Lifestyle

Nissan's Altima Reaches New Heights


Altima_2007
Editor's Rating: star rating

Nissan's sporty Altima midsize sedan runs with the best imports in the pack. And, though eminently practical, it distinguishes itself thanks to zippy handling

Up Front

Nissan's Altima is a nifty midsize sedan that has managed to grow significantly better with age. With 15 years and four major revisions on the clock, you would think the Altima—the company's biggest seller—might have gotten stuck in a rut. But no, the new-for-2007 Altima is the best implementation yet, a fun-to-drive technological bombshell that doesn't eschew practicality.

Nissan (NSANY) couldn't much afford to get the new Altima wrong. The turnaround at a company that was $20 billion in the hole in 1999, when Carlos Ghosn took the reigns, stumbled for the first time last year. Sales in the U.S., which supplies the company with 60% of its operating profit, slumped. Sales of cars were off by 3% and trucks dipped by 7% throughout the year, according to Automotive News.

The new Altima, which competes with such midweight heavies as the Toyota (TM) Camry and Honda (HMC) Accord, has, however, been so far well received. In January, the company sold a whopping 24,394 Altimas—a strong showing for the traditionally weak month. If excitement for the new model is sustained over the next 10 months, it could be a record-setting year for the Altima.

Part of the Altima's charm (and much of the reason for its success over the years) is its abundant affordability. At $19,800, it's nestled in the sweet spot of pricing for midsize sedans, though models from Ford (F), Toyota, and Mazda are slightly less expensive. I tested a basic model to see exactly what 20 grand gets you from the third-largest Japanese brand.

On top of the base price, my Altima, the 2.5 S edition, came with a $1,050 convenience package with power seats, steering wheel controls, and a host of other techno goodies; $170 floor mats; and $300 antilock brakes. With a $615 destination charge, the total comes to $21,935—not bad.

Behind the Wheel

Much has been made of the powerful 3.5-liter, 270-horsepower V6 engine that's an option on the Altima. But I was surprised by how well the basic 2.5-liter, four-cylinder performed. Its 175 horses may pale somewhat in comparison to its larger brother, but they have no problem pushing the car around convincingly, and gas mileage is of course improved. What's more, most competing four-cylinders only pack between 150 and 160 horses.

The company has carved out a niche for itself as a purveyor of cars that meet the basic quality and durability requirements of most import buyers but also manage to inject some exciting driving dynamics into the equation. The Altima continues to deliver—all while returning great fuel numbers between 26 and 35 miles per gallon. In mixed driving, I earned 28 mpg.

The manual version of the vehicle comes with a sporty six-speed transmission. Steering is nimble and acceleration very good with the four and outright great with the six. The torque steer that plagued past Nissans was, in my tests, undetectable. My only caveat is that the brakes felt a bit touchy to me, on or off rather than progressive.

I'm no great fan of the Altima's styling. The car's T-shaped front grille has some gravitas to it, and the jewel-like headlamps look particularly pricey for a car in this class. But all in all, it seems like designers feared being too bold, not wanting to mess with a working formula. That said, the body creases look great and the flattened wheel-well arches give the car an expensive look.

Inside, the story gets better. The sporty theme is profitably blended with a tech-y one. Dials and buttons glow in a racy orange, and the cabin is swathed in techno-looking plastics that actually feel good to the touch. You almost get the sense that interior designers studied the cabins of much-higher-end Audis when putting this together.

The Altima is the only car in its class to feature a push-button start, which is in vogue in much more expensive luxury vehicles. Yes, it's a gimmick, but one that's only likely to further endear Nissan diehards to the model and the brand. The stereo system, meanwhile, is iPod- and MP3-player compatible, and Bluetooth is optional.

My one major beef with the interior are the seats. The rear seats are cramped thanks to a dearth of legroom and the sloping rear window, which is sexy from the outside but not so hot from the inside. Worse yet, the cloth seats have a vintage 1980s feel to them, like plush carpet. It's not so impressive. This is, however, a very minor quibble, and the optional leather seats are gorgeous.

But It or Bag It

In my opinion, the Altima plays strongest right around the $20,000 mark, without too many options. At that price, it's easy to feel like you're getting a lot of mileage out of relatively few dollars. The car is fun to take around, and even the bare-bones models don't feel, well, very bare-bones. But a tricked-out model can easily reach into the $30,000 range. And though the car is undoubtedly fun to drive, it's no more fun than an entry-level BMW or, for that matter, Infiniti.

The results of comparing the Altima to its import competition will likely boil down to personal tastes. I find Nissan's styling more compelling than Honda's or Ford's but less so than Mazda's or Toyota's. Performance-oriented drivers looking for a modicum of fun—even if the constraints of frugality, fuel economy, or family rule the purchasing decision—will naturally gravitate toward the model.

Nissan's tagline for the new Altima—"Yup, it's that good"—is somewhat flat for my tastes. The car handles so well that the company has the right to shout "fun" from the rooftops. But at least the line is factually correct. All in all, I'd say: "Yup, basically, it's pretty darn good."

Click here for the slide show.

Matt Vella is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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