Long-Term Test Wrap Up: 2002 Nissan Altima 3.5 SE

Discussion in 'OT Driven' started by TriShield, Apr 28, 2003.

  1. TriShield

    TriShield Super Moderator® Super Moderator

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    By the editors at Edmunds.com

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    Date posted: 02-27-2003

    Why We Bought It

    Even though a midsize sedan may not be what you aspire to drive, Nissan's Altima is proof that life behind the wheel of a car with four doors and a couple kiddos in the back doesn't have to be boring. Bigger and more powerful than ever before, the current-generation Altima is fun to drive any way you order it.

    But fun isn't enough for a family or commuter car expected to weather years of hard use amid the everyday grind. Such a car must also have a smooth ride, comfortable seats, lots of storage, easy-to-use controls, ample safety features and a reasonable blend of power and gas mileage. These are the criteria by which we judged the Altima 3.5 SE that spent a year in our long-term test fleet. Could it do the things that a family sedan must do as well as the Accord, Camry or Passat while providing some amusement on the side? We had to know.

    So we went out and bought ourselves a 3.5 SE with a four-speed automatic transmission. If you read our introduction to this test, you know that we wanted ABS, side airbags, traction control, leather upholstery and the premium Bose sound system and came home with a few more options that we didn't necessarily want. We went ahead with the deal because the fleet manager at Irvine Nissan was easy to work with and the price easy to stomach by December 2001 standards.

    After living with this car for a year, we have no qualms about calling the Altima one of our favorites in the family sedan segment. Is it the best? Probably not, especially alongside the Passat and redesigned '03 Accord. Is it worth a test-drive? You bet. Here's a quick summary of the last 12 months:

    How It Drove

    The big story about the Altima, is power — lots of it. In support of its reborn midsize sedan's performance image, Nissan stuffs a 3.5-liter V6 under the hood of each 3.5 SE model. On paper, our Altima made an impressive 240 horsepower and 246 pound-feet of torque. On the street, our long-termer sprinted away from stoplights, easily reaching extra-legal speeds. Highway passing maneuvers were completed in short order, and even the 11,000-foot Vail Pass presented no problem — the Altima scrambled right up while carrying a family of four and their luggage.

    This kind of power prompted effusive descriptions in various editors' logbooks, ranging from comments like "this car is way too easy to drive fast" to "the Altima practically leapt out of its skin" to "I can be that driver on the freeway who you curse at." Instrumented testing supported such observations, as our Nissan recorded a 6.5-second 0-to-60-mph run and a 14.9-second quarter-mile. These are numbers we'd expect of an entry-level luxury sedan like the BMW 330i, not a family sedan. Subsequent testing of the 240-hp '03 Accord proved that the Altima is still the car to beat in this segment, as the 3.0-liter V6-equipped Honda needed 7 seconds to reach 60 mph.

    Of course, such potency begs the question, "What happens when it's time to stop?" Although we'd prefer that Nissan have antilock brakes as a standard item, we can attest that our long-term car's standard four-wheel discs (assisted by the optional ABS) worked efficiently. At the track, our Altima came to a halt from 60 mph (a simulated emergency stop) in 121 feet, a distance we consider exemplary in this price class. More importantly, the brakes consistently got the job done on an everyday basis, even when the car was paired with editors who drove it hard.

    Nissan also makes you pay extra for traction control (only available for V6 automatics), but rest assured that it's money well spent. With so much power flowing to the front wheels, tire spin on wet roads is inevitable — with the traction control system's intervention, it was much easier to keep our long-termer under control. And while the car's 17-inch performance tires weren't suited for driving in snow of any kind, traction control enabled one editor to see the Altima through a light snowfall.

    Among family sedans, the Altima is part of an emergent sect — started by the Passat and perfected by the Mazda 6 — that speaks to people who really like to drive. Editors found our long-term car to be a rewarding companion on curvy stretches of highway and winding back roads. Grip was plentiful, body roll was minimal. The steering took a little heat for being a bit too light at highway speeds, but otherwise, this is about as good as it gets among front-wheel-drive sedans.

    However, if ride comfort is a priority for your next midsize sedan, you won't want the 3.5 SE model. Fitted with 17-inch rubber and stiffer suspension tuning, our Altima didn't offer an especially plush highway ride. "Basically, unless you really intend to thrash your Altima on the weekends," wrote Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig, "the softer suspension on the 2.5 models would be better day to day." One thing you won't get with either model is a quiet ride, as Altima cabins are invaded by considerably more road noise than those of their peers. It's best, we suppose, to get the optional Bose stereo and blast it.

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    The cockpit was comfortable, but even with the leather package, it wasn't elegant by any stretch of the imagination.

    What It Was Like Inside

    If you read our four-car 2002 Premium Family Sedan Comparison Test, then you know that first place eluded the Altima that participated in the test largely because of its low-grade interior materials. Not surprisingly, most of the complaints that arose during our year-long test had to do with this topic. Consumer Advice Editor Philip Reed provided a succinct account of our discontent with the car's cabin:

    "It's not so much that the Altima is poorly built, but it seems that Nissan, after creating a great powertrain, got tired and slapped together the cabin. Would it have cost much more to provide a better font on the gauge cluster? To add a rubber lining to some of the bins? To raise the quality of plastic on the door panels?

    "If you are busy driving and looking out the windshield at the road, you're going to love this car. If you are stuck in traffic, or on a long trip, and you have time to stare at the gauges, you might be disappointed."


    A week with a nicely equipped 2.5 S model suggested that this level of materials quality is much easier to take in a $21,000 car than it is in one closing in on 29 large. Also noteworthy are a couple of subtle upgrades Nissan made for 2003 — a soft padded center armrest in place of the hard rubberized lump in our '02 model; and a few faux titanium accents to spruce up the hard plastic expanses in the cockpit.

    The rest of the cabin was easy to like. The Altima is one of the roomiest family sedans you can buy (the Camry and the Dodge Intrepid offer more space), and even passengers well over six feet in height were able to get comfortable in the front and rear seats. Further, the front seats offered just the right amount of cushioning and support to please almost all of our editors. Of the few who did find comfort lacking, two said they were quite content in the driver seat during hour-long weekday commutes and that only after several hundred miles of uninterrupted driving did their backs begin to ache. Parents on staff remarked upon the ease with which they were able to install child safety seats — the big backseat made it easy to slide in bulky restraints.

    For the most part, we found the Altima's controls simple to use, though we wouldn't have minded a few more knobs and dials in place of all the buttons for the stereo and climate controls. Additionally, a few drivers found it hard to distinguish between the similarly sized volume and temperature knobs while driving. Also a source of irritation was the nonilluminated buttons for cruise and stereo functions on the steering wheel. Indeed the buttons were nicely organized for daytime use, but there proved to be a steep learning curve for confident nighttime use.

    Our Altima didn't offer as many places to stow our odds and ends as cars like the Accord and Camry, but the editors who took road trips in it found ample quarters for the basics — beverages, phones, CDs and snacks, that is. And though its trunk (15.6 cubic feet) isn't the largest you can find (the Camry and Intrepid have bigger holds) and is held up by low-cost medal hinges instead of external struts, we found it suitably large for long weekends with our families.

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    Don't try this with the 17-inch performance tires that come on the 3.5 SE. Also, don't skip the optional traction control.

    Summing Up

    Adding to our mostly agreeable ownership experience was the Altima's low-maintenance personality — apart from scheduled oil changes, we didn't have to make any unnecessary trips to the service department in the first 21,000 miles. Although our test car's clean bill of health doesn't vouch for its long-term dependability, it certainly bodes well for the future.

    Good crash test scores can also make you feel like you made the right choice in buying a particular vehicle, and so it was with the Altima. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gave the car a "Good" rating (the best possible) for the 40-mph offset crash test, while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) awarded four of five stars in frontal impact tests. Side impact tests netted three stars for the front and four for the rear, but remember that this is without the optional side airbags (for front occupants) and full-length head curtain airbags.

    After we had completed our long-term test, the Altima proved to be incredibly easy to resell, as Phil explains:

    "I listed the Altima on AutoTrader at 9 a.m. on a Friday morning. By 11 a.m., I had two calls. The first person I spoke to bought it, sight unseen, for the asking price, $18,700, our TMV 'clean' price. Subsequently, I got several calls — and follow-up calls — from other potential buyers. Since the sale, I've talked with the new owner, and she loves the car.

    "Needless to say, if I had known that the level of enthusiasm for this car would be so high, I would have asked more for it. I think the fact that this is only the second year of this body style really helped. The woman who bought it said she had priced a new one and decided it would be too expensive. By buying a one-year-old Altima, she got a fully loaded model for about $10,000 less."

    If you're shopping for a midsize sedan, there are many good choices, and for most buyers, the Altima is only one of several cars that should be on your test-drive list. But if you love to drive and require something roomier than the Mazda 6, cheaper than the Passat and more powerful than both, the 3.5 SE may be just the right fit.

    True Market Value® at Lease-end: $18,700*
    Depreciation: $9,114 or 33 percent of original price paid
    Final Odometer Reading: 21,059

    Best Fuel Economy: 29.0 mpg
    Worst Fuel Economy: 13.2 mpg
    Average Fuel Economy: 21.6 mpg
    Total Body Repair Costs: None
    Total Routine Maintenance Costs (over one year): $168.70
    Additional Maintenance Costs: None
    Warranty Repairs: None
    Non-Warranty Repairs: None

    Scheduled Dealer Visits: 2
    Unscheduled Dealer Visits: None
    Days Out of Service: None
    Breakdowns Stranding Driver: None


    *This is the private-party sale TMV for a dark red 2002 Nissan Altima 3.5 SE with 21,059 miles in clean condition in the 90404 zip code as of February 2003.

    Best Logbook Quotes

    "The Altima practically leapt out of its skin as it catapulted past the slowpokes." — John DiPietro

    "The headliner looks like the recycled cardboard they use in fast-food containers." — Phil Reed

    "I've got to admit, I can be that driver on the freeway who you curse at. The massive amount of power available allows me to dart in and out of traffic, avoiding those imaginary missiles fired off by other irate drivers." — Scott Jacobs

    "The sedan hugs the road like spandex on a gymnast, never losing its bearings even on the sharpest of curves." — Warren Clarke

    Recalls and Problem History

    Recalls: None

    Problem History:

    1. We noticed that the amplifier in our Altima's optional Bose audio system produced severely distorted signals after several hours of continuous stereo use. Our dealer, Santa Monica Nissan, ordered a new amp for us in May 2002, but never notified us when the part arrived. Editors left three messages for our service advisor, but these were never returned. And as the Altima changed hands over the months, we failed to continue following up on the matter. So the car never received this warranty repair.

    2. The door on the storage cubby under the center stack began sticking shut in February 2002, and soon it wouldn't close properly. Santa Monica Nissan ordered a part to correct this problem in May 2002, but a lack of communication from the service department prevented us from seeing through this repair as well.

    3. Editors noticed a rippling in the windshield on the passenger side of the car, which sometimes caused distortion in the forward view. Apparently a manufacturing defect, the rippled glass wasn't deemed serious enough to bring to the attention of our service advisor.

    4. One editor reported a buzzing from the headliner near the 4,800-mile mark. Successive editors weren't bothered by it enough to bring it to our dealer's attention.

    5. Later in our long-term test, we found that the lid over the front cupholders would no longer close snugly. As the car wasn't due for regular maintenance, we put off having this minor problem corrected.

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    Ups, Downs and The Bottom Line

    Ups: Sports car power in a midsize sedan body, above average handling for a front-wheel-drive car, strong brakes, roomy interior.

    Downs: Subpar interior materials, 3.5 SE's suspension too harsh, lots of road noise.

    The Bottom Line: While slightly rough around the edges, the Altima was one of the most sought-after long-term test cars we've ever had. A must-drive for anyone shopping for a midsize sedan.

    MSRP of Test Vehicle: $28,839

    Price Paid: $27,417


    Selling Dealership: Lew Webb's Irvine Nissan

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  2. Supreme Allah

    Supreme Allah The terrorists won.

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    best in class, unless your a homo
     
  3. MaxSE

    MaxSE No Max, No More

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    Not a bad review, I am starting to take more of a liking to it since they butchered the new Maxima design.
     
  4. mucky

    mucky .

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    For a well balanced midsize sedan: Accord > Altima


    IBNissansackriders

    :fawk:
     
  5. Sonic

    Sonic Live every day to the fullest, for yesterday is go

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    They fixed the interior on the Maxima, I dare say it is best in class. Hopefully, it will make its way to the Altima, correcting the only thing wrong with the car (besides the torque steer).
     
  6. mucky

    mucky .

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    IMO, the 04 Maxima's interior is a downgrade from the current year model Maxima. And it is far from "best in class". :greddy:
     
  7. Offender

    Offender OT Supporter

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    04 max has the rear buckets right? i definitely liked that.
     
  8. TriShield

    TriShield Super Moderator® Super Moderator

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    Hushing road noise would go a long way too, and refining the sport suspension a bit more so that it doesn't crash over the pavement.
     
  9. Sonic

    Sonic Live every day to the fullest, for yesterday is go

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    Having spent considerable time in both, I would disagree. The '03 looks very plasticy too.
     
  10. Sonic

    Sonic Live every day to the fullest, for yesterday is go

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    I personally like some grunt, it gives the car character, which the Accord adn Camry are so sorely lacking.

    But the suspension is a little :sad2: on coarse roads.
     
  11. mucky

    mucky .

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    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]

    The center HVAC of the current Max is very nicely laid out. The 04 Max looks like it has more plasticy textures than the current.

    Either way, I really don't call it 'best in class' in interior. The Avalon has better interior, and depending on what 'class' you're talking about, the TL and A4 has better interiors.
     
  12. Sonic

    Sonic Live every day to the fullest, for yesterday is go

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    Have you actually spent time in the car?
     
  13. iZero

    iZero Guest

    The '03 Altima's interior was improved, though if you look at pictures online, it appears the same. Frankly, if it came down to getting a 245 horsepower V6 or a 160 horsepower I4 with slightly nicer interior bits for the same price (which it does), I'd go for the V6.
     
  14. iZero

    iZero Guest

    Honda tried to copy the numbers, but came up lacking (as usual) that certain element Nissan puts in everything they make.
     
  15. mucky

    mucky .

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    Yes I have.
     
  16. TriShield

    TriShield Super Moderator® Super Moderator

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    I agree, I enjoy quiet powerful cars.

    Getting rid of loud road roar can go a long way in overall enjoyment of the car (and the sound system).
     
  17. Sonic

    Sonic Live every day to the fullest, for yesterday is go

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    '04 car>'03 car
     
  18. HisXLNC

    HisXLNC ๑۩۞۩๑ Hot ๑۩۞۩๑

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    There is no sport suspension on the Altima.
     
  19. mucky

    mucky .

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  20. HisXLNC

    HisXLNC ๑۩۞۩๑ Hot ๑۩۞۩๑

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    Its bullshit.
     
  21. bioyuki

    bioyuki Ich habe Angst

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    Hahahah once again hixlcn is wrong :rofl:.

    And while the new Maxima's interior is improved it won't touch the Avalon or A4s.
     
  22. iZero

    iZero Guest

    The Altima comes with firmer springs on the 3.5 SE model, but all I4 and V6 sedans come with different rates to compesate for the greater weight the V6 has over the I4. There is no optional sport suspension on any of the Altima models.
     
  23. HisXLNC

    HisXLNC ๑۩۞۩๑ Hot ๑۩۞۩๑

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    I was just proved right.
     
  24. xxaznvtecxx

    xxaznvtecxx New Member

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    i gotta 95 avalon and its interior is great, roomy as hell, whenever ppl ride in the back seat they be like dam yo you seems like you hella far away from me. and when i push my chair all the way back the person right behind me still has leg room. this way both driver and backseat passanger is seated comfortabley thats what i love bout my avalon,haha oh back to the subject i haven't spent time in either one of the maximas but they do look nice though, and you guess are putting up good arguements but i think its just up to personal preference
     

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