2003 Nissan Altima
    MSRP
    $16,749
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    2003 Nissan Altima Expert Review:New Car Test Drive

    Bigger and faster than your average sedan.

    Introduction

    The Nissan Altima is roomy, comfortable, and practical. It's bigger and roomier than the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and other mid-size sedans. It delivers everything a mid-size sedan is supposed to do, offering a big trunk and comfortable rear seating. Bold styling sets the Altima apart among bland-looking sedans. 

    But wait, there's more: Order the V6-powered Altima 3.5 SE and you get one of the hottest cars in this class. The SE comes with a power 3.5-liter V6 that delivers stunning acceleration performance. Punch it in any gear and this car takes off. 

    Redesigned for the 2002 model year, the Altima is much larger than the previous-generation Altima and it now offers one of the roomiest interiors in its class. The 2002 Nissan Altima won the North American Car of the Year title, an award determined by 50 of the nation's top independent automotive journalists. 

    Changes for 2003 are minimal, consisting mainly of refinements to interior trim, our chief complaint with last year's model. This year's revisions represent a big improvement over last year's interior, though there is still work to be done in this area. The V6 engine now produces 5 more horsepower. There's more standard equipment on SL models, and new option packages for the SE. 

    Lineup

    Nissan Altima is available in four trim levels: 2.5, 2.5 S, 2.5 SL, and 3.5 SE. Two engines are available. 

    Base, S, and SL models are powered by a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with 16 valves and dual overhead camshafts. It produces 175 horsepower at 6000 rpm, and 180 pounds-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. A compact balance system and silent-chain cam drive ensure smooth running for such a big four. All four-cylinder Altimas meet ultra-low emissions (ULEV) standards. 

    The 3.5 SE features a powerful 3.5-liter V6, essentially the same unit used in the Nissan Maxima. This engine also breathes through four valves per cylinder to produce 245 horsepower at 5800 rpm, and 246 pounds-feet of torque at 4400 rpm. 

    The base 2.5 model ($16,349) comes standard with power windows, a green-tinted solar glass windshield, power steering, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, fold down center armrests in front and rear, a 60/40 split folding rear seat and an in-glass antenna. Air conditioning is not part of the base package, however, and other options are limited. 

    2.5 S ($17,999) adds air conditioning, power mirrors, remote keyless entry with remote trunk lock, an eight-way adjustable driver's seat, cruise control, a six-speaker audio system, seatback pockets, and a lock for the split rear seat. 

    2.5 SL ($22,699) adds 16-inch alloy wheels, leather trim, a power driver's seat, trip computer, security system, Bose premium sound system and other convenience features. For 2003, a four-speed automatic transmission, heated front seats, heated outside mirrors and simulated wood trim have been added to the list. 

    3.5 SE ($23,149) comes with the V6, 17-inch alloy wheels, 215/55R17 tires, a performance-tuned suspension, fog lights, and dual chrome exhaust tips. But the Bose stereo is optional ($899). The Leather Package ($1399) now includes the Bose audio system, plus a power glass sunroof, heated front seats and heated mirrors, and leather upholstery. A new Sport Package adds a power glass sunroof and spoiler; the Sport Package Plus includes the sunroof and spoiler plus the Bose premium audio system and xenon headlights. A new Leather Sport Package combines the Leather Package, with the spoiler and xenon headlights. The new Premium Leather Package adds simulated wood trim. 

    Automatic transmissions are optional and add $800 to a base model or 3.5 SE, but $850 to a 2.5 S. V6 Altimas with the automatic transmission can be ordered with a traction control system ($299), which uses a combination of throttle, fuel cutoff and shift schedule to aid traction in off-the-line starts and slippery situations. Other options include the sunroof ($849) and a package consisting of side-impact air bags, front and rear head-curtain air bags, and ABS ($799). 

    Walkaround

    Compared to most Japanese sedans, the Nissan Altima sports the aggressive look of a German car. Attentive observers might spot styling cues from the Volkswagen Passat up front, and design elements similar to the Audi A6 in the rear. That's not a bad thing, as many people regard the Passat and A6 as world design leaders. 

    As mid-size sedans go, this is a big car. Redesigned for 2002, the Altima grew a significant 7.1 inches in wheelbase. Its track widened 1.8 inches in front and 2.4 inches in the rear. Overall it measured 5.7 inches longer, 1.3 inches wider, and 2.0 inches taller. A long, 110.2-inch wheelbase leaves plenty of room for large doors, which make the Altima look somewhat larger than it is. Even the base Altima comes with 16-inch wheels, which help its looks and its handling. 

    The Altima's large-diameter wheels are pushed out near the four corners, which enhances its aggressive look, as well as helping it handle better. The front grille and bumper stick out quite far but are nicely set off by multi-parabola projector-beam type headlights, with four bulbs set behind large triangular covers. Although the grill opening is fairly large by modern standards it doesn't look awkward. The whole front of the car looks like one cohesive unit. 

    The rear of the car is even more striking, featuring a sloping roofline more reminiscent of a coupe than a four-door sedan. It ends in a high trunk that is set off by bold round taillights, turn signals and backup lights all set behind a triangular-shaped clear cover. The units are surrounded in bright silver, the current trend among young hot-rodders. The trunk has a large opening and generous volume. Its gooseneck hinges intrude into the useable space, but have the advantage of popping open the trunk lid when a button on the key fob is pressed. Design details abound on the Altima that are not present on the all-new Accord and other mid-size sedans. Creases in the mirrors, fog lamps integrated into the front bumpers and other details give the Altima distinction. The Altima is assembled with a one-piece bodyside structure, for more consistent panel fit, and Nissan claims panel-fit accuracy within 1.0 mm. 

    Interior

    The Nissan Altima interior design complements the exterior styling. For 2003, Nissan has improved the interior with more attractive dash textures and titanium accents for all trim levels. This year marks an improvement over the 2002 interior, but still doesn't match the fit and finish and attention to detail of the new Honda Accord or Toyota Camry, much less a Volkswagen Passat. 

    It's a brilliant design, however. The dashboard is set relatively low. A binnacle directly in front of the driver contains three pods for the speedometer, tachometer, and water temperature and fuel gauges. The instruments glow orange in the dark. 

    Sound system controls live in a raised, ovoid panel in the center of the dash. Climate control knobs lie directly below, are well located and have a nice feel to them. Air conditioning vents are flush-mounted on the dash, rather than in protruding pods as in many other cars. Seams for the passenger-side airbag are invisible, cleverly hidden in a large expanse of unembellished dashboard surface. 

    The interior design gives the Altima a feeling of spaciousness. That feeling is no illusion. Front legroom in the Altima is more generous than in all but the largest vehicles on the road. The Altima is among the best in its class in terms of roominess and comfort. Decent-sized seats in front complement the legroom. Getting into and out of the Altima is easy, thanks to a slightly higher-than-average front seating position. 

    Rear seats are supportive and comfortable with good legroom and sufficient headroom. A 6-foot, 4-inch passenger can sit comfortably behind a 6-foot, 4-inch driver. A center armrest folds down and provides cup holders. Rear center passengers get a full three-point seat belt with shoulder harness. Getting in and out of the rear seats of the Altima is easier than it is with other mid-size sedans. Its long wheelbase and large doors mean you won't get dirty when climbing in or out by dragging your clothes across the rear fender well. 

    Nissan has also thoughtfully provided space to stuff your stuff. Two big cup holders reside in the center console, where you'll also find an adjustable elbow rest and a small storage bin. The parking brake is a proper handbrake, located in the center. There's a small, covered cubbyhole at the front of the console under the climate controls, which suffers from a flimsy lid. 

    Driving Impression

    The Nissan Altima comes packed with power. The SE's 245-horsepower V6 is impressive, provides strong acceleration performance. Slam the throttle down at 40 mph and the Altima takes off like a rocket. The V6 turns the Altima into a sports sedan, especially when paired with the five-speed manual transmission. Springs, shocks, anti-roll bars, and speed-rated tires are designed for sharper handling response. It's great fun to drive. 

    The standard four-cylinder engine puts out 175 horsepower and 181 pounds-feet of torque, considerably more than what's offered by the Honda and Toyota four-cylinder engines. Torque is that force that propels the car away from intersections. The Altima's 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine works well with the four-speed automatic transmission, although the standard five-speed manual gearbox offers quicker acceleration and better fuel economy. With the automatic, the Altima pulls strongly from a standing start, and the transmission shifts promptly between 40 and 60 mph for quick passing maneuvers. 

    The 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine is more economical than the 3.5-liter V6, of course. The federal government estimates 23/29 mpg city/highway for the four-cylinder versus 21/26 for the V6 (both with manual transmissions). A 20-gallon fuel tank, considerably larger than most, means the Altima can go a long way between fill-ups. 

    The Altima rides nice and felt secure at 80 mph in a torrent of rain. It feels distinctly larger than the Honda Accord and other mid-size sedans. Power rack-and-pinion steering gives precise control of the Altima with good feedback. Handling is exemplary, thanks party to a newly designed multi-link rear suspension, which uses aluminum components to reduce weight eight percent relative to steel. The Altima rides well, though not as smoothly as the new Accord, Camry, or Passat, and road vibration can be felt through the steering wheel. Altima's four-wheel disc brakes are easy to modulate and offer good stopping power. 

    Summary

    The Nissan Altima stands out with bold styling and backs it up with strong acceleration performance. This is especially true with the Altima 3.5 SE and its powerful V6 engine. The Altima is bigger than other mid-size cars. It provides roomy, comfortable front seats and roomy, comfortable back seats. 

    Model Lineup

    2.5 ($16,649); 2.5 S ($18,499); 2.5 SL ($22,999); 3.5 SE ($22,649). 

    Assembled In

    Smyrna, Tennessee. 

    Options As Tested

    ABS and airbag package ($799) includes anti-lock brakes, side-impact and side-curtain air bags; Leather Package ($2999) includes leather seating surfaces, padded leather armrest cover, simulated leather door trim panels, heated front seats, auto-dimming mirror, heated outside mirrors, HomeLink universal transceiver, automatic climate control, one-touch power sunroof, Bose audio system with eight-speakers AM/FM/CD6, trunk lid trim. 

    Model Tested

    Altima 3.5 SE ($22,649). 

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    Read 2003 Nissan Altima 2.5 Base 4dr Sedan reviews from auto industry experts to gain insight on the Nissan Altima's drivability, comfort, power and performance.
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