by Greg Wilson
The redesigned 2002 Nissan Altima is considerably bigger than the previous Altima, and has the roomiest interior in its class. A new standard 175 horsepower 2.5 litre four cylinder engine replaces the 155 horsepower 2.4 litre engine, and a V6 engine is available for the first time: a class-leading 240 horsepower 3.5 litre V6. A fully independent suspension improves handling significantly. 2002 Altima’s range in price from $23,498 to $32,798.
Big gains in horsepower, interior room, and handling
Since its introduction in 1993, the Altima has been competing with a minimum of success against its key competitors, the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Despite offering the most powerful four cylinder engine in its class for a few years, a good reputation for reliability, and competitive pricing, the Altima just wasn’t as popular with consumers. One of the reasons is that the Altima didn’t offer an optional V6 engine (the V6 was reserved for the Maxima), and the Altima wasn’t particularly outstanding in areas such as interior room, engine refinement, quietness, or styling.
For the 2002 model year, a completely redesigned Altima makes substantial gains in horsepower, interior room, and handling. It now has the most powerful four and six cylinder engines available in its class, the roomiest interior, and arguably, the best handling and steering in a mid-size family sedan, import or domestic.
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The 2002 Altima is substantially bigger than the previous model — the wheelbase has grown by 180 mm (7.1 in.), length is up 145 mm (5.7 in.), width has increased by 33 mm (1.3 in.), and height by 51 mm (2.0 in.). The Altima’s cabin is 11% larger and the trunk is 13% larger.
In fact, the new Altima is bigger than the redesigned Toyota Camry (though not as tall) and the current Honda Accord (which is scheduled to be redesigned next year). It’s also bigger and roomier than the VW Passat, Subaru Legacy, Mazda 626, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Magentis, Chrysler Sebring, Saturn LS, Pontiac Grand Am, and Chevrolet Malibu.
V6 available for the first time
For 2002, the Altima’s standard engine is now a 175 horsepower 2.5 litre DOHC 16-valve 4-cylinder powerplant with 180 lb-ft of torque (an increase of 20 horsepower and 24 lb-ft of torque from the previous 2.4 litre 4-cylinder engine This is the most powerful standard engine in its class. For comparison, the Camry has 157 horsepower and the Accord has 150 horsepower.
The Altima’s new four cylinder engine has such sophisticated features as continuously variable valve timing to improve torque and reduce emissions, counter rotating balance shafts to reduce engine vibrations, a new timing chain that doesn’t need replacement, and a variable muffler for quieter operation. The four cylinder engine meets ULEV (ultra low emissions) standards.
New for 2002 is an optional 240 horsepower 3.5 litre DOHC 24 valve V6 engine, the most powerful V6 engine in the mid-size family sedan class today. For comparison, the Camry’s V6 has 192 horsepower and the Accord’s has 200 horsepower.
The new 3.5 litre V6 aluminum alloy engine is based on the Maxima’s award-winning 3.0 litre VQ engine, and incorporates continuously variable valve timing, a variable intake system, a new timing chain, and dual exhausts. It’s rated LEV (Low Vehicle Emissions). This engine has already been named one of the world’s Ten Best Engines by Wards AutoWorld, a respected U.S. auto industry publication.
Both Altima’s four and six cylinder engines are available with a standard five-speed manual transmission or optional four-speed automatic transmissions. Camry and Accord don’t offer a manual transmission with their V6 engines.
An all-new four wheel independent suspension provides outstanding handling, second only to the VW Passat in my opinion. The front suspension is a cradle-type frame with offset coil springs and transverse link while the independent multi-link suspension was adapted from Nissan’s Japanese super sedan, the Skyline.
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Assembled at Nissan’s Smyrna, Tennessee assembly plant, the new Altima’s body now has one-piece bodyside structures, which along with other improvements, account for an overall 65% increase in body stiffness. To save weight, both the hood and trunk are made of aluminium.
Standard four wheel disc brakes (formerly standard front disc/rear drums) with anti-lock brakes are available on four and six cylinder Altima’s on all but the base model. ABS-equipped models also include EBD (electron brake force distribution) to even out front/rear braking forces, and Brake Assist which increases braking power in panic braking situations.
Four cylinder Altimas now have standard 16 inch tires (formerly 15 inch) while six cylinder Altimas include standard 17 inch tires on alloy wheels.
For 2002, Altima trim levels are 2.5S, 2.5SL, and 3.5SE (formerly XE, GXE, GLE, and SE).
Biggest cabin in class
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The Altima’s cabin is the roomiest in its class, if you don’t count cars like the Chevrolet Impala and Chrysler Intrepid that try to pass themselves off as mid-size cars. The 2002 Altima has a 33 mm (1.3 in.) increase in front headroom, a 48 mm (1.9 in.) increase in front legroom, and a lengthy 66 mm (2.6 in.) increase in rear legroom. Even with the front seats pushed all the way back, there’s adequate legroom (and headroom) for rear passengers, and there’s enough width for three adults. Also, the front and rear doors are quite long with large door openings for easy entry and exit.
The front seats are wide and comfortable and have been raised 38 mm (1.5 in.) to improve visibility and make getting in and out easier. The driver’s seat in four cylinder models includes manual tilt adjustments for seat cushion height while V6 models have power seats. I liked the extra-wide footwells for the driver and passenger. I didn’t like the depression in the door armrest which is used as a grip to close the door – while driving, my left elbow drops uncomfortably into the hole.
A sporty gauge cluster and instrument panel gives a hint as to this car’s performance potential. The driver faces three orange-backlit gauges set into deep pods to shield them from glare – a tachometer on the left, speedometer in the middle, fuel/coolant and transmission indicator on the right. The steering wheel tilts up and down and telescopes in and out via manual levers – very useful for different-sized drivers. However, I found that the wheel position I liked obscured part of the tachometer.
A contoured centre instrument panel protrudes well into the cabin space so it’s easy to reach. It includes a central AM/FM/CD radio with a integrated LCD clock, and a lower heater/air conditioner with three large dials. Altima V6 models have an automatic climate control system with a dial to adjust the temperature. I noticed there wasn’t a button to turn the air conditioning on and off � it’s completely automatic. One minor complaint: an irritating whistling sound coming from the feet vents.
The dash in my test car was a subtle two-tone beige which contrasted nicely with a brushed metallic shift gate and metallic door handles. The wraparound design of the dash merges into the doors, and although it’s an interesting design, there was something about the exposed edges I didn’t like..
Two stubby stalks protrude from the steering column, the left for headlights and the right for variable intermittent wipers and washer controls. Though they look short, I had no trouble reaching them. Cruise control functions are located on the steering wheel hub. Altima V6 models also have radio controls on the steering wheel hub.
Underneath the heater at the bottom of the dash is a deep storage bin with a flip-up cover which is big enough to drop in a camera or cell phone. A handy power point is located next to it. Just behind that is the floor shift lever, and behind that are two covered cupholders and a handbrake lever.
A unique centre armrest flips up and forward to rest the driver’s right arm, or back out of the way, useful in manual transmission models. Underneath the armrest is a dual-level storage bin with an integrated 12 volt power point for charging phones.
The front seats are raised so that rear passengers can put their feet comfortably under the seats without squeezing their toes. Rear passengers have storage pockets on the back of the front seats, and a folding centre armrest with two cupholders.
The standard 60/40 folding rear seatbacks can be locked with a key from inside the car to prevent unauthorized entry to the trunk. They can be folded down from inside the car or from the trunk by pulling on straps, assuming they’re not locked. The opening to the trunk is narrower than some trunk openings, though.
The Altima has five seatbelts, including a three-point seatbelt in the centre rear seat, but the rear head restraints are not height adjustable even in the V6 model. Dual-stage front airbags are standard, and side airbags and curtain airbags are optional.
The Altima’s 15.6 cu. ft. trunk is 13% bigger than the previous Altima’s, and though it isn’t the biggest trunk in its class, it is very roomy and easy to load. The trunk lip includes a plastic cover and a recessed latch to prevent scratching luggage when loading. The trunk can be opened remotely with a button on the key fob.
Above-average acceleration and handling
I test drove both the four cylinder and six cylinder models with four-speed automatic transmissions to see how they compare.
The four cylinder Altima 2.5S jumps off the line when the throttle is depressed, and on wet roads it’s not difficult to spin the front tires. Traction control is offered as an option on the V6 model with an automatic transmission, but not on the four cylinder model. However, I find that a gentle touch on the accelerator pedal is just as effective as traction control, except perhaps on ice. Under moderate acceleration, the four cylinder engine makes a distant growling sound, but I wouldn’t describe it as noisy or rough. With generous low-end torque (180 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm) the 2.5S is very responsive around town or on the freeway. Its 0 to 100 km/h time of 9.4 seconds (according to independent AJAC ‘street start’ tests) is fairly good for a mid-sized family sedan.
The V6-equipped Altima 3.5SE, on the other hand, is a real rocket, zipping to 100 km/h in 7.4 seconds, the fastest acceleration time in its class. It’s quick off the line and quick when passing other cars, and yet it settles down to a purr at cruising speeds, doing just 2100 rpm at 100 km/h and 2500 rpm at 120 km/h. The four cylinder engine is also quiet at highway speeds, doing 2300 rpm at 100 km/h and 2800 rpm at 120 km/h.
The four-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly under normal load and slides from gear to gear under hard acceleration, but it’s never abrupt or hesitant. The floor mounted shift gate allows the driver to flip from ‘D’ to 3rd gear by tapping the lever to the left. I found it useful to leave the transmission in 3rd around town so that immediate power is available when changing lanes or moving ahead of slower cars.
Despite being a considerably larger car, the new four cylinder Altima gets about the same fuel consumption as its predecessor: equipped with the automatic transmission, it uses 10.4 l/100 km (27 mpg) in the city and 7.4 l/100 km (38 mpg) on the highway. The V6 Altima gets 11.4 l/100 km (23 mpg) in the city and 8.4 l/100 km (34 mpg) on the highway, according to Transport Canada figures. Four cylinder Altimas use Regular gasoline and V6 models use Premium.
The Altima’s handling, in my opinion, is a close second to the class-leader, the VW Passat – and steering responsiveness is tops in its class. The Altima turns in quickly and precisely, the body has very little lean, and the car holds a neutral attitude that is surprisingly flat and stable for a front-wheel-drive sedan. Some people may find the suspension too stiff because there’s very little rebound or bounce over rolling undulations � this is where the Passat wins with its superior damping. But I wouldn’t say the Altima was harsh or uncomfortable � in fact, it’s sportier. Even base Altima models have decent Bridgestone Turanza P205/65R-16 inch tires while V6 models have grippier 215/55R-17 inch radials and alloy wheels.
The Altima exhibits excellent high-speed stability � it tracks straight and true at speeds up to and beyond 120 km/h. This makes it very easy to drive on long trips because it doesn’t wander on the road.
Traction control is available on the Altima, but only on automatic-transmission-equipped V6 models. It reduces throttle input and changes gears automatically to prevent wheelspin but I found it slow to intervene and it allows some wheelspin before kicking in. Automatic anti-skid control, which helps prevent oversteer and understeer, is not offered on the Altima.
I found the Altima’s standard four wheel disc brakes very powerful and pedal feel was excellent, but response is immediate and some drivers may find it a bit sensitive. In AJAC-sponsored braking tests of both cars, the 2.5S stopped in 42 metres (138 feet) from 100 km/h, and the 3.5SE in 41 metres (134 feet) from the same speed. These are good, but not exceptional braking distances.
I’m not the only journalist who likes the new Altima. Recently, the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada awarded the Altima 2.5S ‘Best New Family Car under $25,000’ and the Altima 3.5SE ‘Best New Family Car over $25,000’. That’s a ringing endorsement from a broad cross-section of Canada’s professional automotive journalists who drive different cars each week.
Three trim levels: 2.5S, 2.5SL, 3.5SE
2002 Altima’s are offered in three trim levels: four cylinder 2.5S and 2.5SL models, and V6-equipped 3.5SE.
The base 2.5S starts at $23,498, quite a bit more than the 2001 Altima XE ($19,998), but comparable with the four cylinder Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.
Standard equipment includes the 5 speed manual transmission, disc brakes, 16 inch tires, cloth seats, air conditioning, power windows, door locks and mirrors, remote entry, AM/FM/CD with six speakers, dual front airbags, 60/40 folding rear seats, tilt/telescope steering wheel, variable intermittent wipers, cruise control, tachometer, front and rear cupholders. A 4-speed automatic transmission is another $1,000 and ABS is $800.
The Altima 2.5SL, for $28,998, adds standard automatic transmission, ABS, leather seats, heated front seats, Bose audio system, in-dash 6-disc CD changer, power moonroof, front side airbags and side curtain airbags.
V6-equipped 3.5SE models start at $27,698 with the manual transmission and $28,898 with the automatic transmission. Standard equipment includes the 3.5 litre V6 engine, front fog lights, dual exhausts, 17 inch tires and alloy wheels, automatic climate control. Traction control, which is combined with the automatic transmission, is $1,300. A moonroof is $1,000. Fully loaded with leather, Bose stereo, side and curtain airbags, traction control, and moonroof, the 3.5SE goes for $32,798. That’s a very competitive price in its class, and less than a fully loaded Camry or Accord.
For more information, see Nissan Canada’s consumer web-site, www.Nissancanada.com.
|2002 Nissan Altima 2.5S|
|Price as tested||$26,798|
|Type||4-door, 5 passenger mid-size sedan|
|Layout||transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive|
|Engine||2.5 litre four cylinder, DOHC, 16 valves, CVVT|
|Horsepower||175 @ 6000 rpm|
|Torque||180 @ 4000 rpm|
|Transmission||4-speed automatic (std. 5 speed manual)|
|Curb weight||1,404 kg (3,095 lb.)|
|Wheelbase||2799 mm (110.2 in.)|
|Length||4864 mm (191.5 in.)|
|Width||1788 mm (70.4 in.)|
|Height||1471 mm (57.9 in.)|
|Trunk space||442 litres (15.6 cu. ft.)|
|Fuel consumption||City: 10.4 l/100 km (27 mpg)|
|Hwy: 7.4 l/100 km (38 mpg)|
|Warranty||3 yrs/60,000 km|
|Powertrain warranty||5 yrs/100,000 km|