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NISSAN ALTIMA 3.5SE

This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Sun, May 5, 2002

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

NISSAN ALTIMA 3.5SE

By ROY NAKANO

The early 1990s will go down in history as the glory years for Nissan products. Thecompany had just introduced the last-generation 300ZX, the rear-wheel drive/four wheel independent suspension 240SX, and the Sentra SE-R. The V6-powered Maxima was probably the best family sedan around. The "Hard Body" was a very stylish truck. And the Pathfinder was one of the few SUVs you could buy.

Against that backdrop, Nissan introduced the first Altima in the Fall of 1992. It was a radical design departure from the boxy Stanza that preceded it - taking the Taurus-inspired jellybean look to its ultimate extreme. Japanese consumers hated it. American consumers didn't exactly give unanimous approval, but enough liked it to make it a success. A clever marketing strategy ("the affordable luxury car") and the fact that it looked like the much more expensive Infiniti J30 certainly helped.

Despite its moderate popularity, the first-generation Altima was not without its faults. In order to sell this "affordable luxury car" at the remarkable base price of $12,999, Nissan cut corners in materials while keeping the workmanship high. Thus, you had the famous ball bearing commercial, in which Nissan demonstrated that the Altima's sheet metal gaps were the equal of the Lexus ES300. However, the sheet metal itself was thin and prone to parking lot dings. Cost-cutting was also evident in the interior, where the vinyl covering the door panels were paper-thin. In order to save costs in the powertrain department, Nissan offered only one power plant Although its 2.4 liter 4-cylinder engine provided plenty of power and torque, at full throttle it was just about the noisiest four-banger around (albeit the Saturn was noisier).

Two Altimas: Generation three on the left; the original on the right.

"Nissan needed a little pizzazz in that segment - a little "hey, what's that?" The Altima did just that" said Nissan's Interface In Design EVP Jane Nakagawa in an earlier interview with LA CAR. "Just about everyone that bought the car did so in large part because it was different from all the little boxy cars at that time. It was a love-hate design, which was probably a good thing for a five percent player like Nissan."

The Dark Ages

The second-generation Altima was introduced in 1997, with a design that Nissan called a more grown-up, tailored look. We thought it looked more timid by comparison. Still, the second-generation Altima did not fare that badly in sales. The fact that it fit right between the Civic and Accord in both size and price made it a sensible alternative for the family sedan buyer. Ultimately, however, it was a rather unremarkable product. It mirrored a number of other unremarkable-looking vehicles that sat in Nissan showrooms in the late 1990s: The SE-R-less Sentra and "soft-bodied" Frontier in particular; and to a lesser extent, the re-designed Pathfinder and Maxima. The early 1990s were followed by a six-year sales slide for Nissan, and ending with the French manufacturer, Renault, purchasing a controlling interest in the company.

In 1999, LA CAR wrote: "With several new vehicles slated for introduction, Nissan can only do better than it has for the last six years. But the competition is getting pretty stiff. It's no longer enough to come out with good cars these days - they've now got to be extraordinary to remain on the radar screens of the buying public. Some of the stiffest competition for Nissan may be coming from Volkswagen, which has managed to come out with a crop of new products that look and feel more expensive than many of the cars in their class. Like Nissan, Volkswagen caters to the group of consumers that want something a little different from the run-of-the-mill Honda or Toyota . Nissan has been responsible for some excellent designs in the past. As the aforementioned critique indicates, however, they could use a little more improvement in some areas. Whether its new partner, Renault, can improve things remains to be seen. Only time will tell if Nissan can get back on track and return to their glory days."

"The designers must have been sleeping together."

Enter Generation Three

When Nissan loaned the new, third-generation Altima 3.5SE to LA CAR, we thought they must have shared our thoughts about its comparison with Volkswagen. The new Altima looks remarkably like the Volkswagen Passat - particularly in the roofline and deck. Or, as our managing editor put it when we put the two cars side-by-side: "The designers must have been sleeping together."

The fact that the new Altima design looks like a derivative of the Passat is not a bad thing. Nissan may have used the J Mays/Freeman Thomas VW/Audi look as a starting point, but they took it to another level. Whereas the Passat looks stationary, the shape of the new Altima looks like it's in motion, with a wedge-like rake accented by an Alfaesque diagonal crease on the side panels and a slanted, slab back end. They topped it off with Infiniti Q45-inspired headlight clusters and Lexus Altezza/I300-ish taillight clusters.

Following the pattern of recent Nissan works, the new Altima's interior is nicely designed. Clean and simple lines dominate. Unlike the first-generation "affordable luxury car" the new Altima's instrument panel leans more toward the sporty side. Unfortunately, the interior is marred by some cheap-looking materials. Plastic pieces look very much like plastic, and the fake wood on the center console is a bit overdone. Nissan may have used Volkswagen as a design inspiration. However, the quality of materials in the interior does not match that of the class-leading Passat.

Nissan must have gotten tired of reading consumer-oriented comparisons declaring that the old Altima was "not as roomy as an Accord or Camry." The new Altima is roomier than even the previous-generation Maxima. Nissan took quite a gamble in the size department. One of the endearing qualities of the old Altima was that it was right-sized for those who thought the Corolla was too small but the Camry too big. Nissan has abandoned that niche, leaving a gaping hole between the current Sentra and the new Altima (Nissan plans to make the next-generation Maxima even more spacious than the new Altima). In the end, it may have all been a matter of dollars and sense - i.e., since it doesn't cost that much more to make it bigger, why not make it bigger?

Nissan must have also gotten tired of all the automotive journalists who said of the old Altima, "too bad it doesn't have a V6." In addition to a more powerful (175 horsepower) standard 2.5 liter four cylinder engine, the new Altima has an optional 3.5 liter V6 - and it is one powerful engine. How powerful? Class-leading powerful. 245 horses, to be exact. To put this into perspective, fifteen year ago, the best bang-for-the-buck ponycar you could buy was the Ford Mustang with the 5.0 liter V8 motor. The new Altima V6 is more powerful. In fact, the 3.5SE we tested had much of the feel, sound (albeit quieter) and torque characteristics of the old Mustang 5.0. However, the Altima 3.5SE has four doors, has better top end performance, and handles better.

A Four-Door Sports Car

Remember the Nissan commercials declaring the 1989 Maxima SE a four-door sports car? As nice a car as that was in its day, it's nowhere near as sporty as the new Altima 3.5SE. Nissan had a lot of balls to dial in this firm a ride for the 3.5SE. The boulevard cruisers will not like it ("Daddy, I can feel every bump in the road"). Moreover, the new Altima has more road noise penetrating the cabin than, say, the Passat, Accord or Camry. On the other hand, the firm ride brings some rewards. The enthusiasts will be astounded at how sporty the new Altima 3.5SE is. This is one quick and nimble car. The Passat has been getting rave reviews as a well-executed family sedan that's fun to drive. But the Passat is no match for this Altima in the performance and handling department. That's even more true when comparing the Altima 3.5SE with the current best-sellers, the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Among the myriad of family sedans, the Altima 3.5SE is in a performance and handling class by itself.

Reviewing The Reviewers

Car and Driver Magazine - In its December 2001 issue, Car and Driver magazine published its comparison review of eight family cars in the $25,000 range. In a field that included the Buick Regal LS, Chevrolet Impala LS, Dodge Intrepid SE, Ford Taurus SEL, Honda Accord LX V6, Hyundai XG350, and Toyota Camry SE V6, the Nissan Altima 3.5SE came in third place. Curiously, the V6 Honda Accord came in first place. We say "curiously" since the 2002 Accord remained virtually unchanged since 1998. In 1998, Car and Driver conducted a similar test, and the VW Passat beat out the Accord back then. This time, Car and Driver left out the Passat, since they had too many family sedan contenders to choose from, and the Passat's interior volume fell short of their guidelines chosen to narrow the list. Well, we've driven the 2002 Honda Accord sedan (not to be confused with the newer 2003 Accord). It's a pretty nice family sedan, but it's a pretty boring car to drive as well (as is the second-place Toyota Camry). We'll take a Altima 3.5SE any day over the Accord.

Consumer Reports - Of the 31 family sedans tested by Consumer Reports, the Volkswagen Passat V6 is the top-rated model . The Nissan Altima 3.5SE is ranked seventh in this field of 31, bested only by the Passats, Camrys, Maxima, and V6 Accord (the four-cylinder Accord is ranked eighth). Judged strictly as a family appliance, we can see why it was bested by this group. The Altima has a little too much road noise, its ride is a little too firm, and its interior workmanship a little too cheap-looking against this crowd. Still, it beat out 24 other cars in the family sedan category (the four-cylinder Altima ranked ninth), and even CR praised the Altima for its transformation into a competitive player in this crowed field (see CR's April automotive issue for all the details).

Edmunds.com - If the car didn't finish first the last time or didn't have a significant change from a previous comparison test, Edmunds doesn't bother retesting them for a new family sedan comparison test. Thus, Edmunds.com's family sedan comparison test for 2002 was limited to the Hyundai XG350, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, and Volkswagen Passat (the previous winner). The Passat wins again, but the new Altima 3.5SE beat out the new Camry SE V6 and Hyundai XG350. Edmunds.com acknowledge that the grocery getters in the family will probably be put off by the firm ride and cheap-looking plastics. However, the editors were swayed by the Altima's outstanding performance and handling characteristics. (see Edmunds family sedan review).

The Bottom Line

The more we drove the new Altima, the more we liked it and the less we were bothered by its faults. The car's firm ride and road noise just seemed like necessary byproducts of a car with this much performance and handling. In fact, the performance of this car makes it a worthy alternative to the Subaru WRX - particularly for those that are put off with the WRX's turbo lag. The 3.5SE exhibits no such lag (and, in fact, the Altima exhibits less cabin noise and has a higher quality interior than the WRX). With a base price of $22,889 (including destination charge) for the 3.5SE, this car is actually cheaper than the WRX. If you can resist the temptation of a leather interior, you can keep the price down and avoid the plastic wood (the plastic wood comes with the leather option). The fact that it can pass itself off as a roomy family sedan is just frosting on the cake. The Altima 3.5SE is the 5.0 Mustang incarnate with four doors and Nissan reliability. A panel of 49 automotive journalists at the North American International Auto Show picked the Altima as the North American Car of the Year. We now know why.

Performance Data

Performance (manual transmission):

* Acceleration (0-60 mph): 6.3 seconds * Braking Distance: 125 feet * Base Number of Cylinders: 6 * Base Engine Size: 3.5 liters (3500 cc) * Base Engine Type: V6 * Horsepower: 240hp(!) @ 5800 rpm * Torque: 246ft-lbs. @ 4400 rpm * Drive Type: front-wheel drive

Fuel Data

Fuel Tank Capacity: 20 gal. EPA Mileage Estimates: (City/Highway) Manual: 21 mpg / 26 mpg Range in Miles: (City/Highway) Manual: 420 mi. / 520 mi.

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