2006 Nissan Altima

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2002 Nissan Altima

This 2002 review is representative of model years 2002 to 2006.
By Ann Job of MSN Autos
Rating: 8

Bottom Line:

Nissan's Altima finally becomes a true midsize competitor in the 2002 model year, with a larger, stiffer body, more powerful engines that include a first-ever V6, smarter interior and sleeker outside styling.
Pros:
  • Larger, honest-to-goodness midsize sedan
  • Powerful four- and six-cylinder engines
  • Sleeker styling
Cons:
  • Some road and engine noise inside
  • Clunky operation of center console top
  • Fit and finish

I think it was a Freudian slip. During test drives of the 2002 Nissan Altima, I caught myself referring to the car as the Nissan Maxima. This happened not once or twice, but several times.

I guess I was verbalizing what my subconscious had picked up on—that the newly re-engineered and redesigned Altima is such a big improvement in size, styling and power over its predecessor that it seems a lot closer to Nissan's top sedan, the Maxima.

Lots of changes, for the good
This is the third-generation Altima and the first sized so it's truly in competition with the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord sedans. Previous Altimas had been smaller than the two main rivals.

The Camry and Accord also have offered V6s over the years, while previous Altimas had only four-cylinder power.

No more. Not only does the 2002 Altima's new, 2.5-liter double-overhead-cam four cylinder have more power than the fours in the Camry and Accord, a new V6 in the Altima provides a surprising 240 horsepower and 246 lb-ft of torque. This necessitated an upgrade for the previously-most-powerful Nissan sedan—you guessed it, the Maxima.

Bigger car all around
The first thing shoppers notice is the larger size of the 2002 Altima. It's bigger in nearly all dimensions, with 5.7 more inches of overall length and an additional 7.1 inches in the wheelbase.

Trunk space is improved by 1.8 cubic feet, making the 15.6-cubic-foot area better than the 13.6 in the Accord trunk. But it still 1.1 cubic feet smaller than the Camry's 16.7-cubic-foot trunk.

The new Altima is wider than the previous model by 1.3 inches and taller by at least 1.9 inches.

With standard wheels and tires that are larger and pushed farther out to the corners as well as new, more dynamic styling, this midsize sedan now looks more upscale than before.

And see if the new, round taillights on the new Altima don't remind you, as they did me, of the Maxima.

Price up, but still competitive
The starting manufacturer suggested retail price, including destination charge, for a base 2002 Altima is more than $16,800—an increase of some $1,200 over the base 2001 model.

Yet, when compared with a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of more than $19,400 for an entry Camry LE, the Altima still looks like a good deal. Note that the Camry also was redesigned for the 2002 model year and boasts upgrades and improvements. The Accord, meanwhile, has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of more than $15,900 for 2002 and is being redesigned for the 2003 model year.

Trim levels on the Altima are reshuffled. The XE and GXE are gone; in their place are a base car, an S, and SL. At the top of the Altima lineup is the sporty SE, which also was in the lineup last year. This year, though, SE trims come only with the V6. They start at more than $22,800.

Commendable four cylinder
I tested both a mid-range Altima S with four-cylinder engine and a V6-powered SE.

With a few options added in, the S, with five-speed manual transmission, topped out at just over $20,000. But the car's performance alone seemed like it should cost more.

I zipped around slower cars in city traffic. The Altima didn't labor to keep up with pedal-to-the-metal drivers on the freeway, either.

In fact, after passing several other cars easily, I had to pull over to make sure the car had just a four-cylinder engine. By working the gears, I had felt a real nice tug of power each time I needed to pass another car.

The four-cylinder Altima also worked well in the mountains. Again in lower gears, it ran eagerly up hilly roads.

Note the 2002 Camry's 2.4-liter four generates a maximum 157 horses and 162 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm, and the Accord sedan's 2.3-liter four offers a maximum 150 horsepower and 152 lb-ft of torque at 4900 rpm.

V6 rushes to perform
The Altima SE with 3.5-liter V6 had even more power, of course, and the car felt as if it was rushing to respond to my inputs. Torque here is a plentiful 246 lb-ft at 4400 rpm.

But at times I found the test car difficult to manage smoothly—the throttle seemed almost super-sensitive to touch. This car, too, was a manual transmission model, and there was some driveline lash as power came on strongly. But there was no torque-steer at any time.

Note the Camry's 3.0-liter four-cam V6 provides 192 horsepower and 209 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm, while the Accord's 3.0-liter V6 generates 200 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque at 4700 rpm.

Altima's 20-gallon fuel tank is noteworthy, too. It's bigger than the 18.5-gallon tank in the Camry and the 17.1-gallon tank in the Accord.

Rides on new platform
The 2002 front-drive Altima has a new platform—one that's destined to be used for other Nissans, too.

There's a strut-type front suspension, but the strut rear that was used on previous Altimas is gone. In its place is a multi-link rear suspension designed for better handling.

I traveled nonstop on the highway for six hours and arrived with little fatigue. This car cushioned most road bumps but provided a feel of the road at the same time. It felt rather light on its feet as it traveled. No wonder. The hood and trunk lid are aluminum on this new Altima, helping to reduce weight by 72 pounds.

But the Altima SE, with its bigger, 17-inch tires—V-rated with manual transmission models—conveyed more road feel, some of it bordering on harsh.

There's also some engine and road noise in the new Altima, and it's much more prominent in the SE with bigger, sportier tires.

The Altima's steering was responsive but not so touchy that you'd confuse it with a sports car.

Interior thoughts, etc.
Overall, the interior looks smarter than those of earlier Altimas. I like the easy-to-read gauges and controls but thought the height-adjustable top on the center console/armrest between the front seats was clunky. In fact, one time the top of the adjusted armrest came down unexpectedly and smashed a finger.

The hooded look for the Altima's three round gauges in front of the driver adds a sporty flavor.

But I wished the orange lighting could be adjusted more freely. In the test car, I wanted the lighting a bit dimmer than it was, but a detent on the roller adjustment prevented that. It allowed only a bright orange or a much dimmer orange lighting than I wanted.

Front seats had a sort of form-fit design, but it's not as aggressive as big side bolsters would be. The fabric in the tester helped hold me in place, and the overall feel was that I was settling on heavy foam each time I sat down.

Rear windows and doors are of good-size, and the windows go down nearly all the way.

Three adults sit fine back there, not on top of each other. The middle person doesn't have a head restraint but does get a soft resting spot and three-point safety belt like everyone else does.

Front-seat head restraints are adjustable; those in the back seat are not.

The Altima's rear seatback splits 2/3 and 1/3 and can be folded down. However, reaching inside to get at the latch to undo the 2/3 part of the rear seat can be a bit awkward.

I liked that the Altima has a big-car horn to go with its big-car look. And headlights had strong beams that even illuminated the sides of the roads nicely.

On the test cars, there was good fit and finish, save for a stray, dangling thread on a seatback. But at an auto show, I saw two Altimas whose hoods weren't aligned straight and whose metal edges weren't symmetric.

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BB03 - 7/29/2014 10:52:01 AM