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Our review model was the Altima SE, which comes with 16 inch wheels and a special "Super Toe" suspension. This made the ride stiffer than with most Altimas, though increased the car's ability to take the curves.
The Altima's only engine is pleasant and quick, though putting on the air conditioner saps much of its strength. While the engine puts out 155 hp, the car weighs about 3,000 pounds, which makes it harder to accelerate quickly. Thus, the Altima ends up being a tad slower than the Neon. Oddly, it is roughly the same size inside. The trunk is one cubic foot larger.
Wind noise became pronounced at higher speeds, but the engine was quiet and nicely tuned.
The climate control system and stereo were easy to operate, even with gloves on. It was easy to operate the clutch, though we sometimes moved the shifter a little too far and ended up trying to go into second rather than fourth. The cruise control may be hard to use for people with shorter fingers.
Inside, the Altima seems to be about as roomy as the current generation Neon. There are a few more luxury touches, but overall the Neon feels as comfortable.
The window override button makes it impossible for the driver to operate anyone else's window, a strange touch. Like first generation Neons, the Altima does not let you unlock all the doors by turning the key in the lock, even though it has power locks.
The instrument panel was nicely designed, and backlit at night (unlike, say, that of the 300M).
We appreciated the variety of places to put coins, cash, and such. Cup holders had hinged covers. The handles for operating the 20/30 folding rear seat were easy to find and use. The trunk was large for a car of this size.
Handling was very good, thanks to interesting suspension technologies, but we were generally disappointed by the overall effect. The Neon has good handling without sacrificing comfort, and the Intrepid, which is in the same price range, offers much more space with good enough handling and acceleration. For those who need to go all out, there is the Impreza 2.5 RS (four doors) or Camaro (two doors). There is, of course, also the cheaper base Altimas, which have a smoother ride. For those who want handling without frills, you can get an Altima SE for about $19,100 - the price of an Impreza 2.5 RS, nearly the price of a base Intrepid. ABS, a sunroof, side airbags, leather, and floor mats pushed the price of our test car to $22,135 (including floor mats and destination charge), which is nearly the cost of an Impala LS with a 3.8 V6. Admittedly, the Altima can outhandle the Impala any day of the week.
For those who want handling, acceleration, and comfort in the ratio which the Altima offers, it is a very suitable car. We cannot ignore the innovations Nissan has made in handling.
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