Classic CARmentary: 1998 Nissan Altima SE

Another in a series of my reviews that appeared in the online version of African Americans On Wheels , a now defunct automotive magazine that was included as an insert in the Sunday newspapers of major cities.

My favorite thing about the Altima was its anonymity. After the crowd-gathering New Beetle, I was thankful for the break, and my wife and I decided to drive it to New York City for Memorial Day weekend. It was a beautiful Spring day, and lots of other people had the same idea and we got caught in a major traffic jam near the George Washington Bridge. One of the local stations was having an eighties retro weekend, which was not common in the late nineties, at least in our Metro D.C. market. Since we didn't have anywhere we needed to be, we rolled down the windows, opened up the moonroof, sat back in the comfy seats, turned up the volume on the kickin' sound system, and rocked-out to Jessie's Girl . It was just a lovely carefree moment that reminds you that it doesn't matter how "cool" the car. Any car equipped just right can be the perfect car for such an occasion.

The below review ran on July 7, 1998.

A solid car for a good price. It's really what most people are looking for, right? It perfectly describes the 1998 Nissan Altima SE and just about every mid-size car available, like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. Both are tough to top.

The Altima has been redesigned for the first time since its introduction over five years ago. The new model is larger in nearly every dimension while maintaining a trim 2,850 pounds. The most dramatic change is in the trunk area. Where the original Altima's styling was reminiscent of the departed Infiniti J30, akin to an arch that stretched from the front bumper to the gracefully sloped rear, the new Altima has a squared front and stubby, bustled trunk. Nissan is assuming that previous Altima buyers are five years older and desire something more mature. I hope they're right, but my brother-in-law and his wife, owners of a '94, find it ugly. Nevertheless, the styling is distinctive.

The Altima comes in four trim levels: XE, GXE, sporty SE (our tester), and ultra-lux GLE. The engine is unchanged: a 2.4 liter four-cylinder engine that it shares with the sporty 240SX. No six is available, a shortcoming in this class, but it doesn't feel underpowered with the four-speed automatic transmission (a five-speed manual is standard). The SE gets a sport-tuned suspension, larger tires on alloy wheels, a rear spoiler, and black-on-silver gauges. Handling is above average with no complaints about the ride.

Inside, there's plenty of storage thanks to a large glove compartment and a center console bin. Two cupholders are located in the console and hidden behind trick doors that slide into the console to provide support for cups.

The 13.8 cubic foot trunk is slightly smaller than its predecessor, but it better accommodates bulkier cargo. The rear seat, comfortable for two average-sized adults, folds 60/40 to expand cargo room. Front occupants get depowered airbags, but anti-lock brakes are a $500 option. Get them.

The main thing the Altima is packed full of is value, as prices are about $1,000 lower than last year's comparably equipped models. It's a genuine, solid car for a good price.

For more information contact 1-800-NISSAN-3

SPECIFICATIONS

Type: 4-Door Sedan

Engine: 150-horsepower, 2.4 liter inline 4

Transmission: 4-Speed Automatic

EPA Mileage: 22 city/30 highway

Tested Price: $21,207

As we later learned, Nissan was wrong and this generation Altima lived a brief 3 1/2 year lifespan. Trying to entice 4-cylinder Camry and Accord buyers into the smaller Altima may have worked somewhat with the more stylish previous generation, but not with this one.

Also, allow me to explain the "depowered airbags." When airbags were initially mandated, they were required to protect an unbelted driver in a front-end collision. This meant that had to be big and powerful. They also turned out to be deadly for children and smaller adults. The full details are located here .

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