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First Drive

Redesigned Altima Eats Up the Road

* Nissan goes for a sleeker look for 2002. The car, offered with a four-cylinder or V-6 engine, drives like a dream.

July 25, 2001|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gone is the rectangular front end inexplicably mated with a droopy whale's butt of a back end. The redesigned Nissan Altima now boasts an eye-catching shape that chief product specialist Masami Yagata said is intended to evoke visions of "a hunting tiger."

Indeed, the 2002 Altima, though still a mainstream mid-size family car, is far more carnivore than cetacean as it gobbles up the road.

A lot of attention will be focused on its league-leading 240-horsepower V-6 engine, which boasts 20% more power than the best Honda's Accord can offer and a 25% improvement over Toyota's V-6 Camry.

Nissan figures that about 20% of Altima buyers will go for the V-6, packaged in only the SE model. Others seeking power will jump for the company's upscale Maxima, which gets 260 horses from the same 3.5-liter engine for 2002.

One fun fact: The 2002 Altima is longer and taller than the Maxima (which means that contrary to its name, the company's putative flagship is the more minimal of the two), the result of a platform change that won't catch up to the Maxima for a year or two.

Given the extra size, new shape and Nissan's decision to load the Altima with almost as many goodies as the Maxima, there probably will be a raging debate in some Nissan-intending households: Spring for the Maxima, which has a classier image? Or save a few thousand dollars and get the V-6 Altima or a really loaded four-cylinder model? (That is, with traction control, sunroof, leather seating, an eight-speaker Bose audio system and a driver-side front window that rolls down with the press of a button on the key fob, which also, ho-hum, has buttons to open the door locks and trunk.)

Nissan marketing planners believe that most Altima buyers will be content with the base engine: a new four-cylinder displacing 2.5 liters and pumping out 180 horsepower and 181 foot-pounds of torque. That's an improvement of 25 horses and 25 foot-pounds of torque, making the Nissan four-banger almost as peppy as the competition's V-6s.

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The four-cylinder Altima weighs 125 pounds less than its V-6 counterpart, and on a recent fast-paced test drive through the hills near Carmel it was a bit easier to toss through the twisties. When staying clear of long straightaways, the four-banger became the little Altima that could, easily sticking tight to the six-cylinder model's tail.

The difference comes when the road is long and straight or heads steeply uphill. That's when the extra kick of the torquier V-6 comes into play and the four-cylinder drops to the rear of the pack.

For most drivers, through, either package will be just fine--let budget be the guide.

There's been no announcement yet, but in keeping with Nissan's new policy of boosting content rather than cost, expect the four-cylinder Altima, which comes in three trim levels, to sell for $18,000 to $22,000, with the V-6 model about $22,000 to $24,000.

There probably will be a stripped-down four-cylinder model at less than $18,000--the current generation has a 2.4-liter model with manual transmission for $15,680--but those typically account for fewer than 5% of sales.

The 2002 Altima, due at dealers in mid-September, is the first new Nissan platform to be released since Renault of France took the reins at the Japanese auto maker in 1999, so both companies have a lot riding on its success.

That's one reason even the less expensive models come with more engine and more standard equipment--including 16-inch wheels and tires, a gated shifter for the four-speed automatic and a multi-link independent rear suspension adapted from the race-proven Nissan Skyline sports coupe.

The new Altima is larger than its predecessor yet weighs only 70 pounds more because of extensive use of aluminum in the independent suspension and some other components. The passenger cabin offers 9.2 cubic feet more room than the 2001 model (a total of 103.2 cubic feet) and is bigger than the Accord's or the Camry's. And the trunk--because of a restyling that replaces that droopy whale tail with a proud, tall rear--is 1.8 cubic feet bigger, making it, at 15.6 cubic feet, larger than the 2001 Accord and Camry trunks.

Noting the need to boost its image among consumers put off by years of price cutting and distress sales, Nissan division chief William Kirrane said the company wants to use the new Altima "to deliver something quite different in customer satisfaction than we have in the past."

That shouldn't be a problem.

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Final Words: This Altima is roomy and the instrument panel is easy to use and pleasant to look at. The car is quiet, looks good, handles like a dream and is adequately powerful in the four-cylinder models and a real road rocket with the V-6, especially when coupled with the optional five-speed manual transmission.

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