Then And Now: A Short History Of The Altima

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang
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then and now a short history of the altima

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 (

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?

Steven Lang
Steven Lang

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  • Duffman13 Duffman13 on Jan 11, 2013

    My first car was actually a 1996 altima GXE. It survived 3 years of being flogged by a high school student, after 3 years of being flogged by my father who destroys everything he touches. I know I had no real comparisons at the time, but in retrospect, the power was good, the interior was solid, and the 5-speed was one of the better ones I've used. I liked the car enough that I almost went back and bought a '97 5-speed when I graduated college before I splurged and bought my RSX-S instead. My parents have been Nissan people ever since, with my mom in an '06 Altima and my dad in an Xterra currently, and I've always been impressed with their products, save for the '12 Altima I had as a rental car last year. I really like my mom's car with the SL package, the leather quality is very decent, and the 4-banger does almost as good a job as my old Altima's did considering the heft of the 02+ models.

  • Gearhead77 Gearhead77 on Jan 11, 2013

    Wondering how much of the Altimas sales numbers include fleets, because I've seen a lot as rental cars from all providers. Does a lease count as a "sale"? I imagine it does, because I can't think of the last time I saw a Nissan ad that didn't feature the Altima S at somewhere between $0 down or 3000 down and about $200 month (not including tax,etc.) My own Altima is a lease. A 2010 2.5S that sat, along with 20 identical line mates, on a local Nissan lot for a year before I bought it in March of 2011. They sat for so long the dealer was offering a Sign and Drive lease deal outside of what national program Nissan was offering. So as long as you liked white with a tan interior and no real options to speak of, it was quite a deal over the identical 2011's. I wanted a car with a warranty because I had two month old twin boys and I didn't want to drain my meager bank account on purchasing a 5-7k used car. A lease was fine because I didn't want anything long term, in case our 08 Mazda5 turned out to be a problem or not big enough.( More of the latter for the Mazda. For around town it's fine, but on trips, not enough space, although 28-30 mpg isn't bad. Not many issues, but the 5 has only 28k. But I digress...) I shopped the $10 a month cheaper Sentra and it wasn't worth it. The lack of refinement, the obnoxiousness (on many levels) of the 2.0 and CVT, all told me no. This dealer also carries Hyundai and the the totally new Elantra was just out on a lease special. I had the same problem with the Elantra that I have with all Korean cars. Nice equipment, decent price,unbeatable warranty and I like the styling. But they just don't have a comprehensive feel to them. You sit "on" the seats than "in" them, the steering is kind of abrupt off center, yet numb at the same time. And the suspension is kind of harsh yet not sporting or soft. This is 3 model years ago now and the first production run of Elantra, so maybe things have changed. But I felt like I was driving an update of the 2001 then totally new Elantra I owned. And traded after 8 months on a Focus ZX3 ( Many lessons learned there but the Focus was a drivers car if nothing else..) Many leases were available when I shopped. Fiesta (too small) Mazda 3 (too old, MPG not favorable for size,missing equipment), Cruze was new. Went to the auto show and looked them all over. And then I looked at the Altima. Hadn't considered the Altima until then. My first experience was the first gen cars as a car prep at Enterprise. Ok, nothing special and tiny compared to all but the contemporary Contour. The 2nd gen was the bland mobile as discussed. 3rd gen was impressive except the interior, which was really cheap looking and feeling. I sat in the Altima and realized Nissan did a lot to fix the cheap interior problem. Still not a class leader, but not bargain basement anymore. Lots of standard equipment for the price, decent seats. Lots of room. I liked ( now love) the Keyless Go. Driving the Altima proved it to be a very good car. It was more athletic then our 06 Accord LX, but it was quieter. The 2.5 wasn't(and isn't) nearly as refined as the 2.4 Honda, but it's OK. There's no perfect car,right? The CVT was the only real drawback and to this day, I consider it the only thing I really don't like about the car. I enjoy passing with it and that it will loaf the engine at 2300 rpm at 80mph. I don't enjoy the drone of the engine or CVT above 3500 rpm. I don't like that in the hills in which I live, the CVT,engine and my right foot are at odds about the amount of power needed. A small prod of the pedal for a bit more power can give you a lot more power than you wanted. This causes you to ease off, but that drops the power too much. This can make climbing a long hill annoying, the CVT equivalent of "hunting" through the gears. This is much longer than I wanted it to be, but I felt the need to explain why I was an Altima convert. Yeah, price had a lot to do with it, if someone else offered a zero down and drive off loan, I might not have gone with the Altima. But if I could do a manual (or V6 car) with leather, I'd get another Altima over its competitors.

    • Gearhead77 Gearhead77 on Mar 22, 2013

      Just had a 13 Altima as a rental. The CVT is much improved, much more responsive and less "rubber band" than my '10 car. The interior is a dramatic improvement, gone is the orange gauge lighting that Nissan has had for years. Some upgraded plastics and soft touch stuff, but the HVAC controls and the radio controls felt cheaper. Seats are a bit better. Car seems a bit sharper overall. I maintain that I'd get another if the same deal came around or if I wanted a V6 midsize sedan.

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  • 28-Cars-Later "But Assemblyman Phil Ting, the San Franciscan Democrat who wrote the electric school bus legislation, says this is all about the health and wellbeing of Golden State residents. In addition to the normal air pollution stemming from exhaust gasses, he believes children are being exposed to additional carcinogens by just being on a diesel bus."Phil is into real estate, he doesn't know jack sh!t about science or medicine and if media were real it would politely remind him his opinions are not qualified... if it were real. Another question if media were real is why is a very experienced real estate advisor and former tax assessor writing legislation on school busses? If you read the rest of his bio after 2014, his expertise seems to be applied but he gets into more and more things he's not qualified to speak to or legislate on - this isn't to say he isn't capable of doing more but just two years ago Communism™ kept reminding me Dr. Fauxi knew more about medicine than I did and I should die or something. So Uncle Phil just gets a pass with his unqualified opinions?Ting began his career as a real estate  financial adviser at  Arthur Andersen and  CBRE. He also previously served as the executive director of the  Asian Law Caucus, as the president of the Bay Area Assessors Association, and on the board of  Equality California. [url=][1][/url][h3][/h3]In 2005, Ting was appointed San Francisco Assessor-Recorder in 2005 by Mayor  Gavin Newsom, becoming San Francisco’s highest-ranking  Chinese-American official at the time. He was then elected to the post in November 2005, garnering 58 percent of the vote.Ting was re-elected Assessor-Recorder in 2006 and 2010During his first term in the Assembly, Ting authored a law that helped set into motion the transformation of Piers 30-32 into what would become  Chase Center the home of the  Golden State Warriors
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