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Expert Reviews ( 1 )

1998 Nissan Altima
Tony Swan

Introduction
This is a lot tougher than it may seem on the surface. After all, when a designer creates a flop, the responses are pretty clear-cut. You either get to work on a crash program for a replacement, or start updating your resume. Or maybe both.

But with a car like the Nissan Altima, a strong seller ever since its introduction in 1993, the challenge is, arguably, more complex. Not only does it have to improve on the original, it has to "look" new--without giving up the traits that made the original appealing. Walkaround
So here's the 1998 Altima, and it's clear at a glance that Nissan didn't really want to mess with success.

After slamming the doors and checking fit and finish, we think it's equally clear that the new Altima is a distinct

refinement of a very good original--tighter, quieter, with a more solid feel.

What's not so clear at a glance is the newness. Although the new Altima is longer (by 3.5 inches) and wider (by 2 inches)

than the first edition, exterior changes are subtle.

The stern isn't quite as droopy, the taillights have been reshaped to enhance trunk access and visibility, and the front end has been modestly restyled. But you almost need to have the old and new side by side to appreciate the difference.

We think that's okay, because even though it's conservative, the redesign updates an attractive original. Styling restraint works well in the mid-size sedan class. If you doubt that, just check the success of the Toyota Camry. Interior
While the expanded dimensions lend a more substantial look to the whole package, they haven't produced a corresponding

increase within. The added width is readily discernible, lending a welcome sense of shoulder and elbow room. However,

rear seat legroom, modest in the original, has been stretched only a couple tenths of an inch.

This stands in contrast to the Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique, which added 1.7 inches of rear legroom in their 1997

updates. And it leaves the Altima's rear accommodations a bit snug compared to most of its small mid-size competition,

although to be fair there hasn't been much carping on this score from first-generation owners.

Aside from rear seat space, the Altima's updated interior--which includes the new de-powered airbags--is clean,

uncluttered and quietly elegant, with dashboard vents flanking the instrument cluster under a broad, sweeping cowl that

amplifies the car's feeling of increased width.

Most models feature standard white-on-black instrumentation, but the instruments in our sporty Altima SE were just the

opposite--white faces, black markings.

Nissan uses this same graphic scheme in the larger Maxima SE, too, and it seems to be popular. We find the traditional

white-on-black just a bit easier to read, but you can make up your own mind about that.

Regardless of your taste in instruments, it's easy to be impressed by the quality of the Altima's interior appointments,

with or without the optional leather that adorned our tester. Materials are high grade, and assembly detail is excellent,

an observation that also applies to the exterior.

Upgrades to the front-drive chassis, which was better than average to begin with, make the new car feel exceptionally solid, and contribute to a commendably low level of interior noise at all speeds.

In fact, high quality may be the new Altima's strongest suit. We'd say it ranks with the best in its class in this regard, which puts it in some distinguished company. Driving Impressions
Handling and ride quality also measure up quite well versus other small mid-size entries. Although Nissan no longer aims

exclusively at the sporty end of the market, the company has always prioritized brisk responses in its passenger cars, a

priority that makes an Altima more fun to drive than most. It also makes the new Altima a strong ally in emergency

maneuvers.

This is particularly true of the SE, which has slightly firmer suspension tuning, lending a bit more authority to its

responses in quick transitions, without any appreciable loss in ride quality. But even the standard suspension, with its

more supple ride, provides gratifying agility, amplified by quicker-than-average steering that communicates what the front

wheels are doing.

Our only minor reservation here is relatively high steering effort at low speeds. That doesn't bother us--we'd trade

modestly higher effort for good feel any day, and it's a pleasant contrast to some power steering systems that are as

numb as your tongue after a root canal. But we suspect some may find the Altima's steering a tad heavy in parking lot

maneuvers.

On the other hand, we'd be astonished if anyone finds a problem with the Altima's braking performance. The SE gets disc

brakes at the rear, as well as the front, and even though antilock is an extra cost option ($499) across the board,

there's plenty of stopping power in the standard disc-and-drum setup.

Unless you're in a major hurry--and you've coated your driver's license with teflon--we think you'll find the Altima's

engine power rates as more than adequate for most driving, including the occasional back road blitz.

Nissan has put in some engineering updates with the standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder powerplant, improving the effective

rpm range of useful output. This makes the engine a little more flexible in all-around driving, particularly when it's

allied with an automatic transmission, although we prefer the exceptionally precise five-speed manual. And even though

peak output--150 horsepower--is unchanged, the Altima's four-cylinder compares quite favorably with competing four-cylinder

engines from Honda, Toyota and Mitsubishi.

If you're determined to have a V6, however, you may be ready to move up to Nissan's Maxima sedan, because a V6 isn't an

Altima option.

Still, with the manual transmission the Altima delivers acceleration that's thoroughly in step with its athletic reflexes.

Like all four-cylinder cars, forward progress becomes a bit more deliberate with an automatic, as well as more expensive.

Our SE tester was equipped with the automatic, which raised its $19,670 base price by $800.

Even though this electronically controlled four-speed is smooth and well matched to the engine's power traits, it does seem out of place in an otherwise lively sport sedan. Summary
Nissan has done some whittling to make the Altima even more financially attractive than it was before. Our $21,558 test

car, outfitted with leather ($1299), anti-lock brakes and the automatic, may not be the best example of this, however.

A better example is the GXE, which starts at $17,660 and includes air conditioning, an AM/FM/CD/cassette sound system,

cruise control, tilt steering, digital clock, vanity mirrors, and power windows, mirrors and locks. For $2200 more than

the basic XE, that's a pretty attractive array of comfort amd convenience goodies, and it should help keep the new Altima

solidly in the hunt.

The bottom line: the new Altima is better than the original, which was pretty good in its own right. Build quality is exceptionally high, the car has the feel of solid goods and the price-feature ratio is right.

This car isn't as roomy as the Toyota Camry and new Honda Accord, and if you want V6 go-power you'll have to shop elsewhere, but it's still a delight to drive, and a good buy. That adds up to value by any reckoning.

Model as tested
Altima SE
Basic Warranty
3 years/36,000 miles
Assembled in
Smyrna, TN
Destination charge
Gas guzzler tax
N/A
Base Price
15460
Price as tested
21558
Options as tested
ABS, automatic transmission, power leather seats

Model Line Overview
Model lineup
Safety equipment (standard)
Dual airbags
Safety equipment (optional)
N/A
Engines
2.4-liter dohc 16v 4-cylinder
Transmissions
5-speed manual

Specifications as Tested
Air conditioning, AM/FM/cassette audio, power windows, power mirrors, keyless remote entry, cruise control, tilt steering, anti-theft system, rear-seat pass-through, rear window defogger, intermittent wipers, fog lights, aluminum alloy wheels

Engine & Transmission
Engine
2.4-liter dohc 16v 4-cylinder
Drivetrain type
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
150 @ 5600
Transmission
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
31/24
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)
N/A

Suspension
Brakes, front/rear
disc/drum
Suspension, front
Independent
Tires
P205/60R-15
Suspension, rear
Independent

Accomodations
Seating capacity
5
Head/hip/leg room, middle
N/A
Head/hip/leg room, front
39.4/52.5/42.0
Head/hip/leg room, rear
37.7/52.6/33.9

Measurements
Fuel capacity
N/A
Trunk volume
13.8
Wheelbase
103.1
Length/width/height
183.1/69.1/55.9
Turning circle
37.4
Payload
N/A
Towing capacity
N/A
Track, front/rear
59.3/58.9
Ground clearance
N/A
Curb weight
2921


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