A Stylish Sedan Sans Sticker Shock

When details about Nissan's new Altima started to leak out last spring, it seemed the company's best shot at the fiercely competitive family-sedan market was a bit off the mark. Unlike Ford's Taurus and Toyota's Camry, the Altima would have no V-6 version. The styling was deemed too controversial for a segment led by Honda's conservative Accord. And the car appeared small for its class.

But Nissan saved the most important detail for last: the price. The company figured recession-weary consumers were searching for good value. And at an eye-opening $12,999 for the base model, the Altima ended up in the thick of the competition.

It turns out the four-cylinder engine grinds out more horsepower than Ford's entry-level V-6. Zero-to-60 acceleration has been tested at 8.0 seconds, just shy of that of the V-6 Camry, whose sticker starts at $4,000 more. And while the car is shorter than its competitors, appearances can be deceiving. Designers at Nissan's San Diego studios have pulled off a stunning bit of trompe l'oeil.

They started with a roomy cabin and blended the trunk and hood space around that. The result is exceptionally generous headroom--even with an optional sunroof--and ample legroom for six-footers in back. The car, like the Accord, is narrower than the Taurus and Camry, which means that three adults in the rear seat is a tighter squeeze. But luggage space, seemingly diminished by the car's unusual downward-sloping trunk line, is plentiful.

BOTHERSOME BELTS. The Altima's interior ranks with the best of the Japanese carmakers, with simple, well-laid-out audio and climate controls and an uncluttered instrument panel with white-on-black dials. Imitation wood trim on upscale models is understated, and the front seats offer excellent lateral and lumbar support. The car comes with a driver's airbag. The only gaffe: those annoying, motorized seatbelts.

Nissan expects most buyers to opt for the step-up gxe model, which starts at $14,024. It'll add an options package of air-conditioning, cruise control, and a four-speaker audio system for $1,000 more. Still, that's $1,500 less than a similar Accord, or $2,000 off a four-cylinder Camry. Including such features as antilock brakes, sunroof, compact-disk player, and leather upholstery can drive the sticker above $20,000.

That's a bargain for features usually found only on luxury cars. And the Altima is truly a bargain among family sedans.

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