In this respect the Altima reminds us more of Mazda's mid-size sedan, the Mazda6. Both offer stand-out styling; both surrender some refinement for gains in handling response. In other ways, however, they are diametric opposites: The lean and wiry Mazda is the smallest car in this class, powered by a choice of high-winding engines; while the muscular Nissan tops the class in both horsepower and wheelbase and is one of the roomiest cars in the class.
The Altima delivers stunning acceleration when ordered with its 250-horsepower V6, essentially the same engine used in the Nissan 350Z and Maxima. Punch it in any gear and it takes off, with nimble handling and brakes to match its thrust. The high-performance Altima SE-R adds 10 more horsepower and even more sports appeal. And for its part, the Altima's standard four-cylinder engine is more powerful than comparable engines in the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Mazda6 or Mitsubishi Galant. So no matter which model you buy, you get a more powerful car with the Altima.
Altima also boasts a bigger interior than Camry and Accord. Altima's interior was redesigned for 2005, which resulted in an improved cabin. Altima also received some mild styling enhancements and a slight boost to its V6 for 2005. For 2006, Nissan has added four new option packages, and the optional satellite radio receiver is now factory-installed.
Nissan Altima 2.5 ($17,650); 2.5 S ($19,500); 2.5 SL ($23,450); 3.5 SE ($23,500); 3.5 SL ($27,300); SE-R ($29,550)
Cast in the style of a European sedan, the Altima looks more like something from Volkswagen or Audi than Honda or Toyota. Yet the Altima also has more exterior design detail than the Camry or Accord, with creased mirrors, integrated foglamps and other subtle cues. Altima's sloping roofline is reminiscent of a coupe. Its high trunk lid is set off by bold round taillights, turn signals and backup lights set in a triangular-shaped cover.
Nissan subtly restyled the Altima for 2005 for a more aggressive look. The new hood looks more athletic, with a muscular bulge suggesting a powerful engine. A smoother front fascia and smoked headlamps add to the bold impression, and tooth-like ridges molded into the horizontal grille bars tighten Altima's kinship with the more exotic Maxima. The Altima's previously clear taillamp covers have been smoked slightly.
The grille and front bumper are set off nicely by aggressive-looking multi-parabola projector-type headlights with four bulbs set behind large covers. Altima's grille is large by contemporary standards, but not the least bit awkward.
Altima is assembled with a one-piece bodyside structure for more consistent build quality. Altima has gained on Camry and Accord in exterior build quality and Nissan claims panel-fit accuracy within 1.0 mm.
Nissan redesigned the interior for 2005, addressing our biggest complaint with this car. Changes included a new instrument panel, a new center stack and a new center console. Seat materials, trim finishes and the headliner were upgraded and new chrome accents were added. Overall it's a vast improvement over earlier models and closer to Toyota and Honda levels, but still not quite there. The cloth upholstery is okay and the material used on the dash is nice, but the lids on the front of the center console are flimsy.
The Altima is a comfortable car, however, and driver visibility is excellent. The dashboard is set relatively low, with a binnacle directly in front of the driver containing speedometer, tachometer, and water temperature and fuel gauges. The instruments glow orange in the dark, offering less interference to night vision. The three-spoke steering wheel tilts and telescopes to help optimize driving position. The shifter on models with manual transmissions is somewhat long, with long throws.
The available navigation display is located at the top of the center stack and it works well. Audio controls are mounted high on the center stack for easy access. At the top are two rows of buttons, used to control audio, trip computer, and navigation functions, with a small joy stick in the center. Heating/air conditioning control knobs lie directly below and are easy to locate with minimal distraction.
Air conditioning vents are flush-mounted on the dash. Seams for the passenger-side airbag are invisible, cleverly hidden in a large expanse of unembellished dashboard surface. The center console has cupholders large enough for one-liter bottles. A power port inside the center console storage area is useful for cell phones. There's an adjustable elbow rest. The parking brake is a proper handbrake, located front and center. The windows can be opened with the remote key fob (by holding down the Unlock button), a nice feature on hot summer days.
The rear seats are supportive and comfortable, with good legroom and sufficient headroom. A 6-foot, 4-inch passenger can sit comfortably behind a 6-foot, 4-inch driver. Rear-center passengers get a three-point seat belt with shoulder harness; when the center spot is empty, an armrest drops and presents cupholders. Getting in and out of the rear seats is easier than it is in many mid-size sedans. The long wheelbase and large doors make it less likely that a rear passenger will get dirty by dragging their clothes across the fender well.
Trunk space ranks among the best in the mid-size class with 15.6 cubic feet of cargo space. It's a convenient trunk, with a large opening and low lift-over height. The trunk lid pops up when the button on the remote key fob is used, a nice feature when you're running through the rain with an armload of groceries and a feature few cars seem to have lately. The gooseneck hinges intrude minimally into the usable trunk space. The rear seat of the Altima folds down for increased cargo space and the seat is split so you can carry a passenger and longer cargoes.
When equipped with the V6, the Altima is arguably the best performer among mid-sized sedans, and among the most fun to drive. Nissan's 3.5-liter V6 features the latest in high-output, variable-valve technology, producing 250 horsepower at 5800 rpm and 249 pound-feet of torque at 4400 rpm. Though certainly not raucous, Nissan's V6 isn't quite as smooth as those from Honda and Toyota, but you may have so much fun driving the Altima that you'll neither notice nor care.
The 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine is strong, too. It's more powerful than the four-cylinder engines used in the Accord and Camry, and it works well with the four-speed automatic transmission. With the automatic, the four-cylinder Altima still pulls strongly from a standing start, and the transmission shifts promptly between 40 and 60 mph for quick passing maneuvers. Four-cylinder engines of this heft tend to run on the rough side, and Nissan has addressed this inherent vibration with a compact balance system and silent-chain cam drive that smoothes operation nicely. However, the big four-cylinder engine is still a bit louder, more raucous, than those from Honda and Toyota. Nissan's 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine is sophisticated, with 16 valves, dual overhead camshafts and fully variable valve timing. It produces 175 horsepower at 6000 rpm, and 180 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. The PZEV version of this engine used in California and several Northeast states is rated at 170 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque. The V6 is EPA-rated 21/27 with the five-speed manual, 20/30 mpg with the five-speed automatic.
The 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine is more economical than the 3.5-liter V6. The four-cylinder rates 24/31 mpg City/Highway with the manual transmission, 23/29 with the automatic. The 20-gallon fuel tank, considerably larger than most in this class, means Altima can travel a long way between fill-ups.
This is a stable car at speed, and the suspension and brakes are tuned appropriately for the job. The Altima felt secure at 80 mph in a torrential rain storm. The Altima feels larger than the Honda Accord and other mid-size sedans. The four-wheel disc brakes are easy to modulate for smooth handling and deliver plenty of stopping power.
Overall handling is exemplary. The rack-and-pinion steering gives precise directional control, with good feedback. The multi-link rear suspension, a sophisticated design that uses aluminum components to reduce weight, enhances the stability of the rear end, even on bumpy roads. When it comes to chassis dynamics, the Altima is a class-leading performer. Enthusiasist drivers will love it, but it may not be for everyone.
While it rides well in most circumstances, the Altima feels stiffer than some of its competitors, particularly when it's crossing a rhythmic series of bumps or pavement joints. It's not as smooth as the Camry or Accord, especially the former, and the driver and passengers will feel a bit more vibration through the pedals, steering wheel or armrests. Overall NVH (noise, vibration and harshness control) isn't the best in the class, a trait at least partly to the Altima's emphasis on handling and performance. With every car, designers have to make choices. Nissan emphasized performance and handling over sm
The Nissan Altima boasts strong performance and responsive handling. Yet it's also practical, roomier than most mid-sized sedans, with comfortable accommodations front and rear, and a big trunk. The 2006 models will be the last of the current-generation Altima. An all-new 2007 model is on the horizon.
New Car Test Drive editor Mitch McCullough is based in Redondo Beach, California.