1998 Nissan Altima GXE
1998 Nissan Altima GXE
Click image to enlarge

By Jeremy Cato

The all-new 2002 Nissan Altima is hitting showrooms as we speak. Among the many changes is an available 240-horsepower V6 engine. Wow, that’s a load of power for a family car of this sort.

Certainly that’s more jump than the 150 horsepower available with the 1998 Altima. That year Nissan launched a re-made, second-generation Altima to replace the original launched in the fall of ’92.

The ’98 Altima was then notable for its less adventurous styling and slightly bigger cabin. Then, as now and as always, the Altima boasted superior quality. From 1998-2001, only a handful of technical service bulletins were issued, none particularly serious. And there were no recalls during that time at all. In quality survey after quality survey, the Altima ranks among the best built family sedans sold anywhere.

Just not very sexy. The ’98 arrived with a more buttoned-down look than the original Altima. Call that model the cotton Dockers of four-door cars. The quirky styling of the first-generation car gave way to a more angular shape that helped with bettering fuel economy and reducing wind noise. Ah, but visually this Altima was anonymous. Nissan designers called the look “rounded with an edge,” but that, I think, was a stretch.

On the other hand, this version was engineered to use fewer parts and 78 per cent of them were made in the U.S.–just like the car itself, which was assembled in Smyrna, Tennessee, near Nashville. That plant has always ranked among most efficient of its kind in North America.

2001 Nissan Altima GXE
2001 Altima GXE
Click image to enlarge

Still, the ’98 Altima grew a little bigger inside and another important change was a rear seatback that folded flat for cargo-carrying versatility. The first Altima had only a pass-through. The trunk in the ’98 car carried more stuff, too, and the rear liftover was lower.

Interestingly enough, even with a folding back seat the ’98 car had a stronger unibody. The payoff: more solid ride feel and less noise caused by irritating vibrations. The numbers indicated a three dB reduction in sound levels at idle. So if you’re comparing the first-generation Altima to the second, one advantage of the newer model is less noise.

Of course, another benefit of more strength is more protection in a crash. The second-generation Altima had slightly better crash test results than the original version. Continuing on safety, Nissan in ’98 began offering a lighter, less expensive anti-lock braking system on a wider range of Altima models than ever before. Dual front airbags, naturally, were standard.

As for the powertrain (engine/transmission), in the ’98 car it was refined. At the time, the Altima’s 2.4-litre four-cylinder was the most powerful standard four-banger in its class at 150 horsepower. For ’98, this engine was made to burn fuel more efficiently, so this Altima boasted lower emissions and marginally better fuel economy.

Overall, this has proven to be a good, reliable engine, though a bit raspy when pushed hard. The optional four-speed automatic transmission has always done its work effortlessly, but the five-speed manual has been notorious for rubbery, imprecise shifts.

In ’98, a serious bout of chassis tweaking moved steering response and ride comfort forward a notch or two. There was less booming at highway speeds and in more aggressive driving the Altima did inch toward something resembling sporty. Toward sporty, but not there, exactly.

Do note that for model year 2000, Nissan made several noteworthy improvements. Engine horsepower nudged up to 155 and ride and handling were improved through the addition of a cross-car brace in the engine bay and revisions to the steering and suspension. There were also minor styling tweaks to the front and rear, a new centre console and new rear cupholders. Also, seat-mounted side airbags and head protection were made available. So there are small differences in the newest of the slightly used Altimas.

All in all, though, any Altima sold from 1998-2001 will likely turn out to be a very good second car, or first for that matter. Nissan has sold thousands in Canada over the years, so you should also have some choice out there.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

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