It's no picnic being the little guy. That's the lesson the previous Nissan Altima
learned over almost a decade, having always been a notch smaller than the Japanese midsize standard-bearers, the Honda Accord
and Toyota Camry
. Rather than have a single vehicle to cover the mainstream family-sedan segment, Nissan
used a two-prong attack with the four-cylinder Altima and the V-6 Maxima, but neither hit the mega-volume sweet spot. So when Nissan redesigned Altima for 2002, it made sure to directly target the segment's heavy hitters. Today's Altima matches or exceeds the Accord and Camry in nearly every measurement, inside and out. And its engines, both the four-cylinder and the V-6, are the strongest in the class. With its potent powerplants and firmer suspension tuning, the Altima edges a bit more toward sport and away from comfort and refinement. This is particularly true of the Altima SE-R (a special sporty model that joined the lineup in early 2005) and is also evident in the 3.5 SE. The 2005 Altima stands strong in this high-demand segment, offering distinctive style, personality, and performance among vanilla competition.
Compared with its rather bland peer group, the artfully rendered Altima looks distinctive without going to the extreme like the latest Nissan Quest minivan. The Altima's appearance shares much with larger platformmate Maxima, but to some eyes, the smaller car's styling is cleaner than its more garish sibling's. The Altima's rising waistline (the line that follows the base of the door windows) hinders visibility to the rear, however, and its long 110.2-inch wheelbase contributes to a rather large turning circle, which reduces maneuverability in urban driving and tight parking spots. The 3.5 SE has 17-inch alloy wheels, foglights, and an available rear spoiler, but it's the SE-R that gets the major boy-racer exterior treatment, adding lower body sill extensions, larger-diameter dual exhausts, a restyled grille, and 18-inch wheels.
Inside, the Altima is spacious, with comfortable front seats and a roomy back seat. When the current Altima was first introduced, its interior suffered from a surfeit of hard plastic and cheap trim. But for 2005, Nissan significantly improved both the layout and the materials, with a new instrument-panel design, center console, trim finishes, seat materials, headliner, steering wheel, and chrome door handles. The Altima now boasts one of the nicer cabins in the midsize class, though the Honda Accord and Volkswagen Passat are still the leaders in plastic quality and panel fit. Controls and switches in the Altima are straightforward and logical. The top-of-the-line SE-R has distinctive, sporty trim, with leather bucket seats designed for better lateral support and edged with contrasting stitching. Heated seats and leather upholstery are standard on the 3.5 SL and the SE-R and optional on the other models.
The Altima offers a number of safety features, but many of them cost extra. Traction control is available on the V-6-engine cars only (which admittedly need it more than the four-cylinder does), but you can't combine this safety aid with the manual transmission. Anti-lock brakes are standard only on the SE-R; all other models make you pay extra for them. Stability control is not available. Active head restraints (which protect against whiplash) are standard across the board, but side and curtain airbags are optional on all models. It's worth noting that the Altima--like nearly every other model tested--fared poorly in Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) side-impact crash tests performed on cars without the side airbags. However, the Altima received good scores in the IIHS offset front crash and in the government's front crash test.
Gutsy engines are an integral part of the Altima's persona. The 2.5 S has a 2.5-liter/175-horse four-cylinder whose output beats that of competitors' fours in both horsepower and torque, though it trails slightly in fuel economy. This potent four can be paired with a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic. The 3.5-liter V-6 that powers the SE and SL trim levels is another strong performer, with 250 horses on tap. Its need for premium fuel, however, is a pain in the wallet. SE buyers get a choice of the manual or a five-speed automatic, while the more luxury-oriented SL has the automatic as standard. For the SE-R, Nissan coaxes another 10 horsepower out of the V-6 and adds a sixth gear to the manual transmission. (SE-R buyers also can opt for the automatic.) All Altimas are front-wheel drive.
Behind the Wheel
The 2.5 S is quick for a midsize four-cylinder sedan. The engine is somewhat noisy, however, at least in part because the automatic transmission is only a four-speed. Those willing to do their own shifting with the manual transmission get a fifth gear and somewhat quieter cruising. The V-6 in the 3.5 SE and 3.5 SL makes these models very fast for this segment. Sending all that power through the front axle causes an occasional tug at the steering wheel, however, making traction control a worthwhile option for automatic-transmission Altimas. The system also improves launches in inclement weather. The SL chassis delivers ride and handling similar to that of the 2.5 S, which is reasonably comfortable but not as plush as a Toyota Camry's. The SE's firmer suspension, larger wheels, and lower-profile tires make the car more eager in corners, but transmit more ride harshness over bad pavement. The SE-R's suspension tuning is stiffer yet, and it rides on even larger wheels, which makes for a ride that's even more firm than the SE's. The SE-R's additional 10 horsepower over the other V-6 models isn't really noticeable--they're all fast--but its six-speed stick gives you an extra gear to play with. Even with the stiffer suspension options, the Altima is not as neutral or light on its feet as the Mazda6 and the Subaru Legacy. The car's driving position is comfortable, and the steering feels connected to the road. Overall, the Altima provides a more engaging driving experience than the Accord or Camry, though it does concede the fine refinements that have made those vehicles long-standing engineering benchmarks.
If you'd like more luxury than the fairly basic 2.5 S, but don't feel the need for the V-6 engine, Nissan offers several upgrade packages. At the top is the SL option package, which basically brings the four-cylinder car up to the equipment level of the 3.5 SL, adding such niceties as leather upholstery, automatic climate control, power seat, seat heaters, and alloy wheels. The 3.5 S is the mainstream Altima, and the least expensive V-6 version. Its powerful engine sets the tone for the whole car: This is the midsize family sedan that doesn't sacrifice fun on the altar of practicality. The sporty suspension tuning and expressive styling further back up that notion. In many ways, this is the best-realized version of the Altima. The 3.5 SL marries the six-cylinder engine with a more luxurious spec. (Buyers looking for a high-end luxury model likely would be better served by the Accord EX, Camry XLE, or a Maxima.) Finally, the 3.5 SE-R pushes the Altima's sports quotient up another notch, but at nearly $30,000, it's uncomfortably close to a far better sport sedan, the Infiniti G35.
The Altima is a very sound choice in the midsize four-door segment for buyer's looking for a fashionable sedan with an edge. Like its two major Japanese-brand competitors, the Accord and Camry, it's built in the USA (Tennessee, to be exact). Its quality, however, though improved, still lags behind those two vaunted nameplates. IntelliChoice research shows most Altima variants offer a Better than Average Cost of Ownership, placing it between the Averaged-rated Mazda6 and the mostly Excellent-rated Accord and Camry.
The Nissan Altima has become a stimulating alternative to the midsize sedan leaders Accord and Camry, with lively powertrains, modern styling, and a revamped interior.
The Altima was significantly updated for 2005, with a redone interior, a revised front end, and the addition of the 3.5 SE-R.
On any trim level of Altima, we'd want the side and curtain airbags, along with anti-lock brakes. Audiophiles should consider the excellent Bose eight-speaker sound system. The most unusual option available is the DVD-based navigation system--still rather rare in this class.
Others to Consider
Honda Accord,Mazda6,Toyota Camry