- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 17, 2005

When Nissan released the third-generation Altima in 2002, sales had nowhere to go but up. The second generation of this midsize sedan was getting trounced in the showroom by Japanese rivals Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. It hadn’t completely dropped below buyers’ radar, but it was hardly a contender. The third-generation Altima addressed the problem with improved performance, better build quality and scads of interior space.

For 2005, Nissan has given its best-selling model a minor front-end face lift and a more comprehensive overhaul inside.

Three four-cylinder versions (base 2.5, 2.5 S and 2.5 S with SL package) and three V-6 editions (3.5 SE, 3.5 SL and SE-R) make up the six-model Altima lineup. Even the base 2.5 version offers such features as a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, power windows and door locks, and four-wheel disc brakes. However, you must move up to the 2.5 S (the version provided for this evaluation) to gain air conditioning, an audio system with CD player, dual remote outboard mirrors and remote keyless entry.

The 2.5 SL adds leather seating and an upgraded Bose audio system with in-dash six-disc CD changer. In addition to the V-6 engine, the 3.5 SE features a trip computer. The Altima flagship 3.5 SL is fully equipped with such items as a power sunroof, xenon headlamps and automatic climate control. The SE-R receives a V-6 with 10 more horsepower than other V-6 versions, as well as a firmer suspension, sport gauges and xenon headlamps.

Both engines provide satisfactory acceleration. The 2.5-liter four-cylinder dispenses 175 horsepower, while the 3.5-liter V-6 is good for 250 (260 in the SE-R) horsepower. This is the same 3.5-liter V-6 found in a variety of Nissan and Infiniti models such as the 350Z and G35. The 2.5, 2.5 SE and the 3.5 SE use either a five-speed manual or an optional four-speed (2.5 and 2.5 SE) automatic transmission to deliver power to the front wheels.

The 2.5 SL comes standard with the four-speed automatic. Standard on the 3.5 SL is a five-speed driver-shiftable automatic transmission that is optional on the 3.5 SE and SE-R. The SE-R comes standard with a six-speed manual.

The test 2.5 S arrived equipped with the four-speed automatic. It provided smooth shifts and didn’t seem to significantly compromise the Altima’s quickness.

Without question the V-6-equipped models provide more pop off the line. Their more sophisticated automatic transmission penalizes acceleration even less than the 2.5’s automatic.

The average motorist probably won’t be disappointed with any of the available combinations of engine and transmission.

The 2.5 with automatic transmission delivers very decent fuel economy with an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 23 miles per gallon in the city and 29 on the highway.

The 3.5 versions fall just a bit short of the four-cylinders in town at 20 mpg, but actually do better on the highway at 30 mpg.

Composed of struts and coil springs up front and a multilink arrangement in the rear, the four-wheel independent suspension delivers a comfortable ride and nimble handling.

The braking system consists of discs on all four wheels. Surprisingly, an antilock system is an option on most Altima versions.

The exceptions are all SE-Rs and the other V-6 models when equipped with an automatic transmission.

Altima stands up to its key Japanese rivals in both interior space and comfort. It bests the Accord in both front- and rear-seat legroom. It has more front-seat legroom than the Camry, but does give up nearly an inch of rear-seat legroom to the Toyota.

It has 15.6 cubic feet of cargo room.

The seats are firm but comfortable. The dashboard is neatly arranged, featuring a three-pod gauge cluster. The uncomplicated center stack features three round controls for the heating/air conditioning system located beneath the audio system controls, but still very much within reach.

All too few vehicles in this day of widespread cell-phone ownership have a dedicated cell-phone holder. The Altima has one.

Nissan offers a $3,300 Premium Convenience Package for the 2.5 S. Included among its 14 or so added features are a trip computer, alloy wheels, upgraded Bose audio system with an in-dash six-disc CD changer, power sunroof and eight-way power driver’s seat.

Roughly $10,000 separates the entry-level 2.5 at $17,250, from the top-of-the-line 3.5 SL at $27,510. With destination charge, the 2.5 S has a base sticker of $20,110.The Altima isn’t quite as quiet as the Accord or Camry ” particularly the four-cylinder Altima. However, it stacks up well against these super-selling models. Both its engines are more powerful than those of Accord or Camry. It offers similar interior space, comfort and amenities. And, its price is competitive as well.

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