This is a lot tougher than it may seem on the surface. After all, when a designer creates a flop, the responses are pretty clear-cut. You either get to work on a crash program for a replacement, or start updating your resume. Or maybe both.
But with a car like the Nissan Altima, a strong seller ever since its introduction in 1993, the challenge is, arguably, more complex. Not only does it have to improve on the original, it has to "look" new--without giving up the traits that made the original appealing.
So here's the 1998 Altima, and it's clear at a glance that Nissan didn't really want to mess with success.
After slamming the doors and checking fit and finish, we think it's equally clear that the new Altima is a distinct refinement of a very good original--tighter, quieter, with a more solid feel.
What's not so clear at a glance is the newness. Although the new Altima is longer (by 3.5 inches) and wider (by 2 inches) than the first edition, exterior changes are subtle.
The stern isn't quite as droopy, the taillights have been reshaped to enhance trunk access and visibility, and the front end has been modestly restyled. But you almost need to have the old and new side by side to appreciate the difference.
We think that's okay, because even though it's conservative, the redesign updates an attractive original. Styling restraint works well in the mid-size sedan class. If you doubt that, just check the success of the Toyota Camry.
While the expanded dimensions lend a more substantial look to the whole package, they haven't produced a corresponding increase within. The added width is readily discernible, lending a welcome sense of shoulder and elbow room. However, rear seat legroom, modest in the original, has been stretched only a couple tenths of an inch.
This stands in contrast to the Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique, which added 1.7 inches of rear legroom in their 1997 updates. And it leaves the Altima's rear accommodations a bit snug compared to most of its small mid-size competition, although to be fair there hasn't been much carping on this score from first-generation owners.
Aside from rear seat space, the Altima's updated interior--which includes the new de-powered airbags--is clean, uncluttered and quietly elegant, with dashboard vents flanking the instrument cluster under a broad, sweeping cowl that amplifies the car's feeling of increased width.
Most models feature standard white-on-black instrumentation, but the instruments in our sporty Altima SE were just the opposite--white faces, black markings.
Nissan uses this same graphic scheme in the larger Maxima SE, too, and it seems to be popular. We find the traditional white-on-black just a bit easier to read, but you can make up your own mind about that.
Regardless of your taste in instruments, it's easy to be impressed by the quality of the Altima's interior appointments, with or without the optional leather that adorned our tester. Materials are high grade, and assembly detail is excellent, an observation that also applies to the exterior.
Upgrades to the front-drive chassis, which was better than average to begin with, make the new car feel exceptionally solid, and contribute to a commendably low level of interior noise at all speeds.
In fact, high quality may be the new Altima's strongest suit. We'd say it ranks with the best in its class in this regard, which puts it in some distinguished company.
Handling and ride quality also measure up quite well versus other small mid-size entries. Although Nissan no longer aims exclusively at the sporty end of the market, the company has always prioritized brisk responses in its passenger cars, a priority that makes an Altima more fun to drive than most. It also makes the new Altima a strong ally in emergency maneuvers.
This is particularly true of the SE, which has slightly firmer suspension tuning, lending a bit more authority to its responses in quick transitions, without any appreciable loss in ride quality. But even the standard suspension, with its more supple ride, provides gratifying agility, amplified by quicker-than-average steering that communicates what the front wheels are doing.
Our only minor reservation here is relatively high steering effort at low speeds. That doesn't bother us--we'd trade modestly higher effort for good feel any day, and it's a pleasant contrast to some power steering systems that are as numb as your tongue after a root canal. But we suspect some may find the Altima's steering a tad heavy in parking lot maneuvers.
On the other hand, we'd be astonished if anyone finds a problem with the Altima's braking performance. The SE gets disc brakes at the rear, as well as the front, and even though antilock is an extra cost option ($499) across the board, there's plenty of stopping power in the standard disc-and-drum setup.
Unless you're in a major hurry--and you've coated your driver's license with teflon--we think you'll find the Altima's engine power rates as more than adequate for most driving, including the occasional back road blitz.
Nissan has put in some engineering updates with the standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder powerplant, improving the effective rpm range of useful output. This makes the engine a little more flexible in all-around driving, particularly when it's allied with an automatic transmission, although we prefer the exceptionally precise five-speed manual. And even though peak output--150 horsepower--is unchanged, the Altima's four-cylinder compares quite favorably with competing four-cylinder engines from Honda, Toyota and Mitsubishi.
If you're determined to have a V6, however, you may be ready to move up to Nissan's Maxima sedan, because a V6 isn't an Altima option.
Still, with the manual transmission the Altima delivers acceleration that's thoroughly in step with its athletic reflexes. Like all four-cylinder cars, forward progress becomes a bit more deliberate with an automatic, as well as more expensive. Our SE tester was equipped with the automatic, which raised its $19,670 base price by $800.
Even though this electronically controlled four-speed is smooth and well matched to the engine's power traits, it does seem out of place in an otherwise lively sport sedan.
Nissan has done some whittling to make the Altima even more financially attractive than it was before. Our $21,558 test car, outfitted with leather ($1299), anti-lock brakes and the automatic, may not be the best example of this, however.
A better example is the GXE, which starts at $17,660 and includes air conditioning, an AM/FM/CD/cassette sound system, cruise control, tilt steering, digital clock, vanity mirrors, and power windows, mirrors and locks. For $2200 more than the basic XE, that's a pretty attractive array of comfort amd convenience goodies, and it should help keep the new Altima solidly in the hunt.
The bottom line: the new Altima is better than the original, which was pretty good in its own right. Build quality is exceptionally high, the car has the feel of solid goods and the price-feature ratio is right.
This car isn't as roomy as the Toyota Camry and new Honda Accord, and if you want V6 go-power you'll have to shop elsewhere, but it's still a delight to drive, and a good buy. That adds up to value by any reckoning.
Build and price your dream Nissan Altima in just a few easy steps.
|Build & Price|
2013 Nissan Altima$16,590 | 10,105 mi
2012 NISSAN ALTIMA$13,984 | 48,454 mi
2012 Nissan Altima$13,986 | 55,872 mi
2012 Nissan Altima$14,895 | 30,229 mi
2012 Nissan Altima$15,400 | 24,711 mi
2012 Nissan Altima$15,947 | 45,940 mi
2012 Nissan Altima$16,867 | 45,439 mi
2012 Nissan Altima$17,987 | 79,406 mi
2012 Nissan Altima$17,994 | 16,515 mi
2012 Nissan Altima$17,996 | 39,410 mi
2011 Nissan Altima$11,995 | 62,957 mi
2011 Nissan Altima$15,768 | 40,220 mi
2011 NISSAN ALTIMA HYBRID$15,799 | 42,921 mi
2011 Nissan Altima$15,996 | 46,204 mi
2011 Nissan Altima$16,995 | 35,076 mi
2011 Nissan Altima$16,995 | 32,014 mi
2011 Nissan Altima$16,995 | 31,328 mi
2011 Nissan Altima$16,996 | 30,868 mi
2011 Nissan Altima$16,997 | 25,495 mi
2011 Nissan Altima$19,587 | 37,115 mi
2011 Nissan Altima$22,799 | 3,266 mi
2010 Nissan Altima$14,994 | 80,220 mi
2010 Nissan Altima$15,996 | 69,031 mi
2010 Nissan Altima$16,300 | 28,357 mi
2010 Nissan Altima$17,372 | 72,922 mi
2010 Nissan Altima$18,990 | 46,393 mi
2009 Nissan Altima$12,899 | 76,993 mi
2008 NISSAN ALTIMA$12,995 | 113,960 mi