- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 27, 2005

More of a liability than an asset for Nissan, the second-generation Altima was mercifully laid to rest in 2001. A disappointment after the plucky first edition that started it all in 1993, the second generation was a darling of the rental fleets, but was received with about as much enthusiasm among retail customers as a low-fat rice cake at a church bake sale. It was all but eliminated from the nation’s collective memory by the introduction of the current model in 2002.

Three engine choices spread across five trim levels provide a high degree of versatility.

Despite Altima’s being in the last year of a five-year life cycle, the exterior styling is still fresh and handsome, while the cabin is both sporty and practical. The bottom line: It doesn’t look or feel like a sedan that needs to make way for a replacement.

At the top of the Altima food chain is the sporty SE-R. While the base and S trim levels get a 175-horsepower four-cylinder, and the SE and SL editions a 250-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6, the top-of-the-line SE-R is powered by a 260-horsepower version of the V-6. The base S and SE share a five-speed manual transmission.

The SL is only offered with the five-speed driver-shiftable automatic transmission made available as an option in all other models. A six-speed manual is standard in the SE-R, but can be replaced with the automatic at no extra charge. Both SE-R versions sell for $30,130.

It almost seems a shame to opt for the automatic transmission in the SE-R; however, even with the automatic, it’s fun to drive. Aggressive off the line, it can make mincemeat of much of the surrounding traffic.

At speed on the highway, it has plenty of thrust for passing. A bit noisier that its Toyota Camry and Honda Accord target competitors, its driving experience is more tactile and connected than that of its conservative peers. About the same as the V-6 Camry and Accord, the SE-R’s fuel economy is a decent 20 miles per gallon in town and 30 on the highway.

Altima’s fully independent suspension has been beefed up with front and rear stabilizer bars, and sport tuned in the SE-R. The handling is concise and predictable.

There is virtually no body roll in hard cornering. Eighteen-inch alloy wheels and tires are standard. Four-wheel disc brakes are standard across the Altima lineup, but only the SE, SL and SE-R have an antilock system. Anyone wanting to add traction control must bundle it into an $800 package that also includes front side-impact and full curtain air bags. Sadly, stability control isn’t offered even as an option.

Altima is a couple of inches longer over all than either the Camry or Accord. Its wheelbase also has about a 3-inch advantage.

However, this doesn’t really translate into any significant legroom gains for Altima. Combined front and rear legroom is about the same in all three sedans. Altima has a bit more trunk space than the Accord, but a little less than the Camry. These three are so close in size, it’s as if they were designed to strict guidelines for a Soapbox Derby competition.

The Altima’s interior is roomy and neatly arranged. Well-cushioned, the front bucket seats provide lots of side support. The 60/40 split rear seat folds down to make room for additional cargo. Leather upholstery is standard in the SE-R.

Sporty and logically arranged, the dashboard puts the required information and controls at the driver’s command. A pod of three large analog gauges peek through the three-spoke steering wheel.

Topped by a row of three smaller gauges (volts, oil pressure and fuel consumption), the center stack continues its flow into the console with the audio controls followed by the three large round knobs for the heating/air-conditioning system.

Some touches of metallic on the steering wheel and center stack, as well as perforated pedals, enhance the sporty good looks.

A few luxury extras bring the higher-end Altimas precariously close to crossing the line into Maxima territory.

The front seats are heatable, the eight-speaker audio system with six-disk CD changer is by Bose and a trip computer keeps track of all manner of information.

All the accessories from the adjustable driver’s seat to the outboard mirrors, door locks and windows are power operated. The SE-R is a lot of bang for the buck.

Slugging it out in one of the toughest market segments, the Altima more than holds its own.

It may not be quite as refined as others in the class, but the differences are subtle and only worth noting because there isn’t much else to complain about. Nearly every other aspect of the Altima SE-R is top notch.

The current generation may be fading away later in 2006 to make room for the 2007, but it’s a forced retirement for this competitor that can still go toe-to-toe with the best in the segment.

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