If a price cut is the price of entry into the changing mid-sized sedan market, Nissan passed through the door last week.
Responding to Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.'s price cut on the redesigned Camry last year, Nissan Motor Corp. U.S.A. slashed the price of its redesigned Altima by up to $1,500.
Nissan cut the suggested retail price of the GXE model, which it figures will account for 65 percent of the new Altima's projected sales of 170,000 units, to $17,990 for a fully equipped model with standard antilock brakes.
That price, which does not include $470 freight charge, compares with $19,498 for the previous generation GXE, Nissan said.
Prices of the other three Altima models also were cut. Nissan officials credited the reductions to improved manufacturing efficiency at its plant in Smyrna, Tenn., and to increased content of U.S.-built components.
Toyota cut the price of the new Camry $550 to $1,745, helping to make it the best-selling car in America this year. Adding to the fray in the segment this fall will be a redesigned Honda Accord. Prices for the new Accord have not been announced.
'This was a direct competitive response (to Toyota). But it still needs to be determined whether the price cut comes from marketing conditions or actual engineering savings,' said Lincoln Merrihew, analyst with J.D. Power and Associates of Agoura Hills, Calif.
However, noting that the Altima and other cars have carried heavy incentives for the past year, Merrihew added: 'The lower sticker may not necessarily mean reduced transaction prices. But it will reduce consumer inhibitions to enter the showroom, compared to a higher sticker with a rebate.'
The Altima is the volume leader for Nissan, and while it may not make as much per-unit profit as the Maxima or Pathfinder, it is clearly the franchise car. That explains why Nissan played it safe with its 1998 makeover.
If the 1993 Altima was the car that went to college, the 1998 version is the one that just graduated - a little less baby fat, a bit broader in the shoulders, and holding a more confident stance.
Altima owners told Nissan the first-generation car worked fine for them, which meant they wanted few changes in the new version, which goes on sale July 10.
'They wanted a little more air in the balloon, more performance, something a little faster and more stable. They wanted us to hold on to what this car was,' said Jerry Hirshberg, chief designer and president of Nissan Design International in La Jolla, Calif.
Most alterations were simple and cosmetic, but important to customers. They include a slightly wider interior as well as a cupholder in the center console, rather than one that blocks the radio. Storage spaces were redesigned to better hold commonly used items like compact discs, business cards and letter-sized note pads. A CD player is standard on all but they entry-level XE trim level.
No one will mistake that the 1998 is anything but an evolution of the old Altima, however.
'This is a car that looks like it grew up. We don't get design by adding things, but by dealing with the elements that are already there,' Hirshberg said.
The A- and C-pillars have been pushed forward, so the glass has a steeper rake. The hood is flatter. Giving some body panels a harder edge, including a slight rise at the end of the trunk lid, helps cut the new Altima's coefficient of drag from 0.34 to 0.32
The wheelbase is the same 103.1 inches, but Altima is 3.4 inches longer (to 183.5 inches) and 2 inches wider (to 69.1 inches) - most noticeable in trunk space.
Altima owners insisted that the car's sporty handling be retained. So, despite its expense, the independent rear suspension with 'super toe control' stayed. Both Sentra and Maxima redesigns dropped their independent rear suspensions for cheaper torsion beam suspensions.
Nissan also delved into component-sharing by giving Altima a version of the Maxima's automatic transmission.
While the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine still delivers the same 150 hp, more torque is delivered in the 2,800-3,600 rpm range. Added sheeting and insulation, as well as new design, allowed for reduced noise, vibration and harshness.
Torsional and bending rigidity were both increased about 20 percent for the new model. Among the ways engineers accomplished that goal:
The A pillar is now made from one piece of steel, vs. three pieces welded together for the current Altima.
A longitudinal brace was added underneath the spare tire well.
'Bake-hard' steel, previously a feature only for premium vehicles such as the Infiniti Q45, was used for the horizontal panels and doors to increase dent resistance.
Despite the gain in size and the addition of features, the new Altima gains only 30 pounds over a comparable 1997 model.
While 'affordable luxury' was the marketing tagline for the original Altima - replete with comparisons to Lexus and Mercedes-Benz - it will not return in the 1998 campaign, even though that is still the idea behind the car, said Mark Perry, Nissan's model line manager for sedans.
The initial advertising tagline will be, 'Have you seen it?'
Altima will be targeted at recapturing first-generation Altima buyers, as well as those moving up from the basic-small category and those who may be startled by the comparably higher prices of the Galant and Accord, Perry said.
Nissan estimates Altima's ownership base at 600,000.
Altima sales peaked in 1994 at 163,090 units, and have held around 150,000 units annually since. About 65,000 were sold through May.
The current Altima was given a five-year life cycle. But the second-generation version is being cut to a four-year cycle.
Teased Hirshberg: 'We won't evolve the next Altima. By then, it will have established itself and we can shake the cage.'
National Editor James R. Crate and Engineering Editor Dale Jewett contributed to this report.