2004 Nissan Altima Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Bigger and faster than other mid-sized sedans.
The Nissan Altima boasts a bigger interior than the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and most other mid-size sedans. It's quicker, too.
The Altima offers everything buyers want in a reasonably priced sedan, particularly those who don't always travel alone. It's roomy, comfortable, and functional. It has comfortable rear seating and a big trunk. Bold styling sets it apart.
With its powerful, 245-horsepower V6, the Nissan Altima 3.5 SE is one of the hottest cars in its class. It delivers stunning acceleration. Punch it in any gear and it takes off, with nimble handling and brakes to match all the thrust. For 2004, the Altima's standard four-cylinder engine has been certified to meet the stringent new PZEV emissions standard in California and several Northeast States.
Redesigned two years ago, the current Altima is much larger than the previous-generation model. Its combination of looks, room and performance earned it the 2002 North American Car of the Year award and it quickly became Nissan's best selling vehicle.
Nissan Altima is offered in four trim levels: 2.5, 2.5 S, 2.5 SL and 3.5 SE. Two engines are available. Base, S, and SL models are powered by a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. The SE features a powerful 3.5-liter V6, essentially the same engine used in the Nissan 350Z and Maxima.
The base 2.5 model ($16,850) comes standard with power windows, a green-tinted solar glass windshield, power steering, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, fold down center armrests front and rear, a 60/40 split folding rear seat and an in-glass antenna. Stereo and air conditioning are not part of the base package, however, and other options are limited to chrome wheels, automatic transmission and fog lights.
The 2.5 S ($18, 700) adds air conditioning, power mirrors, remote keyless entry with remote trunk lock, an eight-way adjustable driver's seat, cruise control, a six-speaker audio system, seatback pockets and a lock for the split rear seat. This is the most popular Altima, and Nissan offers several option packages to further increase its appeal. The Convenience Package ($1,680) features alloy wheels, 8-way power driver's seat with lumbar support, leather-wrapped steering wheel, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, trip computer, dual illuminated vanity mirrors, speed-sensitive volume control, automatic headlights and a vehicle security system. The Convenience Plus Package ($2,500) adds a power glass sunroof with sunshade to the other goodies, while the Premium Convenience Package ($3,300) ups the ante with a Bose audio system that includes a six-disc in-dash CD changer.
The 2.5 SL ($23,200) is the luxury Altima. It has most of the features offered in the Convenience Packages and comes standard with an automatic transmission, heated leather seats, a power driver's seat and simulated wood trim. The only convenience option is the sunroof ($850). For those who want all the goodies without the big engine, this is the car.
The 3.5 SE ($23,149) comes with the V6, 17-inch alloy wheels, wider, speed-rated tires, a performance-tuned suspension, fog lights, and dual chrome exhaust tips. A Leather Package ($ 3,000) includes the leather upholstery, Bose audio system, sunroof, heated front seats, and heated mirrors. The Sport Package ($1,250) adds a sunroof and rear spoiler; the Sport Package Plus ($2,600) includes the sunroof, spoiler, Bose premium audio, and xenon headlights. The Leather Sport Package ($3,900) combines the Leather Package with the spoiler and xenon headlights. The top of the line is the Altima SE with the Premium Leather Package ($4,000).
Altima's prices this year reflect a fairly modest increase of $201 on all models compared to 2003. To its credit, Nissan has kept option prices essentially the same. The automatic transmission ($500) has actually decreased in price.
The 3.5 SE with automatic can be ordered with traction control, which is packaged with front side-impact and full-cabin head protection airbags, as well as ABS ($1,100). The S, SL and SE manuals offer the other safety gear ($800) without traction control. Unfortunately, the side airbags and ABS aren't available on the base Altima.
As mid-size sedans go, the Nissan Altima is a big car. Its wheels are pushed to the far corners of the car, giving it a long wheelbase and wide track for stability at high speeds. The long wheelbase leaves plenty of room for large doors and passengers as well.
When compared to Japanese sedans, the Altima is cast in the more aggressive style of a German car. Attentive observers may spot styling cues from the Volkswagen Passat or the Audi A6. The grille and front bumper protrude a bit, but they're set off nicely by multi-parabola projector-type headlights, with four bulbs set behind large triangular covers. Altima's grille is large by contemporary standards, but not the least bit awkward. Big 16-inch wheels (standard) improve both looks and handling.
The rear half is even more striking, featuring a sloping roofline more reminiscent of a coupe than a four-door sedan. The high trunk lid is set off by bold round taillights, turn signals and backup lights set in a triangular-shaped clear cover. The various lights are surrounded by silver, which is the rage among youthful hot-rodders.
The trunk has a large opening and low lift-over height. Its trunk is generous at 15.6 cubic feet, putting Altima near the top of the mid-size class in trunk space. Flexibility is increased by the standard split-folding rear seat (with a lock on all but the base car). The trunk lid lifts on its own when popped with the remote key fob, and the gooseneck hinges that allow this action intrude minimally into the usable trunk space.
Altima is assembled with a one-piece bodyside structure for more consistent build quality. Altima has gained on Camry and Accord in exterior build quality and Nissan claims panel-fit accuracy within 1.0 mm. The Altima also has more exterior design detail than either of those competitors, with creased mirrors, integrated foglamps and other subtle cues. Some may call these details distinctive; others may consider them excessive. Either way, Altima is styled more aggressively than most if its competitors. For 2004 the new Smoke gray paint brings color choices to eight.
The Nissan Altima's interior complements the bold exterior styling nicely. A few journalists have described the cabin design as brilliant. The dashboard is set relatively low, with a three-gauge binnacle directly in front of the driver containing speedometer, tachometer, and water temperature and fuel gauges. The instruments glow orange in the dark. This is the preferred color among enthusiast drivers; in theory it should interfere with night vision less than standard white backlighting does.
Audio controls are clustered in a raised, ovoid panel in the center of the dash. Climate control knobs lie directly below, and very easy to locate with minimal distraction. Air conditioning vents are flush-mounted on the dash, rather than in the protruding pods on some other cars. Seams for the passenger-side airbag are invisible, cleverly hidden in a large expanse of unembellished dashboard surface.
In general, the interior design gives Altima a spacious feel, and the feeling is no illusion. The Altima ranks near the top of the class measured by virtually any interior dimension. There's more front legroom here than in all but the largest vehicles on the road. Its front seats are good sized, which is good for larger bodies, and quite comfortable. Getting in and out of the Altima is easy, thanks to wide doors and a slightly higher-than-average front seating position.
The same applies in back. The rear seats are both supportive and comfortable, with good legroom and sufficient headroom. A 6-foot, 4-inch passenger can sit comfortably behind a 6-foot, 4-inch driver. Rear center passengers have a three-point seat belt with shoulder harness; when the center spot is empty, an armrest drops and presents cupholders. Getting in and out of the rear seats is easier in the Altima than it is in many mid-size sedans. The long wheelbase and large doors make it less likely that a rear passenger will get dirty by dragging clothes across the fender well.
Unfortunately, there are no perfect cars. The year after this Altima was launched, Nissan began working on one of its most obvious shortfalls versus the competition. Interior textures, colors and trims were improved substantially for 2003. Nonetheless, the 2004 Altima cabin still doesn't match some competitors in fit, finish, overall refinement or attention to detail. Its interior panels match a little less precisely, or resonate with slightly more hollow sounds. The differences are small, and Altima offers a lot in exchange. But they are noticeable.
Either way, this sedan provides plenty of nice details, and room to stuff stuff. The parking brake is a proper handbrake, located front and center. The center console has cupholders large enough for one-liter bottles, as well as an adjustable elbow rest and a small storage bin. There's a small, covered cubbyhole at the front of the console under the climate controls, and it suffers only a little from the flimsy lid.
The first thing you notice driving the Nissan Altima SE is its power. The SE's powerful V6 will impress mightily, whether you slam the throttle at a stop light or at 40 mph. Either way, the Altima takes off like a rocket. There's so much power that you'll notice torque steer, even with the automatic. Torque steer is a phenomenon of some front-wheel drive cars with a high power-to-weight ration, in which brute force traveling through the axles to the front wheels will pull the steering wheel slightly from side to side.
The V6 turns the Altima into a true sports sedan, especially when paired with the five-speed manual transmission, and the suspension and brakes are tuned appropriately for the job. The Altima 3.5 SE is arguably the best performer among mid-sized sedans, and among the most fun to drive. The Altima 3.5 SE uses essentially the same 3.5-liter V6 used in the Nissan 350Z and Maxima. It features the latest in high-output technology, producing 245 horsepower at 5800 rpm and 246 pounds-feet of torque at 4400 rpm.
The standard four-cylinder engine is strong, too. It delivers considerably more grunt that the four-cylinder engines in Honda Accord or Toyota Camry, and it works well with the four-speed automatic transmission. With the automatic, the four-cylinder Altima still pulls strongly from a standing start, and the transmission shifts promptly between 40 and 60 mph for quick passing maneuvers. Four-cylinder engines of this heft tend to run on the rough side, and Nissan has addressed this inherent vibration with a compact balance system and silent-chain cam drive that smoothes operation nicely. The 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine features 16 valves, dual overhead camshafts and fully variable valve timing. It produces 175 horsepower at 6000 rpm, and 180 pounds-feet of torque at 4000 rpm (The PZEV engine produces 170 horsepower and 175 pounds-feet). The 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine is also more economical than the 3.5-liter V6, particularly with the manual transmission. The four-cylinder rates 23/29 mpg City/Highway compared to 21/26 for the V6, according to the EPA. The 20-gallon fuel tank, considerably larger than most in this class, means Altima can travel a long way between fill-ups.
Once again, however, there is no perfect car. Nissan's engineers have done an excellent job of managing the Altima's rough streak, but the big four-cylinder engine is still a bit louder, more raucous, than those in Accord or Camry. The Altima's V6 powertrain isn't quite as smooth as those in the primary competition, either. That said, depending on your tastes, you may have so much fun driving the Altima that you'll neither notice nor care.
The Altima feels secure at 80 mph in a torrent of rain. It feels larger than the Honda Accord and other mid-size sedans. The four-wheel disc brakes are easy to modulate, even without the ABS, and deliver plenty of stopping power. Power rack-and-pinion steering gives precise directional control, with good feedback. Overall handling is exemplary, thanks party to a newly designed multi-link rear suspension, which uses aluminum components to reduce weight. This is a sophisticated design, and it enhances the stability of the rear end, even on bumpy roads. When it comes to chassis dynamics, the Altima is again a class-leading performer. Enthusiasist drivers will love it, but it may not be for everyone.
While it rides well in most circumstances, the Altima 3.5 SE can feel stiffer than some of its competitors, particularly when it's crossing a rhythmic series of bumps or pavement joints. It's not quite as smooth as the Camry or Accord, and the driver and passengers might feel a bit more vibration through the pedals, steering wheel or armrests. Overall NVH (or noise, vibration and harshness control) doesn't quite match the best in class, thanks partly to Altima's emphasis on exhilarating performance. With every car, designers (and buyers) have to mak.
The Nissan Altima stands out for its bold styling, and its bold design is backed up by strong performance. On a fun-to-drive scale, the Altima 3.5 SE tops the class, but the fun doesn't come at the expense of practicality. This car is bigger and roomier than most mid-sized sedans, with comfortable accommodations front or rear, and plenty of space to haul stuff.
It doesn't lead the class in overall refinement, but the Altima is loaded with personality, and it offers a combination of virtues that's hard to beat. No one should buy a mid-size sedan before looking closely at the Nissan Altima.
Nissan Altima 2.5 ($16,850); 2.5 S ($18,700); 2.5 SL ($23,200); 3.5 SE ($22,750).
Options As Tested
ABS and airbag package ($800) includes anti-lock brakes, side-impact and side-curtain air bags; Leather Package ($3000) includes leather seating surfaces, padded leather armrest cover, simulated leather door trim panels, heated front seats, auto-dimming mirror, heated outside mirrors, HomeLink universal transceiver, automatic climate control, one-touch power sunroof, Bose audio system with eight-speakers AM/FM/CD6, trunk lid trim.
Nissan Altima 3.5 SE ($22,750).
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