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When the third-generation Nissan Altima debuted in 2002, it was at the vanguard of the Japanese automaker’s aggressive new design stance. Leaving behind the staid and dated look of its predecessor, the mid-sized sedan brought a dose of high style to its market niche.
Since then Nissan has continued to carve out space in a crowded market with distinctive looks, from the Murano crossover SUV to the hipper-than-thou Quest minivan. In fact, with such paeans to automotive style one would expect the lower-end Altima to fade into the background.
That hasn’t happened. In fact, the only way in which the Altima may possibly have faded would be from its near ubiquity. Just try driving across D.C. without seeing a pair of those trademark taillights.
So it’s not surprising that for 2005, Nissan is focusing on incremental improvements and enhancements for the Altima. Not much has changed on the outside — but the inside has been restyled to keep the brand fresh.
Not having spent copious amounts of time in the previous incarnation of the interior, it’s hard to make a direct in-depth comparison. But taken on its own, the new interior is a comfortable, convenient and competent piece of design that manages to avoid the over-styled look that bedevils cars with too many knobs, lights and gew-gaws.
The model tested sported a black interior with suede-like seats that felt smooth and comfortable (though one only can wonder how well they would hold up to spills and wear). The standard eight-way driver’s seat and fully-adjustable steering wheel made for an easily adaptable driving experience. And for a mid-sized sedan, the Altima can hold its passengers with ample space and comfort.
The Altima handily passes the all-important cup holder test, easily and securely holding a variety of different bottles and cups. Lots of cubbyholes and storage compartments fill out the interior, providing plenty of room to hide wallets, sunglasses, cell phone, parking tickets and all the other detritus of daily driving.
The center console of stereo and climate controls are slickly presented and simple to use with a quick twist of a dial. The gauge cluster over the steering wheel is of the amber variety so in vogue these days — at night the red glow of the speedometer and tachometer needles are quite pretty. Unfortunately, the information display incorporated into the odometer window is too difficult to cycle through to find instant MPG, trip mileage, and other info. A separate window or easier controls would make this more of a feature than a chore.
With its 3.5-liter six-cylinder engine, the Altima SE turns out a decent performance on the highway, with enough kick to make the drive fun as well as practical. The ride is smooth and the handling a little on the softer side, just as expected in a sedan that’s meant to spend more time traveling and less time racing. (If you’re more inclined to speedier traveling, Nissan also offers the more highly-tuned Altima SE-R, starting at $29,200.) In mostly city driving, I averaged a bit over 18 MPG, not far off the EPA estimate.
Although the Altima is a familiar sight on the road, it still garners its share of appreciative looks. It remains a strong piece of design, vaguely futuristic without launching itself into la-la land. With its smooth and assured stance, the Altima is one of those wonderful cars that manages to look and feel more expensive than it actually is.