought by logic, not passion. Most are about as visually, tactilely, and emotionally interesting and exciting as your basic household appliance.

The third-generation Altima has become one of the most popular Nissans since its debut in 2002, and it's easy to see why. It's not bland, boring, and uninteresting. It stands out from its competitors in the heart of the mid-size sedan class, offering a fine combination of space, comfort, and unique style, with entertaining performance as well. To keep its edge, Nissan has added significant changes to the Altima for model year 2005.

Mid-product cycle changes often amount to little more than new colors and trim packages. While there are new color choices for the 2005 Altima, and the mostly subtle exterior revisions could be seen as trim changes, the interior gets a major revamping. Underneath, the V6 engine used in the upscale models gets a touch more power, and the rear suspension has been redesigned.

I drove a base-model Altima equipped with the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine shortly after its debut in 2002, and was impressed by its space, comfort, and power. Time in a 2003 V6 with all of the luxury options further impressed me. Since that time, the V6's four-speed automatic has been replaced by a five-speed in addition to the 2005 changes mentioned, and the SE model I've just spent a with with was so-equipped. If by merely reading the specifications the 2005 Altima seems like a middle-of-the-road mid-size, middle-class family sedan, well, yes, it is. But it is a unique Nissan interpretation of that genre, and so is anything but boring in looks and ability.

APPEARANCE: The Altima is a conservative design for a Nissan - which means that compared to other mid-size, mid-level sedans it's anything but conservative. Rounded and voluptuous, it's at the large end of the midsize spectrum, and its styling makes it look even more substantial. The new grille and bumper fascia add slightly under an inch to length. Although it, like most cars in its class, has front-wheel drive, the Altima has sporty-looking long-hood, short deck proportions, and a curving character line on each side adds to that by suggesting a rakish wedge shape. The long passenger cabin dominates the side view of the car, promising interior space. The most noticeable styling changes for 2005 are at the front. More angular smoked headlight covers, twin character lines inscribed into center of the hood, a reshaped grille with textured dark metallic crossbars, and a revised bumper fascia with inset foglamps balance the Altima's rounded shape.

COMFORT: The interior space promised by the exterior styling is delivered. And the interior's design makes efficient use of all that space. It's been freshened with new materials for the seats and headliner, and a new instrument panel and console. As previously, three different ``environments'' - packages of color and material - are offered for a degree of personalization, and leather is available. My test car was simply-equipped, with the ``Blond'' interior and high-grade synthetic cloth upholstery. Front seat comfort is very good, aided in the SE by eight-way power adjustment of the driver's seat. The backlit, easily-visible instruments are in a restyled pod that features individual chrome bezels. A three-spoke steering wheel replaces last year's four-spoke wheel; it can be adjusted to a wide degree for both tilt and reach. The main instrument panel body is even more curved than before, adding to the feeling of spaciousness, and the revised center stack is more smoothly integrated. At its top is a useful covered storage space, or the screen for the newly-available navigation system. Below that are the audio and climate-control system controls. The new console adds storage space, with a large covered compartment at the front and a two-layer box/armrest at the rear that has a power point useful for recharging a cell phone or other electronic device. The rear seat is spacious enough for three adults up to around six feet, and folds with a 60/40 split. If the trunk looks, from the outside, to be small, it isn't.

SAFETY: The 2005 Nissan Altima has front and rear crumple zones. 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: With a rigid chassis structure, long wheelbase, and wide track, the Altima has the basis for good ride and handling. Nissan's engineers used those characteristics to great advantage, giving the Altima a fully-independent suspension that makes use of aluminum parts to reduce unsprung weight, thereby improving response. The front struts are unchanged from last year, but the old rear multilink suspension has been replaced by a new design patterned after that of the Japanese-market Nissan Skyline performance sedan. It's lighter, for handling improvements. The springs and shocks are tuned moderately, for a the balance between comfort and handling expected in a family sedan, but there is plenty of pleasure to by had driving the Altima.

PERFORMANCE: The two choices for power for an Altima are a 2.5-liter four and a 3.5-liter V6. Both are high-tech designs of aluminum alloy construction and feature dual overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, continuously-variable valve timing, and electronically-controlled throttles. Versions of the 2.5 sold in California emissions states meets Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (PZEV) standards. The V6 has (merely) Low Emissions Vehicle (LEV) status. As could be told from the name, my 3.5 SE test car had the V6. Nissan has found five more horsepower and three more lb-ft of torque this year, for 250 and 249, respectively. The engine is smooth, with immediate response to throttle inputs. And fuel economy has improved a few mpg, too. Much credit should be given to the excellent five-speed automatic transmission. It has a manual-shift mode, but that is more for the driver's entertainment than to over-ride any shifting deficiencies. It selects the correct gear and shifts quickly and smoothly, and even downshifts while descending hills.

CONCLUSIONS: Nissan calls its Altima ``The Cure For The Common Car,'' and they do indeed have a valid point. It combines the space and comfort expected in a midsize family sedan with sporty performance and good handling.

2005 Nissan Altima 3.5 SE

Base Price			$ 23,750
Price As Tested		        $ 25,710
Engine Type			Aluminum alloy dual overhead cam
				 24-valve V6
Engine Size			3.5 liters / x cu. in.
Horsepower			250 @ y rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			249 @ y rpm
Transmission			5-speed electronically-controlled 
Wheelbase / Length		110.2 in. / 192.3 in.
Curb Weight			n/a lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower	        n/a
Fuel Capacity			20.0 gal.
Fuel Requirement		91 octane unleaded premium gasoline 
Tires				P215/55 HR17 Bridgestone Turanza EL42
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc,
				 antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent strut /
				  independent multilink
Drivetrain			front engine, front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		20 / 30 / 23
0 to 60 mph				7.2  sec

5-piece floor and trunk mat set		$   150
Sport package - includes:
  rear spoiler, power glass moonroof	$ 1,250
Destination charge			$   560