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Change Track: 2005 Nissan Altima - Shift_Improvement
    Managing Editor

The Background
2005 Nissan AltimaWhen Nissan redesigned their bread-and-butter mid-size sedan for 2002, they knew it had to be something exceptional. After all, the previous Altima was a model of value, quality and practicality. All it was lacking was a little excitement. Being offered with only a 155 hp 2.4L 4-cylinder engine, the previous Altima had no problem getting people from point A to point B reliably, but it fell short when compared to competitors like the Accord and Camry equipped with their optional V6's. Being an essential part of Nissan's 180 plan to turn the formerly floundering company around, the next Altima had to take all the values instilled by the previous model and infuse them with a sporting flair. When the 2002 Altima debuted, it was at the top of its class in terms of power, space and style. Nissan's new midsize had grown up and with its base 2.5L 175 hp 4-cylinder, optional 3.5L 240 hp V6 and fully independent suspension (front and rear), it certainly provided the sporting edge that was missing in the previous model. However, somewhere along the line, Nissan's cost cutters got hold of the vehicle and started cutting corners in material quality and fit/finish to save money. This was in contrast to the well put together interior of the previous model, but it didn't detract enough from the model's appeal to affect sales and recognition. The overall package was good enough for the car to be awarded the title of 2002 North American Car of the Year and it briskly flew out of showrooms. Through all the accolades the car received, the complaints about the interior quality still persisted. The lack of interior quality also seemed to be an emerging brand trend, though, as each new Nissan/Infiniti vehicle introduced utilized similar down-market materials for interior components. Was Nissan listening to these complaints? Was this a case of cost-cutting going too far? Was Nissan going to fix the problem? The answers are yes, yes and thankfully, yes!

2005 heralds the introduction of a freshened Altima and hopefully an indicator of the type of interior quality we can expect in the future from all Nissan automobiles. In short, the 2005 Altima is what the 2002 car should have been and more. Nissan also gives us the much-hyped Altima SE-R model for 2005, which expands the enthusiast-oriented line of automobiles from Nissan that includes the Sentra SE-R. Let's dive into this new Altima and see exactly what changes were made.

The most visible change is the center stack and dash redesign. The controls for the HVAC look and feel better in quality, as do the radio controls and center vents. Gone are the "sometimes parallel, sometimes not" panel seams of the center stack. It now has a more solid, less "slapped together" look to it. The mounting of the panels also seems more solid, as exhibited by the absence of the excessive creaking and groaning that plagued the previous model when panels were pressed upon. The new 3-spoke tilt and telescoping steering wheel is smaller, fatter and much more pleasing to the eye than the previous model. Secondary controls for cruise control and the stereo are integrated into the wheel spokes, but they still aren't illuminated, as they should be. The instrument gauges have benefited from a little freshening that makes a big impact. Chrome surroundings for each of the three tunnels add some flair while the actual gauges have been given a multi-color treatment of red and yellow lighting (red for inner gauge rings/needles and yellow for outer rings). The previous model was a monochromatic "Halloween orange" for all of its lighting and displays. A Multi-Function Trip Computer, optional on the previous model, is now standard equipment on the Altima. Making its debut in the Altima for the first time, a DVD Navigation system can now be checked off on the options roster. Other changes for the interior include totally new door panels that finally put the upholstery in the right place. Instead of the inserts wrapping around the top edge of the panel (as in the previous model), they now exist in the center of the panel and finally give the integrated armrest some cushion. Previous models had your arm resting on rubbery plastic that didn't really give you the impression of luxury or quality. Similar improvements have been made to the headliner material, which has a much better look and feel compared to the cheap fabric used before. Chrome speaker surrounds cap off the front door panels and correspond to the other chrome touches that dot the cabin, which include door pulls. New seat material selections finish off a cabin that looks much more polished and luxurious than the previous model. The one thing I would have really liked to see made available in the Altima was a power passenger seat. This wasn't an option on previous models and it remains absent from this 2005 model. This omission becomes even more glaring when you realize that competitors such as the Accord, Camry and Passat all offer power passenger seats. Hopefully when the Altima receives a full redesign in a few years this feature will be made available.

2005 Nissan Altima InteriorThe new Altima SE-R installs sportier (read: better bolstered) front heated seats wrapped in perforated leather as standard equipment. A prominent 3-pod gauge package is mounted on top of the center console and echoes design cues from the 350Z. These gauges include a voltmeter, oil pressure indicator and fuel consumption indicator. While they are all functional, these gauges are clearly more for aesthetic appeal than anything else. Also standard on the SE-R (optional on other trim levels) is the excellent Bose audio system. Most every consumer and journalist, including this one, has repeatedly praised this system for its raw power and accuracy. The Bose name is used all too often in order to insinuate an audio system's aural credentials, but the Altima's system is one of the few that lives up to the implied quality. Other interior touches that the SE-R receives over the regular Altima include special SE-R branding on the seatbacks and drilled aluminum pedals to add to the sporty atmosphere.

The exterior has also received a slight, but noticeable facelift. The headlamps retain their multi-element design, but have a more angular housing and are smoked for a more upscale appearance. The taillights return virtually unchanged, though they get a slight smoke treatment as well, and the orange has been replaced for an all-red color-scheme. The 2005 Altima receives Nissan's new corporate grill design, a new lower front fascia and a new raised hood design to complete the overall look. Other changes include newly styled 16 inch and 17 inch wheel selections.

The SE-R gives you special front and rear valences, side sills and a trunk mounted spoiler that are actually effective, as the SE-R's coefficient of drag is reduced from .33 (for other models) to .31. The exterior appearance is also enhanced with the inclusion of aggressive-looking 18 inch alloy wheels shod with Y-rated summer rubber. Silver-painted brake calipers are purposely visible through the larger 18-inch wheels, as well.

2005 Nissan Altima SE-RThe powertrain selection hasn't changed much - which is a good thing. One thing Nissan did right from the start with the 2002 Altima was to equip it with class-leading horsepower for both the 4-cylinder and 6-cylinder engines. The QR25 dutifully powers the Altima 2.5, 2.5S and 2.5SL models with an unchanged output of 175 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque. I personally have a lot of experience with this engine and have found it to be extremely flexible and more than powerful enough to propel this car, especially when paired with the 5-speed manual transmission. The only gripe I have is that it could run smoother as it gives the impression that it doesn't like being revved as much as, say, a Honda 4-cylinder. Regardless, the copious amounts of low-end torque make up for this in most cases, making slow second gear corners a cinch. The ubiquitous VQ35 3.5L V6 has benefited from continuous increases in power over the years and it remains one of the more impressive V6's in production today. The VQ doesn't disappoint in this application either, and shows up in the 2005 Altima 3.5SE and 3.5SL models with 250 hp and 249 lb-ft of torque. These numbers conspire to create not only impressive acceleration, but a fair amount of torque steer if you have the wheels pointed anywhere but dead-ahead when you floor it. This characteristic can only be worse in the new Altima SE-R, though, as it comes to play with an impressive 260 hp and 251 lb-ft of torque from the same 3.5L V6. The SE-R also features larger front brakes that are nearly an inch bigger in diameter (compared to other models) to help reign in the additional speed provided by the extra horsepower.

Unfortunately, one problem that plagued the previous Altima still lurks in the 2005 model. The 5-speed manual has not exactly been a model of buttery shifting quality. Tough gear engagements, a rubbery, indirect feel and a long throw combine to make shifting more of a chore than a pleasure. At least the clutch engagement is still smooth and linear, though. On the bright side, this year there are two different automatic transmissions available. If you choose a 2.5, 2.5S or 2.5SL model, you get the carryover 4-speed electronically controlled transmission and must relinquish all control of the transmission to a computer. V6 Altima models receive a new 5-speed automatic with manual shift mode. Why Nissan didn't offer the 5-speed automanual with the 4-cylinder is beyond me, as it could only enhance performance and efficiency. Could this be a sign of cost savings? Probably, but hopefully Nissan will see fit to offer the 5-speed transmission in future iterations. Altima SE-R drivers receive the option of a 6-speed manual transmission that further solidifies the car's sporting intentions, but they can also get the 5-speed automanual if they prefer a computer to do the shifting sometimes.

The Altima's handling has always been pretty responsive for such a large car. This is afforded by the fully independent front and rear suspension constructed largely from aluminum. The only big difference between the previous model and the 2005 Altima is that the rear multi-link suspension is approximately 6% lighter. This helps reduce unsprung weight, which contributes to a more responsive suspension and less harshness over bumps. As can be expected, the SE-R receives performance-tuned struts and shocks, stiffer springs as well as thicker front and rear stabilizer bars compared to the standard setup in the Altima.

Final Review
As stated before, the 2005 Altima is everything the original 2002 model should have been. Style, substance, outstanding interior/cargo space and increased materials quality should combine to make an already successful model even more of a success. The fact that prices have remained fairly unchanged (except for the Altima SE-R, which did not exist before) is also a plus. The Altima SE-R, while providing a solution to a problem very few - if anyone - had, should fill a niche market and give Nissan further bragging rights in the mid-size market. Nissan has constantly been criticized for its excessive cost-cutting techniques, but with this new Altima, it seems as if Carlos Ghosn is finally acting on the criticism. Let's hope it continues, as the improvement of Nissan's lackluster resale values also depends on it.




Tim, I don't think I could have said it as well as you did when you said that the 2005 Altima is what the 2002 car should have been. No doubt, the third Altima has been a huge success. Nissan has looked to squeeze additional capacity out of every plant they can build the thing at. It's went from a bland and perhaps appropriately overlooked car to one that is hard to miss. Great styling, amazing performance, large cabin and trunk...the '02 had it all, or almost all.. What it lacked was quality in terms of both materials and how it was built. You'd frequently hear stories of trim pieces breaking off even on new cars (same issue on the Infiniti G35). Finally, after getting their finances right by getting every last dime of profit out of each car, Nissan is reinvesting in quality. And, as Tim says, it shows. The interior of this car finally looks rich, and on par with the competition. In dark colors, I'd say it looks richer than the Camry interior. The Accord is superb inside, so if anything I'd call it a tie. Nissan, you have finally produced an Altima that I would not hesitate to recommend. What's more, there's an SE-R model. As a former marketing strategy guy, this is something every Nissan model should have, from Sentra to Titan. Mercedes does it with AMG, and it's a great idea. People love performance and the image a performance model (or, better yet, halo car like the Viper) can give to a brand. Carlos Ghosn is doing great things at Nissan, and the 2005 Altima is the direct product of his winning strategy.

Carlos, if you're listening, make mine an SE-R in dark gray with dark gray leather and a Nav inside.