It's been eight years since Nissan moved the Altima into the big leagues in terms of styling, size and performance. As far as Japanese product cycles go, that's an eternity -- and yet the previous version of the Altima seemed as fresh and new in 2006 as it did in 1999. If I was Nissan, I'd be reluctant to change the Altima, too. But change it they have, and the new Nissan Altima is an excellent example of keeping the good and upgrading the not-so-good. $18,575 base, $23,535 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 20-24 city, 27-31 highway.
First Glance: Changes where they count
According to J.D. Power and Associates, the 2006 Nissan Altima was the third best selling car the non-luxury mid-size sedan class, trailing the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord by a pretty wide margin. The last Altima I drove was 2005's hot rod Altima SE-R model. I liked it a lot, but but saw room for improvement. A cursory glance at the redesigned 2007 Altima shows that the changes are subtle -- but would they be enough to turn like to love?
I've never been a big fan of Nissan styling -- at least I wasn't until this year. Like its little sibling, the Sentra (also redesigned for 2007), I really like the new Altima's look. Changes from the old car are very subtle, but details like the new headlights and taillights (links go to photos) add character. The body has one of my favorite Nissan design features: Rear doors that slant backwards at the rear edge, which make it easier to get in and out of the back seat. I don't care for the tail-low stance though; it makes the car look rump-heavy.
Nissan sells the Altima in several trims, including 4-cylinder 2.5 Base, 2.5 S and 2.5 SL and V6-powered 3.5 SE and 3.5 SL. I reviewed the Altima 2.5 S model, which virtually matches Toyota's best-selling Camry, the LE four-cylinder model, with must-haves (power windows/mirrors/locks, A/C, stereo) and nice-to-haves (power driver's seat) and ups the ante with a keyless ignition system. Best of all, the 2.5 S' interior is comfortable and nicely trimmed and decorated, attributes that have been keys to the Camry's success.
In the Driver's Seat: Less-than-optimal safety choices, but the rest is all good
My test car's interior was done up in tan and grey with a few tasteful bits of brushed-silver and wood trim. Power windows, mirrors and locks are standard in all Altima models, as is a keyless push-button ignition system, a distinctively Lexus-like touch. The Altima 2.5 S offers a power driver's seat, air conditioning and a CD player, all a reasonable $20,935. (Nissan also offers a stripped down base model for $18,565, but it offers few options -- automatic transmission, air conditioning and a stereo aren't among them -- and is only available via special order. I doubt we'll see many of them on the road.)
Frankly, I've got nothing but praise for the Altima's interior. The seats are comfy, the sightlines are good, there's lots of interior storage -- what's not to like? Okay, the fold-down rear seats are a bit lame, with a small pass-through opening and a center seat belt that's always in the way. The trunk uses old-fashioned hinges that can mash your stuff. The stereo controls aren't the most intuitive, and the steering column's telescope adjustment is awkward; you have to pull outward on the lever while moving the column in and out. Still, none of these are factors that would keep me from buying an Altima.
Front-seat-mounted torso airbags and two-row side curtain airbags are standard, but antilock brakes (ABS) are optional on the base and 2.5S (standard on others) and electronic stability control (ESC) is only offered on the 2.5 SL and V6 models. Shame on you, Nissan -- ABS and ESC should at least be optional (if not standard) on all Altimas.
On the Road: Big four + CVT = fuel-efficient muscle
The old Altima was notable for having a sportier feel than its competitors, and the new car is no different. The steering is very direct and responsive. I actually found it a bit of a problem on the highway; there's almost no on-center "soft spot" so driving the Altima in a straight line requires constant tiny corrections and precise attention. Just for giggles, I took the Altima up to my favorite curvy canyon road, and was surprised at how well it performed. The suspension didn't spring any nasty surprises on me and the CVT always ensured I had enough power on tap. All in all, the Altima's performance was much better than I expected from an economy-minded mid-size sedan.
Journey's End: Make ESC standard across the board and it would be perfect
My one major complaint is the lack of electronic stability control on base and 2.5 S models. ESC is a life-saver and should be available on every car. That said, few of the Altima's rivals have seen the light, either. (Korean automakers are a notable exception; ESC is standard on all Hyundai Sonatas and automatic Kia Optimas.)
If you ask me, the Nissan Altima's most formidable rival is the Mazda 6. It offers sedan, hatchback and wagon body styles and has a notably sporty demeanor, though I prefer the Altima's brighter and more up-to-date interior and superior transmission choices -- 6-speed manual or CVT for the Altima vs. 5-speed manual or conventional automatic for the Mazda 6.
This is the point in the review where I usually talk about what I would do with my own money. In this case, there's no question: If I was in the market for a new mid-size sedan, I'd buy a Nissan Altima 2.5 S. Period, end of story, thank you and good night. -- Aaron Gold