2006 Altima New Car Test Drive
Few recent General Motors introductions have been as well received as the new Pontiac Sunfire and Chevy Cavalier.
Completely restyled and re-engineered for the 1995 model year, the two new cars marked the end of a 13-year run for their predecessors. Because of its good sales record, Chevy decided to stick with the Cavalier name. Pontiac, however, decided to drop the Sunbird name in favor of Sunfire. The Sunbird wasn't a strong player, and product planners felt the more aggressive styling of the new car, with its strong hints of Firebird, deserved a name that would reinforce the family ties.
The Sunfire and Cavalier are available as coupes, sedans and convertibles. The Sunfire model lineup consists of the SE coupe (base price $11,504), SE sedan ($11,674), SE convertible ($17,734) and GT coupe ($13,214), which comes with a performance engine and boy-racer appearance. Similarly, the Cavalier lineup includes a pair of 2-door (base coupe and snazzy Z24), two sedans (base and LS) and the LS convertible.
For 1996, both the Sunfire and Cavalier have GM's 2.4-liter Twin Cam 4-cyl. as the optional engine (standard in Sunfire GT and Cavalier Z24), which replaces the previous 2.3-liter Quad 4 engine. It's the same engine, with more displacement and a pair of balance shafts to smooth out vibrations.
In addition, a 4-speed automatic transmission with traction control now is available on all models, and all have standard daytime running lights as well as GM's PASSlock anti-theft system. Remote keyless entry and steering wheel radio controls are available on all models for 1996 as well, and a number of refinements also were made to the ride and steering.
However, the most significant change for 1996 is availability. In 1995, GM's Lordstown, Ohio assembly plant, which makes the Sunfire and Cavalier coupes and sedans, was plagued with startup production problems that limited availability of the cars. Those problems apparently are behind the plant, and the supply of Sunfire and Cavalier models in dealer showrooms should be vastly improved for 1996. It's hardly a secret that GM's front drive minivans--Chevrolet Lumina APV, Oldsmobile Silhouette and Pontiac Trans Sport--have been a major disappointment to their manufacturer. Designed to challenge Chrysler's minivan supremacy with their radical styling, the trio languished as Chrysler and Ford gobbled up the lion's share of the market.
Instead of accolades, the daring new shapes drew criticism and an unfortunate nickname--the Dustbusters.
Although GM gave the trio nose jobs, powertrain upgrades and a power-operated sliding side door along the way, the trio never recovered from the early impressions.
An all-new set of replacements is just around the corner. Due this fall, the new Chevy Venture, Silhouette and Trans Sport will feature styling that's closer to the minivan mainstream, as well as a sliding driver-side rear door option, a la Chrysler.
Meanwhile, the current generation is still in showrooms. Although these minivans do have their weak points, they have strong points, too. With dealers unloading current models to make room for the new vans, the opportunity for bargains is exceptional.
Since the Pontiac Trans Sport concept van was the design template for the current GM minivans, we chose a Trans Sport SE for our final review of this generation. Sports cars do not lend themselves to the kind of rational evaluation found elsewhere on these pages. Every virtue most car-buyers hold dear--low price, fuel economy, spacious accommodations or minimal maintenance cost--is conspicuously absent from the attribute lists of these high-performance machines.
The fact of the matter is that sports cars are not designed to appeal to consumers. Rather, they are directed at driving enthusiasts, people who choose transportation based on input from their hearts, not minds. The motivations here can seldom be justified, and really don't need to be. Every sports car on the road represents a victory of want over need.
Porsche owners--specifically, Porsche 911 owners--are at the peak of this small but intense class of customers. They are fiercely loyal, usually vocal about their reasons for purchase and are, almost without exception, as much in love with their cars as a car owner can be.
Such partisanship is understandable. Porsche has experimented with a variety of engine layouts and body designs over the years, but at the core of its business the 911 series, first introduced in late 1964, stands alone.
The 911's preeminence is now fact as much as fable. All current Porsches are 911 derivatives, whether entry-level 911 Carrera coupe, Carrera Targa (with its innovative sliding glass roof panel), flip-top Cabriolet, all-wheel drive Carrera 4 or 4S, or overachieving 911 Turbo. Over a 32-year production span, they have been improved in countless ways, to the point where they blend real-world comfort with performance that can only be exploited to the maximum on a race track.
Logically, the 911s have a host of competitors. The Acura NSX, Chevrolet Corvette, Dodge Viper, Mazda RX-7, Toyota Supra Turbo and Nissan 300ZX Turbo are all ultra-high performance machines, and most are less expensive.
But this is not an arena where comparison shopping has much meaning. If you're in the market for one of these cars, your heart will tell you which dealer to visit.
Our test car was the top-of-the-line 911 Turbo, one of the true rocket sleds of sportscardom. The Nissan Altima is a roomy, comfortable, practical mid-size sedan. But while the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry aim squarely at the mainstream buyer, the Altima boasts lots of power, sporty handling and expressive styling. It's designed to please fewer people, but to please those few more intensely.
In this respect the Altima reminds us more of Mazda's mid-size sedan, the Mazda6. Both offer stand-out styling; both surrender some refinement for gains in handling response. In other ways, however, they are diametric opposites: The lean and wiry Mazda is the smallest car in this class, powered by a choice of high-winding engines; while the muscular Nissan tops the class in both horsepower and wheelbase and is one of the roomiest cars in the class.
The Altima delivers stunning acceleration when ordered with its 250-horsepower V6, essentially the same engine used in the Nissan 350Z and Maxima. Punch it in any gear and it takes off, with nimble handling and brakes to match its thrust. The high-performance Altima SE-R adds 10 more horsepower and even more sports appeal. And for its part, the Altima's standard four-cylinder engine is more powerful than comparable engines in the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Mazda6 or Mitsubishi Galant. So no matter which model you buy, you get a more powerful car with the Altima.
Altima also boasts a bigger interior than Camry and Accord. Altima's interior was redesigned for 2005, which resulted in an improved cabin. Altima also received some mild styling enhancements and a slight boost to its V6 for 2005. For 2006, Nissan has added four new option packages, and the optional satellite radio receiver is now factory-installed.
The 2006 Nissan Altima comes in five trim levels: The 2.5, 2.5 S and 2.5 SL are equipped with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, while the 3.5 SE and 3.5 SL feature the powerful 3.5-liter V6.
The Altima 2.5 ($17,650) comes standard with power windows, tinted windshield, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, power steering, fold down center armrests front and rear, a 60/40 split folding rear seat and an in-glass antenna. Air conditioning and a stereo are not included, however. The base model is only available with a five-speed manual transmission.
The 2.5 S ($19,500) 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. It comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic ($20,000). This is the most popular Altima, and Nissan offers several option packages to further its appeal. The Convenience Package ($1,680) features alloy wheels, eight-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) adds to the above a Bose audio system that includes a six-disc in-dash CD changer. Special Edition, Premium, Comfort, and Trip packages will also be available.
The 2.5 SL ($23,450) is the luxury Altima. It comes standard with the four-speed automatic transmission, heated leather seats, a power driver's seat, simulated wood trim, and most of the features offered in the convenience packages above. The only convenience option is the sunroof ($900). For those who want all the goodies without the big engine, this is the car.
The 3.5 SL ($27,300) adds the 250-horsepower V6 and five-speed automatic and comes standard with the four-speed automatic transmission, heated leather seats, a power driver's seat, simulated wood trim, and most of the features from the convenience packages. This is a very nice car, the top-of-the-line Altima.
The 3.5 SE ($23,500), on the other hand, is a performance model, equipped with the V6; five-speed manual transmission; 17-inch alloy wheels; wider, speed-rated tires; a performance-tuned suspension; fog lights; and dual chrome exhaust tips. The SE is also available with the five-speed automatic ($23,800). Cloth upholstery is standard. A Leather Package ($3,000) includes leather upholstery, Bose audio, sunroof, and heated front seats and mirrors. 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 SE-R ($29,550) features a 260-horsepower version of the 3.5-liter V6, performance-tuned front struts and rear shocks, stiffer front and rear springs, thicker front and rear stabilizer bars, speed-rated 225/45WR18 tires and 18-inch forged aluminum-alloy wheels. Anti-lock brakes (ABS) with Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist are standard. Unique front and rear fascias and its own rear spoiler, compact fog lights, side-sill spoilers, and large dual exhaust finishers highlight the exterior. Inside, the SE-R gets sport leather seats, dark chrome trim, and a three-pod center-mounted gauge package. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, but the five-speed automatic is available as a no-cost option.
Safety features include dual-stage frontal airbags. Optional: side-impact airbags designed to provide torso protection for driver and front passenger and roof-mounted curtain airbags designed to provide head protection for front and rear passengers in a side impact or rollover. We strongly rec.