(first posted 7/12/2016) The 1990s were not good times for the Japanese economy, so much so that it is referred to as “The Lost Decade” in retrospect. How this translated to Japan’s auto industry was that cars developed during this period were by and large less sophisticated in their design and engineering, making use of either existing or cheaper components to keep costs down, and featuring blander styling in order to broaden their appeal. As the smallest of Japan’s Big Three automakers, these effects were felt harder by none other than Nissan, and glaringly evident in cars such as this 1999 Altima.
The original Altima debuted in 1992 as a 1993 model, replacing the aging Stanza as Nissan’s sub-Maxima sedan. Throwing away the Stanza’s very angular, economy-car styling for elegant, graceful curves, the first generation Altima in many ways looked like a junior Infiniti J30; an understandable observation as both vehicles were designed at Nissan’s California design studio under Doug Wilson.
The first generation (1993-1997) Altima was a successful model in its own right, selling some 700,000 units over its five-year production and becoming Nissan’s best-selling car. Introduced amidst a very rocky period which Nissan was suffering record losses in the billions, the Altima was a key vehicle in restoring the automaker to profitability by 1997.
The original Altima drew praise for its high level of fit-and-finish and many available options including head-up display. Yet compared to its main rivals, the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, the Nissan Altima was an also-ran. Noticeably smaller in size and lacking an available V6 engine, the “premium” Altima was further hindered by the fact that it was priced right in line with these chief rivals. As a result, sales were significantly less by as much as several hundred thousand units annually.
Within Nissan’s lineup, the Altima’s size and price disparity was not unique. Unlike Honda and Toyota, which featured somewhat more clearly-defined compact (Civic-Corolla) and mid-sized sedans (Accord-Camry), Nissan was in an a more unusual predicament. While its “mid-sized” Altima was placed squarely between the Civic-Corolla and Accord-Camry in size, it was priced like the larger duo.
Meanwhile, the Maxima, which was sized almost exactly like the Accord and Camry, was priced higher due to its somewhat more premium aspirations, something confused even further by the introduction of the rebadged Infiniti I30 in 1995. Only the smaller fourth generation Sentra that was released for 1995 was directly in line with the Civic and Corolla in terms of size and price.
Despite the Altima’s shortcomings, ongoing financial troubles gave the Nissan no choice but to proceed with a conservative update of the original, as opposed to the from-scratch redesign that the Altima really needed in order to succeed, an update it would have to wait for until its third generation.
Sharing the original’s basic shape, sheetmetal was in fact all new, though in most opinions not for the better. Trading the previous generation’s sensual curves for a slightly more upright styling, the second generation Altima double downed on dull looks for the ultimate appliance appearance. Quite honestly, the 1998 Altima could very take the prize as the most forgettable design of the 1990s.
Underneath, the Altima rode on an unchanged 103.1-inch wheelbase. In light of this, engineers stiffened the platform by some 20-percent, allowing for a wider track. Although width was up by 2 inches and overall length by 3, both passenger and cargo volumes were unchanged at 94 cubic feet and 14 cubic feet, respectably. Predictably, these measurements, as well as hip-, leg- and shoulder-room were all less than that of the Accord and Camry, both of which had grown further in size for the 1998 and 1997 model years, respectively.
Powertrain was unchanged from before, in the form of a 2.4L inline-4 mated to either a 4-speed automatic or 5-speed manual. With dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder, this engine made 150 horsepower (155 for 2000-2001) and 154 lb-ft torque, and was capable of getting the stick-shift Altima from zero to sixty in about 8.5 seconds.
Suspension was also largely unchanged from the previous generation Altima. As with its predecessor, 1998 Altimas featured a four-wheel independent suspension with front and rear anti-roll bars, power rack-and-pinion steering, and standard front disc/rear drum brakes. Four-wheel disc anti-lock brakes were available.
Like the exterior, the second generation Altima’s interior could best be described as dumbed down. Forgoing its predecessor’s elegant, Infiniti looks for a more economy car appearance, the new Altima’s interior was a mishmash of shapes and angles (much like the exterior) and plastics that were noticeably cheaper looking.
As with before, Nissan continued putting faux woodgrain trim in even the base XE trim, something competitors typically reserved for only their highest trim levels. Although now instead of a tasteful horizontal strip spanning the whole width of the dash, woodgrain was considerably tackier in the form of a single piece of molded plastic surrounding the center stack.
On the plus side, the 1998 Altima represented a higher value than its predecessor, with base prices for most trims starting at around $1,000 less than 1997. A top-of-the-line Altima GLE with plush leather seats and door panels, 8-way power adjustable driver’s seat, remote keyless entry, and CD player was priced under $20,000.
Contemporary reviews were mixed. The more positive ones complemented the car’s quietness, nimble handling, and its peppy four-cylinder engine. They also applauded overall value and evolutionary approach when it came to retaining the previous Altima’s appealing virtues that made it a hit with buyers.
Alternatively, the more negative ones predictably called out the Altima along these same lines for its failure to offer anything new or noteworthy over the outgoing generation. Criticism was also dealt to the Altima for its lackluster exterior styling and retrograde interior.
In the end, “mixed” is just what the second generation Nissan Altima was. It was a car that retained many of its predecessor’s positive qualities, yet one that failed to build or improve upon any of its glaring shortcomings. Trading the first generation Altima’s elegant design for ultra-anonymous style inside and out, the second generation Altima got lost in an ever-growing sea of competition.
Sales held on at steady levels, right around the previous generation’s average of 150,000 units annually, a respectable number, but one less impressive considering the Accord and Camry each were selling over 375,000 units annually during this period. It should also be noted that Nissan was selling almost as many of the larger and more expensive Maxima during these years as the Altima.
Lasting only four years, the second generation Altima’s failure to improve and impress was not in vain, as thanks to steadier cash flow, Nissan would role out a much more competitive third generation Altima for the 2002 model year. Built on an entirely-new platform, the 2002 Altima was a major visual improvement inside and out, offering clean and contemporary styling, while exhibiting a greater degree of athleticism both in appearance and performance.
More importantly, the third generation Altima finally boasted truly mid-sized dimensions and an available V6 that was among the most powerful in its class. Now truly competitive for the first time in its history, Altima sales immediately shot up, and have remained at high levels ever since. In fact, at 333,398 units, the Altima was the third-best selling midsize sedan in America in 2015, behind only the Accord and Camry. As for this second generation Altima, numerous examples still can be seen still on the roads, if one should care to actually take notice of its extremely anonymous appearance.