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2008 Nissan Altima Review

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

Nissan gets high marks, in my view, for offering a six-speed manual transmission in this mid-size sedan. Just that simple offering turns what is a stylish but fairly mundane car into something quite special – a driver’s car. So many others – I’m thinking particularly GM – offer a stick in just the 4-cylinder versions of small and sometimes mid-sized sedans thinking, I suppose, that the only reason to have a stick is for modestly increased acceleration. They forget that the ability to shift on one’s own is just part of the driving fun, particularly with a robust V-6 like this one.

The design language defining the entire Nissan line these past few years exhibits just enough style and panache to set the brand apart from the competition. It’s hard to tell the difference between the Altima and slightly bigger Maxima, but both are eye-catching. Even the smaller Sentra has the same shape and look, but we can tell the difference at a glance because of its size. Enhancing both the looks and to a lesser degree the performance of the Altima are dual exhaust with sexy chrome tips and good looking 17-inch, five-spoke alloy wheels shod with fairly meaty tires – P215/55R17 all seasons.

The base Altima comes with the 2.5-liter I-4 and can be had with either a 6-speed manual or the CVT (continuously variable transmission). A 2.5 S adds a tad more power with the I-4 and has the same transmission options. Our 3.5-liter V6 SE with 6-speed stick would be my first choice. The Altima also can be had in a 4-cylinder hybrid and a coupe. Prices range from $18,000 to $28,000.

Our test car has an unremarkable, but quite comfy fabric interior. It does not look cheap or tawdry in the least. The dash design, center stack, console and everything inside is as simple as can be but has a feel of quality – not luxury car level of quality, but quite good for a mid level sedan. Controls and gauges are also simple and all make sense. Going to the manual was not required for any functions, at least the ones I used.

This 3.5-liter V-6 is sweet, particularly as it powers through the six-speed stick. With 270 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque, and a multi-point fuel injection system it has plenty of grunt and revs easily without drama. We managed around 24-mpg in a variety of driving environments, if the car’s on-board measuring system is accurate. The clutch, shifter and throttle were not as easily modulated as some. It took most of the week to really get the feel of them enough to shift smoothly most of the time.

This Altima comes standard with lots of advanced stuff: halogen headlights, turn signals integrated into the heated rearview mirrors, trip computer, vehicle information display, intelligent key with push button ignition, AC with cabin air filter, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, auxiliary audio input jack, and an extra 12-volt power outlet.

Handling is excellent. Suspension is of conventional design, McPherson struts in front and multi-link independent in the rear with stabilizer bars at both ends. Damping is about what we would expect from a mass market sedan with a “sport’ package, that is, firm but not harsh, crisp but not jerky. We had no problem diving hard into a tight turn and pushing through near the limit of adhesion.

Safety features include Nissan’s Advanced Air Bag System, Traction Control, front seat active head restraints and all the stuff everyone else has as well.

The rear seats are more than adequate for a mid-size sedan, but I have a complaint about the way it accommodates cargo. The rear seat backs go down for pass-through access to the nice-sized trunk, but not easily. Two release straps are accessible from inside the trunk but the trunk is so deep they are hard to reach. A lever releases the right seat back from inside but one must scootch all the way in to reach it and then it takes two-hands to do the job. The left side seat back only releases from inside the trunk. This is one of the worst seat back release systems I’ve seen on an otherwise nicely designed car.

Base price on our Canton-built test car is $24,080. Special splash guards and floor mats add another $310 and the above mentioned Sport Package costs $1,300. With the $625 destination charge we’re looking at $26,315.

Competing in one of the most crowded segments in the industry isn’t easy, I’m sure. But here’s contender that is certainly in the hunt. That stick transmission option puts Nissan ahead of many, in my view. Now if they’ll just redesign that rear seat back I might get out my check book.

Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved