There's a definite place within the ranks of compact cars for a vehicle that doesn't assault the eyes with trendy, short-lived styling, challenge service personnel with exotic hardware, or pressure the bank account with irresistible options customers just can't live without. A car, in short, like the Nissan Altima. You might not even notice a member of the three-model Nissan sedan family in a crowd. It lacks the distinctive ovoid styling cues of the newer Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique, for example, or the aggressive, cab-forward presence of the Dodge Stratus. And it does without a long list of model choices, drivetrain options and other sticker-inflating gimcrackery. Fact is, in a field that is filled with everything from Honda Accords to Hyundai Sonatas--with the Mazda 626, Mitsubishi Galant and a number of others in between--the Altima has carved out a high successful niche for itself during the past three model years by being unobtrusive, understated and an especially good value. To those basic virtues are added a few surprises along the way, comfort/convenience features that allow Nissan to unblushingly bill the Altima as a small luxury sedan. A look at sales figures shows how correct Nissan's product planners were: The Altima has sold well since the day it was introduced, and continues to do so, a performance that's had a profoundly positive impact on the company's fortunes in the intensely competitive North American market. And all without smoke, mirrors or gimmicks.