1998 Nissan Altima
LA JOLLA, Calif. Former Ontario premier Bill Davis used to
say that in politics, "bland works."
It seems to work for cars too, these days. Doesn't anybody
care about character, style, and originality any more?
Nissan gave creativity a chance in the blandest-is-best
mid-size family sedan segment in 1993 with Altima.
Okay, Altima was hardly radical. But the tallish, narrowish
lines did give the car a recognizable profile. The
large-displacement four-cylinder engine provided real-world
performance very nearly the match of competitors' V6s. Nimble
handling meant Altima owners seemed to, dare I say it, "enjoy
the ride" more than most of their neighbors.
And it was pretty successful. Not enough to knock off the
(blander) Camry or Accord. But Altima owners really like
their cars, aided not in the least by impressive reliability.
Nissan has taken a conservative strategy with Altima's 1998
replacement. On their own, the domed roof and curvaceous lines
make it look pretty similar to its predecessor.
Viewed side-by-side with an old one, though, you can spot the
changes. There are some character lines, a bit more sculpting
(here in fitness-conscious southern California they'd call it
The differences you're most likely to notice are the
complex-reflector headlights and larger taillights with a
straightline cutoff where they meet the trunklid — a design element I
first recall from the previous-generation Mercedes-Benz E-Class,
and which has subsequently become a cliche.
An identical wheelbase suggests, accurately, that the new
Altima uses an adaptation of the previous platform. The track is
wider front and rear, and the new body is longer and wider. Most
interior dimensions are up by tens of millimetres, and trunk
space rises from 12.9 to 13.8 cubic feet.
The body is built with Nissan's exclusive Intelligent Body
Assembly System (IBAS), a single gigantic robotized fixture that
does all the major body welding in one shot. This results in
spectacularly small body panel gaps and outstanding quality.
The new shell is 20 per cent stiffer in torsion, thanks
largely to reinforced junctions of the side pillars to the
rocker regions. We hope you'll only appreciate this in the car's
quieter ride, because another major benefit is improved side
Speaking of which, the new Altima will be the first Nissan
with "Generation II" depowered air bags all '98 Nissans will
have them. These are designed to inflate less abruptly, creating
less of a threat to smaller drivers or passengers sitting close
to the dashboard, while still providing additional protection
for properly-belted riders. Side air bags for Altima will be
along next year.
Other interior upgrades include a new seat frame, said to
promote greater lumbar-to-pelvis support for reduced fatigue.
Altima's mechanical package is adapted from before as well.
Careful engineering proves giant steps aren't the only path to
The only available engine remains the 2.4-litre twin-cam
16-valve four. A weight reduction program and some tinkering are
aimed at reducing noise, vibration, and fuel consumption, rather
than increasing output, which is still 150 horsepower at 5,600
r.p.m. and 154 lb.ft. of torque at 4,400 r.p.m.
Despite no more power and a small weight increase,
acceleration is about the same as before. The major player here
is an automatic transaxle revised for quicker yet smoother
A five-speed manual gearbox is standard on all but the
range-topping GLE variant. One-third of all Altimas in Canada are
sold with this transaxle, suggesting Altima buyers are more
involved with their automobiles than most family sedan owners.
For a four without balance shafts, 2.4 litres is a lot of
displacement, yet the Altima motor runs pretty smoothly. The
exhaust note, while not unpleasant, is evident, but only because
the rest of the car is so quiet — that stiffer body seems to
The goals for the suspension engineers were to retain Altima's
class-leading handling while improving comfort — two parameters
which, if not necessarily mutually exclusive, are at least
antagonistic. The body stiffness works for handling and noise
suppression, and allows engineers to specify reduced-friction
bushings and taller cross-section tires on base models for more
The largest suspension change is new front struts with 40 per
cent less internal friction. The sportier SE model can get away
with eight per cent stiffer springs for flatter cornering, yet
still retain an acceptable ride. All models employ longer front
half-shafts for reduced torque steer.
As are all carmakers, Nissan is looking to hold the line on
prices. To do so, they must adjust equipment levels, keeping
stuff customers value, dropping stuff they don't care about.
I might mourn the loss of rear disc brakes on Altima when the
ABS package is ordered on all but the SE version, or the
complete loss of the viscous-coupled limited slip differential.
But most buyers would rather have upgraded stereos, power
windows (now standard across the board) and increased
availability of remote keyless entry.
Four trim levels are offered. The entry-level XE is a
low-volume stripper. The cloth-upholstered, well-equipped GXE
will be the bestseller. The stiffer-sprung, white-gauged SE is
the sportiest choice. The leather-trimmed auto-only GLE is the
Prices won't be released until next week, but Max Wickens,
Nissan Canada's public relations manager admits, "The U.S.
dropped their prices by about eight per cent, and we might be
able to do better than that."
Altimas ranged from $20,798 to $29,498 in '97. Assuming an
eight per cent solution, an under-twenty-grand '98 looks
possible. A decently-outfitted mid-range car should slide in
under twenty-three large.
Unlike Accord (allnew this fall) or Camry (allnew last
fall), Altima offers only a four-cylinder engine. Nissan lets
Maxima handle V6 duties. That reduces Altima's potential.
Still, Nissan Canada's director of marketing, Ian Forsyth has
optimistic plans: "We expect to increase sales from about 6,000
units in the 1997 model year to 10,000 for 1998."
There is no doubt in my mind that Altima is car-enough to do
it. It's a nice, roomy, roadable, userfriendly, high-value car
that retains a greater-than-average dose of entertainment value.
I hope there are sufficient buyers out there who value that.
Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie, among a group of auto writers
invited to a test site, prepared this report based on sessions
arranged and paid for by the automaker.