Nissan lit a fire under its Altima sedan by making the third-generation version larger, slicker and more powerful in 2002 to mainly battle the popular Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
The strategy worked. The Altima became a hot-selling mid-sized car. Its potent four-cylinder engine outpowered the popular four-cylinder Camry and Accord -- and helped make even the lower-cost, well-equipped entry Altima a good buy.
The Altima was even made a little larger than Nissan's flagship Maxima sedan. It continues to share its basic design with the more upscale Maxima, but costs less and offers a four-cylinder engine not available in the Maxima.
The current Altima is an early 2005 version that essentially is unchanged from the 2002 model. But it has enough improvements to make it more enticing than the 2004 version.
An upgraded interior helps make the made-in-Tennessee Altima nearly as refined as the Camry and Accord. For instance, cost-cutting trim is gone and there's a new instrument panel, three-spoke steering wheel, console with convenient twin cupholders, upgraded seat material and more chrome accents. Climate and audio controls are grouped in a simple unit that reduces visual complexity for the driver. However, the gated automatic transmission shifter can be difficult to operate smoothly if one wishes to manually change the transmission's gears. The gauges are backlit for easy visibility under various light conditions, but tachometer markings are odd.
Green-tinted UV-reducing solar glass enhances the Altima's upscale look. More importantly, it helps protect interior fabrics and improves passenger comfort.
The base 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine remains strong and smooth with 175 horsepower, even during 65-75 mph highway passing maneuvers that cause other four-cylinder engines to fall down.
The available 3.5-liter V-6 -- long rated one of the industry's best by Ward's Auto World magazine -- has picked up five extra horsepower for a 250 horsepower rating.
Both engines are sophisticated, with dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and continuously variable valve timing for better throttle response.
Backing the engines is a five-speed manual gearbox or a four-speed electronically controlled transmission with the four-cylinder engine and a five-speed automatic with the V-6. The four-speed automatic is responsive, but sometimes shifts too much to keep the engine in the right power/torque range.
Fuel economy is an estimated 23 mpg city and 29 highway with the four-cylinder engine and 21 and 26 with the V-6. A 20-gallon fuel tank is designed to provide a long range between fill-ups. It's the largest tank -- along with the same-sized one in the Maxima -- in the mid-size car class.
The 2005 Altima has a bolder, more athletic look. There's a restyled, smooth front fascia with a raised hood design, new headlights, chrome accents on the SL version and newly styled 16- and 17-inch wheels. Curiously, the taillights look as if from a mid-1960s Aston Martin.
Newly available features include a DVD-based navigation system; thankfully, it doesn't incorporate -- and consequently complicate -- audio/climate control adjustments.
The Altima comes as the 2.5, 2.5 S, 3.5 SE and 3.5 SL, with list prices going from $17,200 to $26,900. Even the lowest-cost version is fairly well equipped, with such items as a tilt/telescopic steering wheel, power windows and locks and a rear defogger. Move up to the $19,050 2.5 S model, and added are such items as air conditioning, cruise control, remote keyless entry and an AM/FM/CD sound system.
The top-line $26,900 3.5 SL has such items as the strong V-6, leather upholstery, power driver's seat, automatic climate control, higher-quality sound system and heated front seats.
There's also a bunch of option packages that contain everything from leather upholstery to automatic climate control and the power sunroof.
Safety features offered for all but the base 2.5 version are anti-lock brakes, front side air bags and front/rear head protecting curtain side air bags. A traction control system is available with the V-6 and automatic transmission.
The quick steering is a little heavy in the steering wheel's on-center position, and the turning circle is wide. Handling is sharp and the firm-but-comfortable ride is well-controlled. The brake pedal has a nice feel, and stopping distances are short.
The interior easily accommodates five adults, thanks partly to an especially large rear-seat area. The front bucket seats are supportive and the interior is quiet, with storage pockets in all doors.
Controls are easy to reach and use. Visibility is good, except to the rear, where it's hard to see where the back of the car ends from the driver's seat because of the tall rear deck. Doors open wide for easy entry and exit.
The large trunk has a low, wide opening, but its lid has manual hinges that dip into the cargo area. The 60/40 split rear seatbacks flip forward to enlarge the cargo area, although their release controls call for a long reach into the trunk. The seatbacks fold fairly flat, but the pass-through area from the trunk to the back seat is only average-sized.
Fluid filler areas are easy to reach under the hood, but it has a short, awkwardly placed manual prop.
The Altima is a sound alternative to the Camry and Accord -- and is helping Nissan rack up considerably higher sales this year.
2005 NISSAN ALTIMA
Improved styling. Upgraded interior. Roomy. Good ride and handling. Strong base engine.
Awkward hood prop. Trunk lid hinges eat some cargo space.