MONTEREY, Calif. - Although enthusiasts' attention is focused on the revived Z sports car due next spring, no new vehicle may represent the essence of Nissan's revival more than the 2002 Altima mid-sized sedan.
The first new model developed for the U.S. market under Carlos Ghosn since he took the reins at struggling Nissan Motor Co. in 1999, the Altima will be the clear volume leader for the Nissan line in America.
The Altima represents Ghosn's belief that good product can solve everything. Distressed about the moribund state of the current generation, Ghosn's product lieutenants ordered the dowdy sedan's life cycle shortened to just three years.
Despite the accelerated development, the new Altima appears to lack nothing when stacked up against the behemoths of the mid-sized import-sedan segment, the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.
A redesigned Camry debuts this fall, while the next Accord is due in the fall of 2002.
The 2002 Altima was intended from the outset to take on the competition rather than occupy the smaller 'tweener' niche of the original version. Compared with the old Altima, the new generation has 7 inches more wheelbase, almost 6 inches more overall length, 2 inches more height, 1 inch more width and nearly two more cubic feet of trunk space.
But the latest Altima is about more than imitation. Its new four-cylinder engine creates nearly as much horsepower and torque as the V-6s in the current Accord and Camry, while the optional 3.5-liter V-6 blows them away.
'The Altima meets unmet needs. It is the cure for the common sedan,' said Jack Collins, Nissan North America vice president of product planning and marketing, at the sedan's press introduction here.
The new Altima ditches the lozenge look of the old edition with a fast windshield, narrow greenhouse, sharply creased character lines and tall rear deck. Inside, the Altima's instrument panel has three pods, while the center console has the current de rigueur brushed-metal look.
Nissan has given even the base Altima standard variable intermittent wipers, 16-inch wheels, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, liquid-filled engine mounts, front and rear stabilizer bars and a gated shifter on the automatic transmission version. Air conditioning, though, is optional. Although the Altima shares a platform with the next Maxima, Nissan engineers also fought to give the Altima a better rear suspension than the current Maxima's beam-axle suspension. The Altima's new rear independent multi-link suspension is borrowed from the Japan-market Skyline sports sedan.
'This goes beyond what people expected of us,' Collins said. 'Altima puts us in the fat part of the market and allows us to move Maxima further upmarket.'
What about Maxima?
Nissan believes that its successful pairing of the Xterra and Pathfinder sport-utilities can be replicated with Altima and Maxima. However, while Xterra was clearly the downmarket cousin riding on cheaper hardware, the differences between Altima and Maxima are less distinct.
The new Altima will be bigger than the current Maxima and have nearly the same level of content. Collins understands the challenges present in such a scenario but insists Nissan can move the Maxima upmarket without it becoming a full-size barge like the Toyota Avalon.
The current Altima's small size and lack of V-6 forced Nissan to move Maxima downmarket to generate sales, Collins said.
In the future, the emphasis will move away from the base Maxima model and toward the sporty SE and luxurious GLE models. To avoid too much overlap at the high end of the Altima range, Nissan predicts only 20 percent of Altima sales will be with the 3.5-liter V-6 engine shared with Maxima.
Maxima sales may fall
Just the same, Nissan forecasts that sales of its Maxima flagship - and perhaps its best brand icon - will fall to the 80,000-unit range from its long-standing level of around 130,000 units. Altima, meanwhile, is expected to leap from last year's moribund 136,971 units to around 190,000 sales.
That would leapfrog the Altima past its best sales mark of 163,090 in 1994.
Altima model line manager Wayne Adair called the upcoming marketing blitz 'one of Nissan's largest launches ever.'
Although Adair declined to give specifics of how the car would be advertised, making Altima seem more spirited than the competition appears to be a major thrust of the advertising plan.
Altima demographics will shift significantly, Adair said. While the current Altima buyer is predominantly female and married, he predicts the new buyer crop will have more male and more unmarried buyers.
The Altima will go on sale Sept. 13. It will be built in Smyrna, Tenn. Pricing will be announced closer to launch, although one executive said it will be 'surprisingly competitive' compared with Accord and Camry.