Rather than merely touching up its Altima sedan, Nissan has moved it to a brand-new platform with markedly greater dimensions for 2002. As a result, the formerly compact Altima has leap-frogged right past the midsize category and now qualifies as a full-size model by cars.com standards. A V-6 engine is available for the first time, but about 80 percent of Altimas are expected to retain four-cylinder power. The Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, Nissans archrivals in this category, also sell far more four-cylinder models than V-6s.
The 2002 Altima went on sale in September 2001, and Nissan expects to sell 190,000 units annually, in contrast to recent totals of 140,000 to 150,000 per year for the previous Altima. Nissan expects the four-cylinder 2.5 base model to grab about 1 percent of sales, while the 2.5 S edition should draw about 63 percent of total Altima buyers.
Nissan views the 2002 version as a conquest vehicle, which is able to capture shoppers who might otherwise select a different car. The target audience is younger and more affluent than those who bought Altimas in the past.
Exhibiting a cab-forward profile, the Altima looks and is bigger all around in its fresh form. The wheelbase has grown by 7.1 inches to 110.2 inches, and its overall length has increased by 5.7 inches, now stretching to 191.5 inches. Its width has grown by 1.3 inches, and the 2002 Altima stands 2 inches taller than its predecessor. But its weight has increased by only 70 pounds.
Boasting particularly long side windows, the cabin looks huge compared to the cars hood and trunk. Door handles are at different heights, following the distinctive full-length bodyside character line. Taillights are said to have been inspired by super bikes. A fully independent suspension is used, and Nissan says structural rigidity has improved by 170 percent. Four-cylinder models get 16-inch tires, but V-6 sedans ride on 17-inch rubbers.
Seating for five occupants includes separate front seats and a three-place bench in the back. The front-seat hip point has been raised by 1.5 inches for improved visibility, and interior volume is 10 percent greater than in the prior Altima. Models with the automatic transmission use a gated gearshift.
Standard equipment includes power windows and door locks, a tachometer, electric rear defroster, fold-down rear armrest, tilt/telescoping steering column and an illuminated entry system. The 2.5 S model adds cruise control, a CD player, air conditioning, remote keyless entry and power mirrors. The 2.5 SL gets leather-appointed seats, an eight-way power drivers seat, eight-speaker Bose premium audio system with an in-dash CD changer, and a Vehicle Security System. The 3.5 SE with V-6 power has a six-speaker CD audio system. Options for the 3.5 SE include a rear spoiler, high-intensity-discharge (HID) headlights and a Leather Package.
Under the Hood
The base engine is a new 2.5-liter four-cylinder that produces 180 horsepower, 25 horses more than the 2.4-liter engine it replaces. Standard on the 3.5 SE sedan is a 240-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 that is similar to the one in the larger and more luxurious Maxima. Either engine can mate with a five-speed manual or a four-speed-automatic transmission, and premium fuel is recommended. Traction control is available for V-6 Altimas with the automatic transmission. Antilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front seats and roof-mounted side curtain-type airbags are optional.
More refined with an automatic transmission than with a manual shift, which is a bit on the clanky side, the Altima steers with a rather light touch. The sedan is stable on the road even when driven through repeated tight curves and it exhibits minimal body lean. Ride comfort is satisfying as the fully independent suspension deals adeptly with bumps and holes in the road, but the Altima tends to feel a little harder all around than its more cushy Maxima cousin.
Strong performance from the V-6 engine matches excellent response from the automatic transmission, which downshifts promptly and eagerly for passing. Acceleration is even more energetic with the five-speed manual. Seats feel comfortable and pleasantly supportive, and the Altima comes across as tightly constructed.