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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

"buffing").

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

crash protection.

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

progress.

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

shifts.

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

work.

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

cushiness.

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

minilimo.

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.

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