Background: Originally introduced in 1992 as a 1993 model, the front-wheel-drive Nissan Altima carved out a nice marketing niche for itself. Altima is part of Nissan's three sedan marketing strategy which also includes the compact Sentra and full-size Maxima. Both Sentra and Altima offer four-cylinder powertrains while Maxima includes a more potent six-cylinder engine. In a short time, Altima rose to become Nissan's most popular automobile offering in the United States. The 1998 Altima, introduced this past July, represents the automobile's second generation. All Altimas sold in North America are assembled in Smyrna, Tenn.
Trim Levels: Altima comes in four different trim levels with a wide range of prices and options. They include the entry-levels XE, the sporty SE, volume-leading GXE and top-of-the-line GLE.
Price: Even though Nissan introduces a second generation Altima in 1998, prices have been kept in check. In fact, all four trim levels are priced less than 1997 models. Manufacturer's suggested retail price for an entry-level XE is $14,990 (down about $800 from 1997); GXE is $17,990 (down about $1,500 ); SE is $18,480 (down about $1,200 ) and GLE at $19,890 (down about $1,000). Nissan follows a trend set by other Japanese manufacturers, including Toyota, who recently introduced its newly remolded Camry sedan at a lower price than it's predecessor. Nissan attributes its lower Altima prices to more local sourcing of component materials. Approximately 78 percent of Altima parts are built or purchased in the United States. A more advanced and lighter anti-lock braking system also contributed to savings. We had the opportunity to test drive both an SE and the top-of-the-line GLE. The SE included leather seats, power sunroof and a bottom line of $22,007. Our GLE's bottom line, with anti-lock brakes, power sunroof and 15-inch alloy wheel options, totaled $22,086. Both prices include a $270 destination charge.
Standard equipment: What's standard and what's optional depends largely on which trim level is chosen: All Altima's include power remote-controlled outside mirrors, power windows, four-wheel independent multi-link suspension, power assisted rack-and-pinion steering, tilt steering column and rear window defogger. Five speed manual transmission is standard in every trim level except GLE. Electronicaly-controlled four-speed automatic transmission is standard in GLE and optional everywhere else.
Optional equipment: Air conditioning and cruise control are standard in GXE, SE and GLE, and available in the entry-level XE thorough option packages. Power door locks are not sold in XE, but come standard in other trim levels. Power sunroofs are optional in GXE, SE and GLE.
Engine: All Altima trim levels feature the same four-cylinder, 2.4-liter inline powertrain delivering an impressive 150 horsepower. It's one of the most potent four-cylinders in its class. Engines linked with a automatic transmission travel from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 9.9 seconds. Manual-transmissioned Altimas make the same journey in 8.5 seconds. In past years, the engine was assembled in Mexico. This year, assembly takes place at Nissan's new Decherd, Tenn. engine and transaxle production center.
Safety: Dual airbags, front and rear crumple zones, child safety rear door locks and energy-absorbing steering column are standard on all trim levels. Airbags this year inflate with less force. Remote keyless entry comes standard in SE and GLE editions, but are optional in GXE models. Anti-lock brakes are optional on all trim levels while traction control is not offered.
New for 98: Changes are more subtle than radical. In the first generation, the trunk key hole was hidden behind a hinged Nissan logo. While aesthetically appealing, it was not practical. The keyhole moves from the center of the trunklid to the right. The rear end is wider and slightly higher than the first-generation Altima. Slightly wider and longer, Altima now has more interior room. Dual cup holders with flip tops are now located between the front bucket seats for easier access and more space has been added to the center storage bin. A business card holders is now part of the flip-top storage compartment. Some changes not apparent to the naked eye include a 20 percent increase in platform strength, improving ride and handling and reducing noise vibration.
Interior: Fuel tank and trunk release levers are found on the floor, left of the driver's seat. Interior climate regulates by a series of buttons, rotary dial and sliding lever. A power outlet accommodating cellular phones and other modern conveniences is located next to the dashboard ashtray below the stereo. The hand-operated parking brake is parked in front of the flip-top, center storage bin. power window and lock controls are found on the door.
Seating comfort: Altima boasts generous headroom. Two adults fit comfortably in back but three's a crowd. People choosing the top-of-the-line GLE enjoy the same leather seats found in Nissan's luxury Infiniti division's J30 sedan. Cloth seat trim is standard on other trim levels. The back seat's 60/40 fold down split (standard on all trim levels accept XE) makes transporting longer items easier.
Dimensions: Wheelbase: 103.1 inches Overall length: 184.1 inches Overall width: 69.1 inches Overall height: 55.9 inches Weight (GLE) 3,012 pounds Weight (SE) 2,992 pounds
Exterior: The 1998 Altima is just as conservatively styled as its 1997 counterpart. This trend is inline with most Japanese counterparts who also have been steering in a conservative direction in the mid and late 1990s. The back end looks a little shorter, higher and more squared off, although the 1998 edition is two inches wider and four inches longer than last year's model. The retractable radio antenna is located on the right rear fender. Aluminum alloy wheel are standard in GLE trim levels, but optional everywhere else. Rear spoilers are standard in SE, and optional in other trim levels.
Exterior color choices include: black cherry, pewter, golden olive, nutmeg, super black, blue emerald, champaign, cloud white and graphite pearl.
Trunk: Widened this year, the trunk opening makes it easier to load and unload materials into the 13.8 cubic foot trunk. Liftover height increases by 1.5 inches this year too. A temporary tire houses under the flat-floor trunk.
Fuel economy: Fuel economy increases a bit in 1998. Manual-transmissioned Altimas check in with fuel mileage estimates of 24 miles per gallon city, and 31 mpg highway. Automatic transmissioned versions check in at 22 mpg city and 30 mpg highway. The fuel tank holds 15.9 gallons of regular unleaded fuel.
Target Market: Altima's far-reaching target market includes consumers between the ages of 25 and 50 with household incomes of approximately $50,000. Most are college educated and seventy percent are married.
Final thoughts: Even though we test drove two different models, both trim levels felt remarkably the same. The only noticeable difference was a slightly different dashboard display appearance in the SE, which is the only trim level with white-faced analog-style gages with reverse-to-electroluminescent lighting. Altima gets decent marks for handling, cornering and overall performance. Nissan promotes the car as " affordable luxury." If you liked the first-generation Altima, there's no reason not to like this second incarnation. Nissan projects 1998 model year Altima sales to total 170,000 units in the United States. That's up from 150,000 units sold in the 1997 model year.