Background: After years of toiling as the plain Jane middle child in a three-sedan family, the totally redesigned 2002 Nissan Altima
is all grown up and now beginning to get noticed. Since its inception back in the 1993 model year, the front-wheel-drive Altima has been sandwiched between the diminutive Sentra and bigger Maxima. While this marketing scheme worked great on paper, in the highly competitive mid-size sedan market, Altima sales lagged behind Nissan’s two main Japanese competitors, Toyota and Honda. In fact, during its first few years on the market, Altima was considered more of a compact offering, not a mid-size.
Both Japanese rivals benefit from wildly popular mid-sized offerings, Camry and Accord respectively, that have ranked first and second in overall car sales here in the U.S. during the past several years. The all-new, third-generation 2002 Altima is now pegged to be Nissan’s volume-leading sedan specifically targeting Camry and Accord shoppers. The Maxima now aims at a smaller, more upscale niche market. In fact, the next-generation Maxima will share the same automotive platform found in Altima. Projected 2002 Altima sales are in the 190,000 range. Altima March sales clocked in at 18,917 units, a 20 percent jump from March 2001.
The 2002 Altima is longer, wider and roomier than its second-generation predecessor. Also new is the arrival of a six-cylinder engine, the first one ever offered in Altima. The bigger engine is projected to account for 30 percent of total sales. Altima is now built at Nissan’s Smyrna, Tenn. assembly plant. Altima received a big promotional boost this past January when the redesigned sedan earned the “North American Car of the Year” award at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. This honor carries more weight than numerous other awards bandied about by weekly and monthly automobile buff magazines since the North American Car of the Year judges are 50 top auto journalists sprinkled throughout the United States and Canada (excluding this one). The competition included all new or significantly redesigned cars in the 2002 model year.
Nissan ranks as Japan’s third-largest auto company and is now 44.4 percent owned by French automaker Renault. Nissan is one of the dynamic success stories of the past half decade. In the late 1990s, the company was mired in debt and mismanagement with lackluster sales. A new chief executive, Carlos Ghosen, was brought on board to revive the sinking ship. Through plant closings, job cuts and restructuring, Nissan is expected to post an increase in net profits when it reports results May 20.
Engine/Trim level: Altima can compete on an even level with Camry and Accord now that a V-6 engine has been added to the lineup. Camry and Accord have had two engine sizes for years. In fact, the 2.5 double overhead cam inline engine generates 175 horsepower, more than the four-cylinder Camry (157 horses) or Accord(150 horsepower). Altima’s 3.5-liter V-6 engine produces 240 horses. A total of four trim levels are offered, three four-cylinder choices and one six cylinder.
The 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine is available in the Base 2.5, 2.5 S and 2.5 SL. The sole 3.5-liter V-6 edition producing 240 horses is the 3.5 SE. All four trims are available with either a five-speed manual transmission or four-speed automatic. Premium unleaded fuel is recommended for the six-cylinder engine.
Exterior: Dynamic styling makes the unibody-constructed Altima the more sophisticated choice when compared to the more conservative Camry and Accord duo. Wheels increase in size this model year and are pushed farther out to the corners. The Altima’s rear trunk lid is larger and more pronounced. Both the hood and trunk lid are now made from aluminum panels, reducing the car’s total weight by 72 pounds. Vertical taillights flank both sides of the trunk. The wheelbase (distance between front and rear axle) is a huge 7.1 inches longer than the 2001 edition. The 2002 version is 1.3 inches wider and 1.9 inches taller.
When parked side-by-side with import rivals, the Altima (191.5 inches) is almost two inches longer than Camry (189.2 inches) or Accord (189.4 inches). The vehicle’s pronounced front grille includes the circular Nissan logo nestled among horizontal black slats. Side-view mirrors and flush-mounted door handles are both body colored. The radio antenna is molded into the rear window. Sixteen-inch tires on either steel or aluminum-alloy rims are standard in four-cylinder models while the V-6 edition has 17-inch tires on spoked aluminum-alloy wheelcovers. Altima is a sedan-exclusive bodystyle. Both Camry and Accord are available in either two-door or four-door selections.
Equipment: As with most cars, the further up the trim level ladder one goes, the greater the number of standard features. All trim levels include power rack-and-pinion steering, power windows and locks, tilt steering column and rear window defroster. The S, SL and SE editions add air conditioning, cruise control, compact disc player and remote keyless entry. Several different option packages are available to mix and match: a power sunroof, heated seats, rear spoiler and several safety nuances.
Price: Nissan provided two Altima test-drive cars for the Daily Herald, a four-cylinder 2.5 S and six-cylinder 3.5 SE. The four-cylinder S model with automatic transmission had a base price of $18,999. With the optional $1,679 convenient package (eight-way power seat, vehicle security system, steering wheel controls) the bottom line totaled $21,305 with $540 destination charge. Our six-cylinder 3.5-liter SE with automatic transmission had a starting price of $23,149.
In early April, Nissan raised prices of Altima and some of its compact Sentra models by approximately $200. The lowest-priced Altima model, a base four-cylinder model with manual transmission starts at $16,649; with four-speed automatic, the price jumps to $17,149. By comparison, the lowest-priced four-door Camry, a LE edition with five-speed manual lists at $18,970 while the lowest-priced Accord, a four-cylinder DX with five-speed manual starts at $15,550. However, an entry-level Altima has more standard equipment than either of its two key Japanese counterparts.
Interior: This third-generation Altima is now capable of handling five travelers. The two front bucket seats provide enough head and leg room (even with the optional moonroof that sometimes minimizes upper space) thanks the car’s overall growth. The 2002 Altima has 9.2 more cubic feet of interior room than its predecessor. Three adult riders can snuggle into the back easier than ever. For more cargo room the rear seatbacks fold down in a 60/40 split.
An arm rest with cup holders also folds down from the center of the backrest. The instrument panel design has three independent, deep-set circular regions. The center circle houses the analog speedometer and digital trip odometer. The left circle is the tachometer while the right one houses fuel and temperature dials. Both front seat travelers have easy access to the ventilation system with three easy-to-grab dials all located in the middle of the dashboard. The sound system is positioned above. In between the front bucket seats are two in-line, supersized beverage holders and a hand-operated parking brake. A release lever popping open the fuel door on the rear left fender is just to the left of the driver’s seat on the floor.
Our V-6 test drive vehicle included secondary radio controls on the left side of the steering wheel and cruise control operations to the right. The trunk’s interior hinges are the old-school curved metal variety rather than the more box-friendly shock-absorber type which situate outside the cargo area. The good news is cargo volume increases by 1.8 cubic feet this year, now measuring in at 15.6 cubic feet, more room than the Accord but slightly less than Camry. Cloth seating comes standard in most editions. A leather seating package is optional in the six-cylinder 3.5 SE and is standard in the 2.5 SL.
Wheelbase: 110.2 inches
Overall Length: 191.5 inches
Overall Width: 70.4 inches
Overall Height: 57.9 inches
Curb weight: 3,178 pounds (V-6)
Safety features: All trim levels include: dual front air bags, energy-absorbing steering wheel, front and rear crumple zones, inside trunk release lever and child safety rear door locks. Anti-lock brakes along with head and side air bags are optional in the four-cylinder S, SL and six-cylinder SE.
Warranty: The Altima includes a three-year or 36,000-mile (which ever comes first) basic warranty, five-year or 60,000 mile powertrain warranty and five-year/unlimited-mile rust warranty. Also included is a three-year or 36,000-mile roadside assistance program.
Fuel economy: Fuel estimates for the four-cylinder engine combined with an automatic transmission average 23 miles per gallon in city travel and 29 m.p.g. highway. When equipped with the bigger engine, mileage checks in at 19 m.p.g. city and 26 m.p.g. highway. Altima’s 20-gallon fuel tank is one of the largest in its class.
Final thoughts: Make no mistake, Altima is one of the bigger stories of the 2002 model year. Larger dimensions and the addition of a six-cylinder engine position this sedan favorably in the mid-size family sedan segment. The arrival of this third-generation Altima plus the launch of the Xterra sport utility last year has helped turn the company’s fortunes around.