2002 Nissan Altima
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by Greg Wilson

The 2002 Altima is a clean sheet design: it’s bigger, more powerful, roomier, better-handling, safer, and stronger than its predecessor. It has an all-new
suspension, a new optional V6 engine, new brakes, and a new interior.

This time, it looks like Nissan is serious about challenging the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry for top spot in the mid-size import class. The current Altima, last redesigned in 1997, is a very nice car, but it’s not a better car than its competitors. After having driven the new 2002 Altima for a day, I can say that in most respects, the 2002 is a better car than the current Accord and Camry. For example, it has the most horsepower, the biggest passenger cabin, the biggest trunk, and the best handling. Nissan engineers benchmarked the VW Passat when developing
its new suspension, and in my opinion, it comes pretty damn close. I haven’t driven the 2002 Camry yet, so I can’t say how it stacks up yet.

2002 Nissan Altima
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The 2002 Altima is the first car to be designed under Nissan’s Revival Plan instituted by company president Carlos Ghosn in 1999 when Nissan was bleeding red ink. Mr Ghosn was quoted as saying that there’s no problem that a well-designed car can’t fix. The new Altima will be the first real test of his convictions.

The 2002 Altima is a clean sheet design: it’s bigger, more powerful, roomier, better-handling, safer, and stronger than its predecessor. It has an all-new
suspension, a new optional V6 engine, new brakes, and a new interior.

The Altima’s overall length has been increased by 148 mm (5.7 in.), width by 33 mm (1.3 in.), and height by 51 mm (2.0 in.). The wheelbase is 180 mm (7.1 in.) longer and the track is 46 mm (1.8 in.) wider in front and 61 mm (2.4 in.) wider at the rear. For comparison, the new Altima is longer, wider and taller than the Honda Accord sedan � it’s even slightly longer than a Nissan Maxima.

2002 Nissan Altima 3.5 litre V6
3.5 litre V6
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The 2002 Altima has a standard 175 horsepower 2.5 litre 4 cylinder DOHC 16 valve engine (an increase of 24 horsepower over the previous 2.4 litre 4 cylinder engine), and is available with a new 240 horsepower 3.5 litre V6 DOHC 24 valve engine based on the well-known VQ V6 engine in the Maxima. Both Altima four and six cylinder engines have continuously variable valve timing and a variable induction system, and both are available with manual 5 speed transmissions or 4-speed automatic transmissions. Traction control is standard on V6 models.

A new type of four-wheel independent suspension is standard on all Altimas. It consists of a new front suspension design with a cradle-type frame, offset coil springs and lower transverse link and extensive use of aluminum. A new rear multi-link design adapted from the Japanese-market Nissan Skyline replaces the MacPherson strut suspension of the 2001 Altima. 16 inch wheels and 205/65R-16 inch tires are now standard on 4 cylinder Altimas and 17 inch wheels and 215/55R-17 inch tires are standard on V6 models. New four-wheel-disc brakes are standard, but ABS with Brake Assist and Electronic Brake Force Distribution are optional.

Nissan says the Altima’s steel unitbody is 65% stiffer, and for the first time, aluminum is used for the hood and trunklid. Though it’s larger than the previous model, the new Altima is actually lighter in weight.

2002 Nissan Altima interior
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Inside, there’s a much bigger 5 passenger interior (increased by 261 litres/9.2 cu. ft.) with a 48 mm (1.9 in.) increase in front legroom and a 66 mm (2.6 in) increase in rear legroom, as well as increases in headroom and shoulder room. The cockpit features driver-oriented controls, 3 pod gauge cluster, an optional Bose audio system with in-dash 6-disc CD changer, and a higher driving position (raised 38 mm/1.5 in.). The trunk measures 442 litres (15.6 cu. ft.), or 51 litres (1.8 cu. ft.) larger than in the 2001 Altima.

In addition to driver and passenger dual-stage front airbags, 2002 Altimas offer optional side airbags in the front seats and roof-mounted ‘head curtain’ airbags for front and rear passengers, front seatbelts with pretensioners and load limiters, and rear LATCH anchors and tether system for child seats.

On sale in September, 2001, Altima’s will come in three trim levels: the four cylinder 2.5 S and 2.5 SL, and the V6 powered 3.5 SE. Prices haven’t been announced. Altima’s are assembled in Smyrna, Tennessee.


Driving Impressions

2002 Nissan Altima
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In terms of driving dynamics, ride, throttle response and braking performance, the 2002 Altima is a much better car than its predecessor. I would say that the Altima is now ‘fun-to-drive’, a compliment I rarely give to Japanese family sedans.

I drove both the V6 model and the four cylinder model with automatic and manual transmissions. The V6 is a wonderful, refined engine with plenty of power and
torque and a high rev limit of 6700 rpm. Acceleration is extremely quick — I didn’t have proper timing equipment, but my guess is that this is the quickest sedan in its class from 0 to 100 km/h. There is some minor torque-steer (steering wheel movement) when accelerating hard from a standing stop, but less than I expected from a 240 horsepower front-wheel-drive car. When passing at highway speeds, the Altima has
more than enough power to rocket by those labouring motorhomes. At cruising speeds of 100 km/h and 120 km/h, the engine turns over only 2000 rpm and 2500 rpm respectively — quiet, relaxed engine speeds. The four cylinder engine is less refined, but not unrefined — there’s more vibration above 4000 rpm, and the engine revs at 2500 rpm at 100 km/h and 3000 rpm at 120 km/h (when equipped with the manual transmission). Still, this four cylinder powerplant has plenty of power and is very responsive in both urban and freeway environments — and it gets better fuel consumption.

I found the 4-speed automatic transmission performed extremely well when mated to the V6 engine, responsive to pedal input, and changing up and down smoothly and at the right time. The manual transmission however proved to be a bit clunky and noisy, though shift length and shift effort weren’t bad- still, I would recommend the automatic transmission.

2002 Nissan Altima
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On the V6 model, I found steering effort at slow speeds to be firm, although on the four cylinder model it wasn’t – that could be attributed to the larger tires on the V6 model. Otherwise, the steering is quick and accurate and the turning circle is tight.
The Altima’s vehicle dynamics are almost as good as the class-leading VW Passat – it has tremendous balance, minimal body lean, little brake dive or acceleration squat, and great steering control. With its slightly smaller tires, the four cylinder model
doesn’t have quite the same high cornering power, but the suspension and brakes are the same, and performance is comparable. I found the 2002 Altima a real pleasure to drive.

The driving position offers a good view outwards and the 3 orange-backlit gauges provide easy to read information — however, the tachometer on the left is partially obscured. The protruding centre stack is simply designed with the stereo on top and the automatic climate control on the bottom. My leather-covered driver’s seat was very supportive and there was plenty of legroom and headroom. I noticed that the Altima’s front footwells are very wide, and the driver has a large dead pedal on the left. The rear seat has adequate headroom for six-footers, and the lockable split rear seats can be folded down to increase cargo space. The trunk is the largest in its class.

Whether the Altima will take a bite out of Camry, Accord and Passat sales remains to be seen — but it certainly has the potential.

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