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New Car/Review

The Nissan Altima
Unexpected Luxury and Utility


by Larry Weitzman

Nissan Full Line factory footage (16:43) 28.8, 56k, or 200k

The first Altima hit the showroom as a 1993 model in 1992. It fit between the very successful Sentra and Maxima. It was designed to be a value line of cars. It shape was very reminiscence of the Infiniti J30 and cost about half the price.

The new 1999 Altima was given a substantial makeover for 1998 model year with a new body, a refined engine and suspension and added luxury. Only the wheelbase and the engine horsepower remain the same and performance was never a problem for the Altima.

The new body is a great improvement. It was designed in La Jolla at Nissan Design International under the direction of Jerry Hirschberg. I never really liked the J30 and I didn't like the original Altima, but the new body has pleasing a clean, crisp shape (drag coefficient has been reduced from .34 to .32). The front end is not unlike other cars in its class (more about that later) but I like the strong rear end and large taillights. The body is 20% more rigid, the track has been increased by 1.6 inches, the glass has been enlarged and is flush mounted and there is about 40% more body insulation. The result is a car that feels like its chiseled from an ingot. It is quiet and tight.

The luxury is the most impressive thing that I immediately noticed. This car (in GLE trim) comes standard with full leather, including door panels, steering wheel, woodtone trim and full power including the driver's seat. The seats were impressive. They were well fitting, large and very comfortable. Complete adjustability enhanced their already sublime feel. The rear seat was nearly as inviting with good leg room, cushy seats and lots of headroom even with the optional moon roof (a nice buy at $849).

Other interior features include new generation de-powered airbags, more shoulder, knee and headroom, automatic interior lighting system and a 60/40 fold down rear seat if the roomy 14 cubic foot truck needs more room.

Full power is standard right down to the automatic power antenna, which happens to be connected to a fine sounding stereo, which includes a C/D as well as a cassette.

The large windows and great visibility add to the airiness of the cabin. But all this size comes in a package that is smaller than its "competition". With an overall length of only 183.1 inches, the Altima is about 6 inches shorter than midsize cars such as the Camry or Accord. The Altima's EPA designation is that of a compact car, but at 94 cubic feet of passenger compartment volume, it is only one cubic foot shy of being a midsize car and has the identical interior volume of a Jaguar XJ8 sedan (also considered a compact by the EPA).

The motive force also is class big. In a compact class dominated by 2.0L fours, the Altima comes standard with only one engine, a 2.4L 150 hp (@ 5,600 rpm) inline DOHC 16 valve four. It also produces 154 lb-ft of torque at 4,400 rpm. For 1998 the engine has been significantly revised. As originally introduced, it was not as smooth and buzzier than others, but Nissan has made significantly internal changes to remedy the problem. The result was a butter smooth, torquey powerplant that is so silky that when I first enter the sumptuous cabin, I didn't know it was already running while I was spending a few minutes checking out all its features.

The Altima is available with an automatic four speed electronic transmission or a five-speed manual. My test car had the automatic. It's a smooth shifting unit that is geared for strong passing performance and economy. 0-60 acceleration averaged 10.2 seconds (the five speed manual would knock at least a second or two off this time). Passing performance is the Altima's strong suit. 50-70 takes a quick 5.9 seconds and going uphill only slows that quick time to 9.6 seconds.

The engine loves to rev and pulls strongly and smoothly right up to its 6,100 rpm redline. In that important 20-70 mph range the Altima will not disappoint its driver. Even though this is a front driver, I found no torque steer present in hard acceleration or coming strong out of corners.

More good news is the improvement in economy. The engine improvements have increased EPA mileage estimates by one mpg to 22/30 city highway. I estimate my mileage at about 27 mpg during my one day of testing which included many full throttle runs and a mix of highway/country/hill roads. With its 16-gallon fuel tank cruising ranges will approach 500 miles.

Changes have also taken place in the chassis department. Although its fully independent suspension design remains essentially unchanged, the track has been widened 1.6 inches front and rear. This allows for more interior space and greater stability. Handling is benign, confident and smooth. Steering wasn't too light and provided the feel necessary to competently negotiate the curves and sweepers of Bass Lake Road. No bad habits and smooth transitions best describe its cornering ability. The noise and harshness of Ponderosa Road were quelled by the Altima's quiet ride. On the highway it was smooth and controlled and tar strips were undetectable and no steering play made directional control easy. The engine spins a sedate, inaudible 2400 rpm at 65 mph.

The dash provides for a large speedo and tach (left and right), flanked by the fuel and temp gauges. To the right and below the main A/C vents are the easy to use A/C controls with the sound system underneath. All easy to use. The leather steering wheel is thick and comfortable. The leather shift lever contains and O/D lockout button for preventing transmission hunting when going up steep hills.

Plenty of storage is contained the door pockets, glove box and center console which also has some nifty cupholders for the front seats, but their are none for the rear.

The best thing about this Altima is the value. My test car had a base sticker price of $19,990. Moonroof, carpeted floor mats ($79), Splash guards ($89) and destination ($490) brought the total to $21,497. I want to point out this is the first car I have tested which did not have a California emission charge. The other option I would recommend is antilock brakes ($499). The price range for Altima's starts at under $15,500 (with destination) right up to the loaded model I tested at about $22,000 (with ABS).

The Altima also comes in a sport version designated the SE. It has black on white gauges, standard four-wheel disc brakes and spoiler. It also comes with bigger rubber, 15-inch alloys and sportier suspension courtesy of revised springs and shocks. It lists for $19,780 with destination and if you want to be wrapped in leather, add another $1,299. It makes a pretty nice sporting package for about $21,000.

As I said before, value is what the Altima is about and it delivers in spades. It puts the Altima in sort of a class by itself.


Price                                           $15,480 to about $22,000
Engine type
   2.4L DOHC, 16 valve                          150 hp @ 5,600 rpm
                                                inline 4 cylinder154 lb-ft torque @ 4,400 rpm
                                                4 speed electronically
                                                controlled automatic
                                                5 speed manual


Wheelbase                                       103.1 inches
Length                                          183.5 inches
Width                                           69.1  inches
Height                                          55.9  inches
Curb Weight                                     2950  pounds
Fuel Capacity                                   15.9  gallons


0-60                                            10.2  seconds
50-70                                           5.9   seconds
50-70 uphill                                    9.6   seconds
Top Speed                                       Way beyond my nerve and fortune
Fuel Economy                                    EPA 22/30 city/highway, my estimate
                                                22-27 in El Dorado County and 30 plus
                                                on the highway.