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Totally redesigned Nissan Altima wins Car of the Year award

A couple of decades or so ago, Nissan built a car called the Stanza. It was a new vehicle in a new niche in the automotive industry, falling in the large gap between big, oversized U.S. sedans and the tiny little econoboxes being imported here.

A couple of decades or so ago, Nissan built a car called the Stanza. It was a new vehicle in a new niche in the automotive industry, falling in the large gap between big, oversized U.S. sedans and the tiny little econoboxes being imported here.
That niche has now been taken over and dominated by cars like the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Ford Taurus, Pontiac Grand Am, Volkswagen Jetta, Mazda 626 and a dozen or so others. They can call them compact or intermediate or midsize.
While Nissan's Stanza remained a good and dependable vehicle, it seemed that the car almost got squeezed out by the more public-relations savvy opponents. So Nissan retrenched, and revised the Stanza into the Altima. While the Accord and Camry were running away in popularity, Nissan tried to outflank them with the more expensive Maxima, armed with a V6 engine and a lot of amenities, just above them in price, and the new Altima, with its strong four-cylinder, just below them in the price structure.
Now it is 2002, and Nissan has pulled out all the stops. The new Altima is entirely new from top to bottom, and it not only has a V6 but a bigger V6 than either Accord or Camry, and it is larger, seeming to crowd into the Maxima territory. Overall, it is extremely impressive.
So impressive, it was just named the North American International Car of the Year at the Detroit International Auto Show.
The Altima beat out some impressive opponents, compiling a total of 267 voting points from a jury of 49 automotive journalists -- including this one -- to outrank the Cadillac CTS, which had 203 points as runner-up, and the Ford Thunderbird, which had 160 points to finish third.
The Chevrolet TrailBlazer, which I wrote about recently, won Truck of the Year, with 217 points, to lead the Chevrolet Avalanche (206) and the Jeep Liberty (162).
For the Altima, it was a breakthrough to gain the support of the cynical autowriters, and it joins exclusive company by winning the only car of the year award not done by a specific publication that might weigh its choice against advertising revenue.
In the years since the prestigious award has been presented, the winners have been: Mercedes C-Class 1994; Chrysler Cirrus 1995; Chrysler Minivans 1996; Mercedes CLK roadster 1997; Chevrolet Corvette 1998; Volkswagen New Beetle 1999; Ford Focus 2000; and Chrysler PT Cruiser 2001.
The new Altima has a 3.5-liter V6, with dual-overhead camshafts and 24 valves, with continuously variable valve-timing, all calibrated to produce 240 horsepower. A four-speed automatic transmission handles the power well, and the car handles very well, with stabilizer bars front and rear and multilink independent rear suspension. The SE model I test-drove had performance suspension tuning.
With the longer body, there is a lot of room inside, and the outside looks of the Altima have a forward slant, with the slope of the rear deck giving it a racy look. That upturned tail also aids aerodynamics, which is impressive from an engineering standpoint, and truck space, which is impressive when you're going on a trip.
Nissan also went to some pains to set apart the interior with distinctive touches. The instruments are housed in cylindrical tunnels, but they slope to the driver and are neat, rather than intrusive. The center dash slopes away, much like the new Camry, but the difference is the Camry put the radio controls up on top, which makes it a reach for the driver, while the Altima puts two air vents up high, then the Bose audio system -- radio and six-speaker CD player -- next, so all the dials are easily reached.
Nissan tried a little too hard when it came to the audio system itself, making the radio needlessly complex, with A, B and C preset groupings that might let you interact AM and FM station settings.
Below the audio controls are the heat-air switches, which are three rotating knobs for fan, temperature and direction of airflow.
The front end has an aero look, with flush-mounted halogen headlights and foglights, and in-glass antenna, and the rear has neatly styled taillights and that aforementioned stylishly tapered flip.
Other features of the SE include remote keyless entry and power windows with express-down feature on the driver and passenger doors. Dual cupholders front and rear, variable intermittent wipers, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, 60-40 fold-down rear seat, eight-way power driver's seat with manual lumbar support, cruise control, air-conditioning, speed-sensitive volume control for the audio system, dual front airbags, side beams in the body, front and rear crumple zones for safety, and a vehicle security system.
The steering wheel itself needs an instruction manual. Along with the cruise control settings on the right, there are audio controls on the left, with a button to access the navigation system as well.
As for options, the antilock brake system on the four-wheel discs is an option, and comes with side airbags and front and rear head-curtain airbags. The Bose audio upgrade is optional, as is a power glass sunroof, the rear spoiler, traction control, and xenon headlights.
When it came to the voting, I voted for the Audi A4 as the top car, but all of us on the jury got 25 points to spread out through as many candidates as we thought deserved them. I gave some voting points to the Altima, because it is impressive, although not as many as to the A4, the Acura RSX coupe, the Mercedes C-Coupe, and the Jaguar X-Type.
That in no way diminishes the Altima's excellence in my view. The only drawbacks to the new Altima are that in seeking to make it more powerful, the big 3.5-liter engine gets a range of 19-26 miles per gallon, which was not as economical as the A4, or the RSX, and no better than the supercharged Mercedes or the Jag. Also, in making it bigger and better in every way, the Altima SE now lists for a base price of $23,149, and as tested it ran up to $27,462.
A couple of years ago, you could get an Altima with a good four-cylinder for under $20,000. Now, the new car is better in every way, but when you get up to $27,000, you've moved into the price range of the A4, RSX, C-Coupe and X-type. Very good company, indeed, for a very good new car. Congratulations.

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