Camry or Accord?
Back in the early 90’s, most non-enthusiasts with who admired certain small cars as long-term transportation modules would wind up at a Toyota or Honda dealer. Civic, Corolla, Camry, Accord. The majority of these blase buyers would price out their Toyonda car with nary a fleeting glance toward the Nissan side of the world.
Those early-90’s Sentras may have eventually yielded a bulletproof powertrain for the developing world and a wonderful SE-R model as well. But nobody cared back then. The Stanza? Still stuck in the 80’s school of design with a 90’s price tag.
Nissan was the least loved child of the Japanese Big 3 among those who least loved cars in general. But then the market slowly changed.
The 1993 Nissan Altima was not a paradigm shift by any stretch of the imagination. Then again it didn’t take much to leap far away from a Stanza. The 1st generation Altima would offer a humdrum 2.4 Liter that produced a respectable 150 horsepower. Upscale GLE models received the fake wood that glorified an otherwise average interior, and SE models would eventually offer a fake sporty bodydress that was all too typical of the time.
The look… was not quite as sporty as the 1994 – 1997 Accord. Nor was it as conservative as the 1992-1996 Camry. It was in almost all respects a good solid car that had to compete with great solid cars.
Then a few strange things happened with the Japanese midsize car. It stopped being a compact.
The Honda Accord went from a sporty compact to a far larger Camry-esque midsized sedan with a luxury focus.
Toyota brought forth more room with the redesigned Camry. Along with cost containment (<– Click!) and an aggressive pricing strategy that would make it a dominant player for the next 15 years.
The Altima became the forgotten car. In 1998 Nissan launched a 2nd generation that looked almost exactly like the first generation. So much so that much of the public considered it to essentially be the same car as before.
The handling became a little better. The interior was a bit more cheap. The styling was conservative to a near Malibu level of anonymity. You could buy a new Altima and the exterior contours along with an identical level of interior space (108 compact cubic feet) would make the tidy package seem almost a body double with the older model unless you put them side to side.
The Japanese alternatives simply dialed in the same consumer takeout. Toyota quality and affordability with the Camry. Honda quality and affordability with the Accord. The Altima couldn’t quite hit either sweet spot nearly as well and the stunning lack of V6 power in the SE and GLE models made the Altima little more than an afterthought in the high end of the market. Sales were a mere 130,000 units in 2001 compared with 388,000 for the Camry and 414,000 for the Accord.
Something had to be sacrificed at Nissan… and it turned out to be the Maxima.
The 3rd generation Nissan Altima was almost an automotive Charles Atlas compared with the Poindexter of the prior year. Nissan finally embraced the role of the athletic midsize model in a way that not even the Maxima could duplicate. In fact, the V6 equipped 2002 Nissan Altima would be even more powerful and spacious than the 2002 Nissan Maxima.
Horsepower rang up to 175 for the 4-cylinder and a then prodigious 240 for the V6. The rear seats had reasonable room for the first time, stickshift models finally had zing in ways the Camords could no longer duplicate, and Nissan finally saw fit to bequeath their American supersized Altima with a new platform dubbed FF-L .
It was that decade’s version of the Chrysler LH. Modern, spacious and athletic for an automaker that had struggled to put all three of these qualities into one platform. This platform would give rise to the highly successful Nissan Murano and enabled Nissan to finally embrace the multiple model platform that was essential for profits in the global marketplace. The Maxima and Quest would soldier on in their respective declining market segments with the same underpinnings ,while the Altima models would soldier forward to finally take on the Accord and Camry.
The 2002 Nissan Altima would break through the 200k barrier and put the model firmly in the midsized dimensions where it belonged . Ten years and one D platform later, the 2012 Altima would break through the 300k barrier and seriously challenge the Accord as the second best selling midsized sedan in the United States.
This stunning advancement would hide two unusual realities for the midsized segment.
The first is that the midsize sedan market is penetrating several segments that were once distinct and impervious . Today’s Camrys and Altimas suck an awful lot of customers out of the full-sized, dedicated hybrids, and even the family CUV and minivan markets.
The average midsized car is now a full-sized model with all the safety equipment, and nearly all the fuel economy that can be had in any of these four other markets. This is as much marketing driven as it is technology driven.
The 1993 Accord, Camry and Altima offered only 4 trim levels and fewer than three engines (2, 2, and 1 respectively). The 2013 models have anywhere from 6 to 7 trim levels with a dizzying level of potential alternatives. Plug-in, hybrid, coupe, sedan, CUV-like wagon, CVT, Auto, stick. Not to mention that everything from minivans to SUV’s will often use the same exact platform.
Variety in look, and commonality with platform, are now the new reality. Lee Iacocca and the auto industry’s K-Car forebearers would have been proud.
The second reality that tails in well with the greater economies of scale (and fewer suppliers) is a strong increase in quality standards across the board for all major manufacturers. So much so that quality gaps have now become more a matter of interiors and infotainment technologies, rather than long-term durability.
Not too long ago it used to be that only two midsized models, Accord and Camry, could largely carry the mantle of quality with the general public. Now the subpar quality car is the irritable exception.
For now the Camry is still the king of popularity, particularly the LE models. But the four-cylinder Altima I had for about a thousand miles seemed to be about $3000 better than the Camry LE I had the week before. Even though the price difference was a mere few hundred dollars.
While the Camry LE still offers a variety of hard plastics in the middle of the dash, bare bone door panels, and exposed screw holes in the back of the steering wheel. The Altima S provides a far stronger luxury bent. With a laced up leather steering wheel and a well padded interior with a far better overall upscale feel of quality.
From door handles that weren’t cost contained amorphous cheap plastics. To controls that were less octogenarian and more pleasing to the touch. The reviews by Alex Dykes and Michael Karesh highlight the fact that the Altima is now a more luxurious and fun vehicle to drive than the Camry. Other than making sure the CVT is serviced every 30k, which I encourage for all those here who still have little faith in lifetime fluids, the Altima is virtually without vice.
The six cylinder Altima 3.5 SV does offer a few unique on the road advantages over the four-cylinder model. At between 40 to 60 mph, the six cylinder can turn at between 1000 and 1500 rpm’s, helping the six-cylinder model earn the mantle of the better choice for road warriors that prefer a cruiser oriented driving experience. In a near perfect mix of 50/50 driving, the more upscale Altima also garnered a remarkable 29.5 mpg drive with a similar level of refinement as $50,000 luxury cruisers routinely offered only a decade ago.
Long and the short of it, I found the real world experience of the Altima to be almost as Lexus like as an ES350. Great highway capabilities. The perfect size for a family of four that needs space. A driving experience with sound luxurious isolation and power whenever you desire it.
The interior materials in the Altima are far less luxurious than any full-sized or entry level luxury model. But with a $7,000 to $9,000 price advantage, that’s not too much of a sacrifice. A lot of you may scoff at the thought. But I can see the new Altima heartily chipping away at both markets.
Who woulda thunk back in the day?