The Mighty Camry Has Competition

Nissan's redesigned Altima stands up well to Toyota's best-seller

Every throne has its great pretender, and cars are no exception. Right now, it's the all-new, bigger-and-better 2002 Altima, the first car Nissan (NSANY ) has fielded in more than a decade designed to go head-to-head with Toyota's Camry, the best-selling car in America for the past four years. This Altima's a beaut, and it will make Nissan a strong contender in the huge and lucrative market for midsize family sedans. Toyota (TM ) isn't ready to hand over the title, however. Its new fifth-generation Camry is an ever-more-refined version of its predecessors and should help Toyota fend off all comers, including the popular Honda Accord and Ford Taurus, for the foreseeable future.

I've been driving the new Altima and Camry for the past few weeks. I found a lot to like about both of them and jotted down a few quibbles as well. But while they're aimed at the same audience--the young family with a couple of kids at home--they are very different vehicles.

EYE CANDY. Take the Altima. Unlike most cars in this category, where the styling can be generously described as bland, the Altima is noticeably stylish, even elegant. The nose dives down in front, and the roofline traces a long, sloping arch, ending in a short, high rear deck. You see this profile more on sporty coupes than sedans. In silhouette, it resembles Toyota's Lexus GS luxury sedans.

That's not all that says sport/luxe about the Altima. It has big, 16-inch tires--17-inch on the V6 model--pushed out to the corners of the car. That's for better handling, but it also gives the Altima a more confident stance. Dual exhausts, with cutouts in the bumper to accommodate them on the V6, are more often found on performance cars. And the headlights and taillights are mounted in gorgeous jewel-like clusters of large, round lamps covered by clear glass.

All this for a price that starts at $18,539 for the nicely outfitted Altima 2.5 S four-cylinder model. There's a base car at $16,889, but you can't get it with air conditioning. The V6 version, a first for Altimas, starts at $22,889.

The interior of the Altima was a bit busy for my taste, with its two-tone trim (three if you opt for the cheap-looking wood-tone inserts--don't) and a sculpted plastic panel that starts at the windshield and ends in an oval for the audio and air-conditioning controls. That said, all the controls are high on the console and easy to use. The instrument panel, with three deep pods backlit in orange, is the cabin's best feature.

The car is slightly bigger than the Camry and Accord and dramatically bigger than previous Altimas--some 2 inches taller and 7 inches longer between the front and back wheels. That translates into big doors, making it easier to get in and out of the back seat, and plenty of rear legroom for grownups.

Where the Altima really shines, though, is in the luxury amenities not normally found in a car of this class. Things I missed when I traded in a mid-line, four-cylinder Altima for the top-of-the-line Camry I drove the next week: A handbrake in the center console instead of a pedal under the dash, a steering wheel that telescopes as well as tilts, a trunk release on the door instead of the floor, and headlights that come on automatically at night.

The Altima has all the advanced safety features, though none is standard equipment. Antilock brakes and side air bags, including a side curtain at head level, are available as a package on all but the base model for $749. Traction control, useful on gravel or slippery roads, is a $299 option, but can be had only on the V6 cars.

On the road, you'll never mistake the Altima for a sports car. But it has a nice, peppy 175-horsepower engine and a suspension that absorbs most of the bumps and lets you take corners without the queasy feeling that you're about to lose control. If you want raw power, go for the class-leading V6 with 240 hp. Nissan figures about 20% of its buyers will; I don't think it's necessary, but, hey, it's your budget.

While the Altima is angling for a road-hugging, crisp-handling, dare I say, fun-to-drive experience, the Toyota Camry is basic transportation. But this is basic transportation refined to the nth degree. It starts when you slide behind the wheel and turn the key. Did the engine actually start? You can barely hear it. Motoring along, the car deftly sops up all the flaws in the roadway, your little steering jitters, every little whoosh of wind noise.

From the outside, Toyota has sharpened the looks, but there's still no mistaking this car for anything other than a Camry. Dual creases on the hood lead into a new, bolder grille. There are more chiseled edges, and a new line sweeps the sides from front to rear. The back end now has the barest hint of a lip, but it also has picked up the same pretentious chrome bar as Toyota's flagship Avalon model. Not quite your father's Lincoln, but edging uncomfortably close.

Still, it's hard to criticize the Camry. The interior is near-perfect, with a high-mounted, smallish dashboard--no vast expanses of plastic here. The instrument cluster is a simple affair that tells you all you need to know at a glance. My first impression was that it was a bit cheap-looking with its white characters on black for most models. But when night fell and the backlights came on, I changed my mind. The instruments are simply understated, like almost everything else about the Camry.

EERILY QUIET. You get little feedback from the road in the car: The steering is on the light side. But that's O.K. with Camry owners--they're more interested in the ride. It's smooth and stable--and almost eerily quiet. Side air bags and curtains are a $500 option.

On the step-up models, you can get a touch screen-display, high in the center of the dash, that serves as both the audio controls and a global-position navigation system. The screen tilts down at a touch of a button to reveal slots for playing compact disks and cassettes. It's an extra $1,830 on the XLE models.

Feature for feature, the new Camrys are less expensive than last year's. But Toyota has dropped the previous low-end model entirely, which puts the price of entry at $19,455, a new high.

Still, 423,000 Americans (last year alone) can't be wrong. And a quarter of them traded up from another Camry. There's a huge audience for a no-apologies, holds-its-value kind of car, and Toyota isn't about to make any abrupt changes that might jeopardize that. Meanwhile, the folks at Nissan, justifiably proud of their effort, will be ecstatic if their brand-spanking-new Altima sells half as well.

By Larry Armstrong

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