Among Japan’s automakers, Nissan displayed a lot of gumption and ingenuity both before and after the tumultuous disorder that the Second World War wreaked upon the island nation.
With a licence to build British-designed Austin Seven sedans in the 1930s, Nissan parlayed its access to English patents to develop its own engines and other components, culminating in the advanced “L” four-cylinder overhead-cam engines that would power several well-regarded “Datsun” models in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Nissan showed its wares at the 1958 Los Angeles auto show to establish a beachhead in the world’s largest automotive market. It became a household name during the 1973 oil crisis, which pushed a lot of North Americans into its fuel-efficient cars and small trucks.
Sometime after that, the automaker lost its way. Whether the cars got too bloated or just uninspired, Nissan let industrious Toyota and a more nimble Honda eat its lunch, especially in the mid-size sedan category ruled by the Camry and Accord.
Enter the Altima
Nissan finally found an audience for its redesigned Altima mid-size sedan in 2002. It enjoyed a size advantage – longer, taller, wider and roomier than the Camry and Accord – and it was leading-man handsome, too.
Journalists anointed it North American Car of the Year for 2002. The sedan’s predatory pricing helped boost sales, making the Altima the fourth best-selling auto in America – precisely where Nissan planned to be.
In an attempt to coax lightning to strike twice, Nissan embarked on a careful redesign for 2007, giving it sharper styling and more safety features. That fourth-generation Altima continued without major change through 2012 and, thanks to strong sales when new, there are plenty of them now available on the used market. The question is, should you buy one?
2007-12 Altima Features and Powertrains
The fourth-generation Altima actually lost 2 cm in wheelbase and 6 cm in overall length with the redesign, bucking the trend towards ever-larger vehicles.
Engineers keenly excised weight to give the Altima a more sporting chassis. Its updated independent suspension made use of lightweight aluminum components, with struts up front, a multilink rear setup and stabilizer bars at each end.
The engine squatted 2 cm lower in the engine bay, which made the front-drive sedan a better handler and allowed for equal-angle half-shafts that almost completely eliminated torque steer.
Inside, occupants were treated to plenty of space front and back, and the huge trunk could have been rented out as a $100/month locker. The cabin looked a little antiseptic, but there were enough playful elements – like the three central vents that channeled the iconic Datsun 240Z – to make things interesting.
Some owners found the seating firm to the point of being uncomfortable, but chalk that up to Nissan’s sporting mission for this car. A keyless ignition start/stop button was a gimmicky standard feature.
The base engine was a long-stroke DOHC 2.5 L four-cylinder making 175 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque, while an optional 3.5 L V-6 unleashed 270 hp and 258 lb-ft of grunt. Both engines benefited from continuously-variable valve timing.
Nissan dropped its conventional automatic transmission in favour of a continuously-variable transmission (CVT) built by its Jatco subsidiary. A belt working a conical pulley system produced a near-infinite number of gear ratios, helping to keep the engine operating near peak efficiency. It mated optionally to both the four- and six-cylinder engines, while a six-speed manual transmission was standard.
All Altimas had four-wheel disc brakes with standard antilock control on 3.5 V-6 versions, but optional on 2.5 four-cylinder models (made standard in 2008). Front side airbags and curtain airbags were standard in all models, adding up to six airbags in total.
Nissan created the Altima Hybrid by licensing Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive technology and marrying it to its own four-cylinder engine; output totaled 198 hp.
For 2008, the automaker unveiled its first two-door Altima coupe, featuring a shorter wheelbase and lower height than the sedan. Think Infiniti G37 Coupe on a teacher’s salary.
The 2010 models were refreshed with a restyled front fascia and standard electronic stability control. There was also an upgraded sound system with an iPod interface, while the navigation system earned a larger touchscreen, real-time satellite information, Bluetooth connectivity and digital music storage.
Driving the Altima
Nissan attempted to differentiate the Altima in the conservative family-sedan segment by endowing it with a spirited nature and, by most accounts, nailed it.
The four-cylinder models sprinted to 96 km/h in 7.4 seconds – the quickest in a competitive class, besting even the Saturn Aura V-6 – aided in part by its clever CVT transmission that kept the big four on the boil. Engine noise and harshness could have been better, though.
The 3.5 L V-6, borrowed from the Maxima, was swifter, taking 6.6 seconds to reach highway velocity with the CVT, and 5.9 seconds with the six-speed stick.
The Altima was blessed with nicely weighted and communicative steering, grippy brakes and a well-sorted suspension. The one flaw reviewers noted was a jumpy throttle, which made the car feel nervous. It wasn’t always easy to drive it smoothly.
Drivers were split on the Altima’s fuel consumption ratings; some found it good on gas, while others characterized it as poor. Don’t expect the V-6 to take you too far on a tank.
In U.S. government crash testing the Altima sedan earned the highest rating for both frontal- and side-impact protection (five out of five stars). The coupe was awarded four out of five stars for frontal-impact protection and five stars in side-impact tests.
The Altima won over a sizable fan base with its agreeable styling and sports-sedan overtones, but there were some disquieting mechanical issues, owners noted, especially those who had migrated to the brand from competitors such as Toyota and Honda.
Foremost, the CVT transmission has been failing in significant numbers. Owners say the warning signs include loud whining at speed and jerky shifts.
“The car started to shudder when taking off after a stop, as well as hesitating. I took it back to the dealership where they said that the transmission was defective and had to be replaced,” one owner of a 2012 V-6 model with 32,000 kilometres wrote online. After replacing the CVT under warranty, the second transmission broke at 46,000 km. It’s not an uncommon tale.
The Altima uses an electronic steering-column lock that can malfunction, disabling the “smart key” pushbutton ignition and stranding the driver. The repair reportedly costs more than $1,000. Nissan quietly extended the warranty on the component, but did not make a concerted effort to inform all owners. The fault is most common in 2009 Altimas, though the issue may appear in any model-year.
The Tennessee-built Altima has exhibited other hiccups, including noisy and short-lived brakes, faulty head gaskets and catalytic converters, oil leaks, broken air conditioners, shifting driver’s seats, chipping paint and, bizarrely, melting instrument panels (limited largely to southern U.S. states).
In its haste to catch the segment leaders, Nissan may not have sweated all the details. So select a used Altima with care.
2007-12 Nissan Altima
Typical price range: $6,500-$14,000
> Well-sorted chassis
> Powerful V-6 engine option
> Available stylish coupe model
> Thrashy four-cylinder engine
> Sensitive throttle
> Questionable CVT durability
Things to Watch Out For:
> Hesitating automatic transmission,
> Random starting issues
> Oil leaks
> Weak or non-functioning air conditioner
> Leaky brake master cylinder (2007)