- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2005

In romance, the experts will tell you that beauty is only skin deep; what counts is what’s inside.

Of course, in many cases, suitors won’t bother checking for inner goodness if the outside doesn’t look good. But others look to the inside, which is always important, especially for a long-term relationship.

It’s not much different with automobiles. Nobody buys what he or she thinks is an ugly car, unless the price is ridiculously low (ref. Yugo). But even if one presents a stylish mien to the world, the interior matters, too.

Something like that happened with the third-generation Nissan Altima. When it was introduced in 2001 as a 2002 model, it was an immediate hit, Nissan’s first credible contender against the midsize family sedan leaders — the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Ford Taurus.

The exterior styling was crisp and modern, and made the previous Altima look something like your dowager aunt’s everyday dress. Even the inexpensive four-cylinder models had a snappy look.

But a lot of people thought the interior looked tacky and cheap, and Nissan took some slaps because of it. Well, the folks there are nothing if not attentive, so the answer was not long in coming. Witness the 2005 version, which looks much the same as the 2004 except for snazzier accommodations.

Even with the earlier criticized interior, the Altima has not been doing badly against the industry’s midsize powerhouses. Its sales have been running about 55 percent of those of the leader, the Toyota Camry, and about 61 percent of the second-place Honda Accord. It has almost caught up to the Taurus, with sales at 92 percent of the declining Ford model.

As a result, the expectation is that the 2005 Altima could do better than those figures, despite the fact that it operates in one of the most competitive of all the automotive territories.

The midsize, midprice sedan segment is important to dozens of players in the automobile market. It accounts for something like 2.6 million sales, or around 16 percent of the total of all the cars and light trucks sold annually in the United States.

Taking the raps to heart, the Nissan designers decided that a quality look and feel were needed in the Altima’s passenger pod.

So they did a complete overhaul of the instrument panel, console, steering wheel and interior trim.

The result is a handsome look that would not be too far out of place in a near-luxury car. Of course, with some models of the Camry, Accord and Altima selling on both sides of $30,000, many of those cars are moving close to the near-luxury neighborhood.

On the test car, an SE model with the 3.5-liter V-6 engine, the upgrades were apparent in the attractive three-spoke steering wheel, adjustable for both rake and reach; a triad of instruments surrounded by chrome bezels; tasteful vinyl, aluminum and chrome trim; large knobs for the climate control and audio system; a height-adjustable center armrest, and upholstery done up in soft, textured cloth. Leather is optional.

Nissan offers eight versions of the Altima, starting with the base 2.5 with the 175-horsepower, four-cylinder engine.

Its sticker price is $17,810, with other models ranging up from there.

At the top of the line is a new model, the SE-R, with a suggested delivered price of $29,760.

It features aggressive, street-marauder styling but the same horsepower as the other V-6 models.

The tested SE with the V-6 started at $24,310. With options that included a power glass sunroof, a trunk-mounted spoiler, xenon high-intensity headlights and an upgraded Bose stereo system, it had a suggested delivered price of $27,060 — right in line with a similarly equipped Accord or Camry.

Standard equipment includes a five-speed automatic transmission with a gated shifter, antilock brakes, air conditioning, remote locking, power mirrors and windows, a stereo radio with CD player and speed-sensitive volume control, a power driver’s seat, cruise control, a 60/40 fold-down rear seatback, and a trip computer that includes readouts for average speed, fuel economy and outside temperature.

Front-seat side air bags and side-curtain air bags for both the front and rear seats are optional, but were not included on the test car.

The V-6 engine delivers a robust 250 horsepower, compared to 240 for the six in the Accord and 210 to 225 for the Camry V-6 engines.

Acceleration is strong off the line — in fact, almost too strong. The throttle tip-in, which refers to how quickly the engine responds to pressure on the accelerator pedal, is so abrupt that it could cause anxiety in close parking situations.

Once underway, the five-speed automatic shifts smoothly and the passengers are treated to a comfortable, quiet interior. Four passengers can sit comfortably, but as in most cars, the center-rear position is cramped and should be avoided.

Out back, there’s a large, well-shaped and carpeted trunk that can handle extra cargo with the rear seatbacks folded down.

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