2002 Nissan Altima Review

2002 Nissan Altima - Ultra Altima.


Deftly redesigned to challenge top rivals. Strong engines. Roomier. Nice ride and handling.
Rear windows don't lower all the way. Space-eating manual trunk hinges. Rear seatbacks don't fold completely flat.

Nissan probably lost count of the hours it spent studying the rival Toyota Camry and Honda Accord before redesigning its larger, more-powerful 2002 Altima, which has become the most important car in the Nissan lineup.

All that effort shows. This slick, third-generation Altima is much different than its predecessors and finally is good enough to take on the Camry and Accord, which dominate the huge mid-size sedan market. (The solid Ford Taurus sedan also is a rival there, but many Taurus models go to fleet customers instead of consumers.) The old compact-size Altima was decent, but too small to be anything but a distant third to the Camry and Accord. The new Altima is a mid-size sedan, larger in most dimensions than those two sedans. It's built more rigidly off a new platform that will be used by Nisan for other models. It's boldly styled, with taillights reminiscent of those on the Aston Martin DB5 used in James Bond movies.

Indeed, the front-drive Altima is destined to steal sales from the costlier, top-line Nissan Maxima sedan, which is about the same size but positioned as a more upscale car.

The Altima's wheelbase is up fully 7.1 inches to 110.2 inches for a smoother ride, and overall length has been increased 5.7 inches to 191.5 inches for more occupant and cargo space. Also, the body is significantly taller and wider, with a wider stance for better stability. Thankfully, the weight hasn't increased much. The Altima also gets its first V-6, which is the largest, most-powerful engine in its class.

The smooth, 3.5-liter, 240-horsepower V-6 whisks the aerodynamic car to 60 mph in about seven seconds--making it one of the fastest mid-size sedans. But the Altima's new four-cylinder engine is a bigger deal because Nissan expects that 80 percent of the car's buyers will want it. Nearly all Camry and Accord buyers get a lower-cost four-cylinder model, largely because most mid-size family sedan purchasers are on fairly tight budgets.

The Altima 2.5-liter four-cylinder produces 175 horsepower, far outdoing the redesigned 2002 Camry's 157-horsepower four-cylinder and the Accord's four-cylinder engines, which generate 135 to 150-horsepower. (The Taurus only has a 155-200-horsepower V-6.) The Altima V-6 is smoother and quieter than the less-potent four-cylinder, which has 20 more horsepower than the smaller 2001 four-cylinder. But the V-6 comes only in the top-line 3.5 SE, which costs $22,349-$23,149. In contrast, there are four-cylinder Altimas in base 2.5, mid-range 2.5 S and high-line 2.5 SL trim that are priced from $16,349 to $22,699.

If you're a typical mid-size family sedan buyer on a budget, which Altima would you choose? Most buyers are expected to get the well-equipped $17,999-$18,849 2.5 S. Its standard items include air conditioning, AM/FM/CD, cruise control, remote keyless entry, height-adjustable front armrest, split-folding rear seatbacks and power windows, locks and outside mirrors.
The V-6 provides an estimated 19-21 mpg in the city and 26 on the highway, while the four-cylinder delivers 22-23 in the city and 28-29 on highways. Both engines come with a standard five-speed manual transmission or optional, responsive four-speed automatic, which has a gated shifter for improved control. The higher economy figures are gotten with the manual gearbox.

The V-6 is quite sophisticated. But so is the 16-valve, dual-overhead-camshaft four-cylinder, which has variable valve timing for better response and balance shafts to cancel four-cylinder vibration. The four-cylinder provides such lively performance that some might think a six-cylinder lurks under the hood, although it's noisy when pushed hard. Just don't compare it with the Altima's awesome V-6.

The 3.5 SE has larger 17-inch wheels and a firmer suspension, so it has slightly sharper steering, handling and braking. But four-cylinder models also are fun to drive; they're a bit lighter than the V-6 model and have the same supple all-independent suspension that provides a smooth ride. They also have fairly large 16-inch wheels and strong brakes--although the pedal is rather soft.

Too bad the $299 traction control system is only offered for the 3.5 SE with an automatic transmission. Other extras include an $849 power glass sunroof for the 2.5 S, 2.5 SL and 3.5 SE and a $749 option with anti-lock brakes and side air bags for those models. Four 6-footers easily fit in the quiet, well-designed interior, which has a tilt-telescoping steering wheel and supportive front bucket seats. Recessed, backlit gauges are easy to read and large, well-placed controls work smoothly. Cupholders are big, but rear windows don't slide all the way down.

The spacious trunk has a low, wide opening, but its lid's manual hinges eat into cargo space and the underside of the lid is roughly finished. Rear seatbacks flip forward to increase the cargo area, but don't sit entirely flat. The opening between the trunk and rear seat area is only moderately large. Nissan lacks production capacity to allow the Altima to match Camry and Accord output, but the new Nissan promises to attract a lot more buyers.

Dan Jedlicka

Dan Jedlicka's Website

Dan Jedlicka joined the Chicago Sun-Times in February 1968 as a business news reporter and was named auto editor later that year. He has reviewed more than 4,000 new vehicles for the Sun-Times--far more than any newspaper auto writer in the country. Jedlicka also reviewed vehicles for Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Autos Internet site from January, 1996, to June, 2008.

Jedlicka remained auto editor at the Sun-Times until October, 2008, and continued writing for the newspaper's AutoTimes section, which he started in 1992, until February, 2009. While continuing his auto writings at the Sun-Times, he served as assistant financial editor of that newspaper from 1970 to 1973, when he began his automotive column.

He has appeared on numerous radio and television shows, including NBC's "Today," ABC's "20/20" and "The CBS Evening News." He was a host, consultant and writer for Fox-TV Channel 32's 1991 New Car Preview show and that Chicago-based station's 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995 Chicago Auto Show Previews.

Jedlicka's auto articles have been printed in national magazines, including Esquire and Harper's. His auto columns have been reprinted in U.S. government publications and economic textbooks and he is profiled in the "World's Greatest Auto Show" history book about the Chicago Auto Show. In late 1975, Jedlicka was host and technical advisor for three one-hour television specials, "Auto Test 76," which aired nationally on PBS and were the first nationally televised auto road test shows.

In 1995, Jedlicka was the recipient of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois Inc.'s Consumer Education Award, given annually to a person who has gained distinction in the field of consumer education. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Media category and inducted into the Legends of Motorsports Guild at the Carquest World of wheels custom car show in Chicago in January, 2006.

Jedlicka was a member of the North American Car and Truck of the Year jury, composed of a select number of auto journalists from throughout the country, from 1995 until 2009. From 2010 to 2012, he was a member of Consumer Digest magazine's auto experts panel that gave Best Buy new vehicle recommendations.

He is a 1987 graduate of the Bob Bondurant Race Drivers School and later of the BMW "M" and Skip Barber Advanced Driving schools. He was a member of the U.S. team that participated in the 1987 1,000-mile Mille Miglia race/rally in Italy and has been a race winner at the Chicago area's Santa Fe Speedway.

Jedlicka has owned 25 classic cars, including 1950s and 1960s Ferraris and 1950s and 1960s Porsches, a 1965 Corvette, a 1967 Maserati and a 1957 Studebaker supercharged Golden Hawk. Jedlicka resides with his wife, Suzanne, in the Frank Lloyd Wright historic district of Oak Park. They have two children, James and Michele.

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