When your back is against the wall, playing it safe isn't an option. So Nissan decided to take the battle to Honda and Toyota in the mid-size market with a vehicle larger, more powerful, and sportier than either of its competitors would be comfortable building.
Masami Yagata: Call him "Dad"
"The Altima program started in 1997," says Masami Yagata, chief product specialist for the Maxima and Altima lines, "not long after I returned to Japan [from Nissan R&D in Farmington Hills, MI, where he headed the Quest minivan program] and took over the Maxima program. We needed a car that was unique and had spirit." For years, the U.S. arm pleaded for an Altima equal to the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry in size and power. What they got was an "in-between" design built to meet Japan's needs. U.S. buyers stayed away in droves.
Renault's purchase of Nissan changed all that. Carlos Ghosn took over Nissan and ruthlessly trimmed platforms, developing the remainder around multiple products and the needs of the main market. This meant the Altima, as the first vehicle out of the gate, would support the next-generation Maxima sedan and Quest minivan, and be developed around the needs of U.S. customers.
"Our goal with the Altima," says Yagata, "was to give the driver more." That means more interior room than the competition, more powerful engines (including a four almost as strong as their sixes), more equipment, and "more personality than our competition would feel comfortable with," he says with a smile.
"Our sales goal is 190,000 units, and—with a small investment in the plant–we could reach 250,000," he says. "Beyond that we'd have to make significant investments in tooling, we'd be chasing Accord and Camry, and the temptation to keep that sales level [about 400,000 units] gets so strong you start playing it safe." And playing it safe is something Nissan isn't about to do. One near-death experience is enough.
Till near-death do us part
Says Bill Kirrane, vice president and general manager, Nissan Division, Nissan North America, Inc., "We didn't want to build the same vehicle as everyone else. So we followed our own path, and created a vehicle that would be everything to some of the market, but not something for everyone." And getting there wasn't as difficult as you might think. According to Jack Collins, Nissan's vice president of Marketing and Product Planning in North America, "Nothing focuses your mind on the job at hand like a near-death experience, and ours shook us to the core. Saving your way out of trouble isn't possible. The only way out is to create vehicles people desire."
"And that meant we had to work quickly," says Yagata. "So the clay was finished in late 1998/early 1999–so many things were happening at once it's hard to remember the exact date–and all the while we had to make sure we didn't create any costly compromises that would harm Altima or its brothers." (Beyond the next generation Maxima and Quest, Altima may spawn a coupe, and provide the base for a number of other variants. Which makes Yagata's comment about Carlos Ghosn all the more pertinent: "He knows how to get his money's worth.")
The 2002 Altima may siphon sales from its Maxima brother (Nissan has lowered sales estimates for the entry-level 2002 Maxima by nearly 40,000 units, and shifted these buyers to the Altima 3.5 SE.), but it will allow Nissan to move the Maxima further upmarket and box the Toyota and Honda in with two distinct vehicles covering either end of the segment. Call it a variant of the successful Xterra/Pathfinder strategy that proved there was lots of life–and room–left in the SUV market.
The Altima shares its 3.5-liter V6, known internally as the "VQ35", with the Maxima and Infiniti I35. Based on the 3.0-liter VQ30, the new engine has microfinished crank journals and cam lobes, lightweight pistons coated with molybdenum, continuously variable valve timing control (CVTC), a drive-by-wire throttle, reinforced block, and silent chains driving the four overhead cams. It produces 240 hp at 5,800 rpm, and 246 lb-ft of torque at 4,400. The same engine is used in the 2002 Maxima, though it produces 20 more horsepower at the same redline in that application.
The base four-cylinder engine, the QR25, is shared with the Sentra. This gutsy dual overhead cam motor pumps out a healthy 180 hp at 6,000 rpm, and 181 lb-ft of torque at 4,000. This gives it 44 hp and 31 lb-ft more than the 2.2-liter four in the 2001 Toyota Camry, and 45 hp and 36 lb-ft more than the 2.3-liter engine in the 2001 Honda Accord. In fact, the output of Nissan's 2.5-liter inline four comes within 14 hp and 28 lb-ft of Toyota's V6, and 20 hp and 14-lb-ft of Honda's six-cylinder. Both the VQ35 and QR25 will be built in Decherd, TN. They will be joined by the V8 Nissan will use in its full-size pickup and SUV due in 2004.
Some automakers still see a market for manual transmissions. Nissan is one of them. Both the four and six mate to a five-speed manual gearbox. While borrowing the case and mainshaft from this transmission as the base for the Maxima's (and Sentra SE-R Spec V's) 6-speed manual, Nissan engineers took the time to optimize the tolerances of the donor unit. The result is a light, crisp gear-change, lower internal friction level, and greater build consistency. The only other option is an electronically controlled four-speed automatic shared with the Maxima. If you want traction control, you must be shiftless.
Body and Chassis
Altima will be the first vehicle built at Nissan's Smyrna, TN, plant to use a one-piece side ring. This keeps panel gaps within ±1.0 mm., and provides a rigid form around which the engineers could design a unibody with 70% greater torsional rigidity. Interior volume is up 10% over the 2001 car, yet weight is up only 70 lbs. on average.
The Altima has an aluminum hood and trunk lid, which contribute to the car's lightness. The 18-lb. hood has deep, faceted character lines to add rigidity, while the 12-lb. trunk lid has a broad, arching upper surface to perform the same task. Nissan says steel panels would have weighed 44 lbs. and 28 lbs., respectively.
A variant of the Nissan Skyline coupe's multi-link rear suspension is used on the Altima. This design separates the springs and dampers to reduce noise and friction, places the dampers at the wheel centerline, and is assembled off line and installed as a unit. It's 12% lighter than the strut-type unit it replaces.
An isolated cradle carries the front suspension, which boasts offset coil springs, several aluminum components, and transverse lower links. It is 8% (12.5 lbs.) lighter than the previous car's strut-type front suspension, and Nissan claims lateral forces acting on the suspension are 30% lower than before.
With the increased performance come better brakes. The Altima gets the same 11.0-in. front, and 10.9-in. rear discs as the Maxima, which necessitated a switch to 16-in. wheels from the previous model's 15 inchers. ABS is available as an option, as long as you also order the optional side airbags. It is a 4-channel unit that includes Electronic Brake force Distribution (EBD) to optimize brake force for the load condition, and Brake Assist. The latter gives maximum retardation when the brake pedal is hit quickly and/or hard.
The 2002 Altima has 103.2 ft3 of interior room, significantly more than the 2001 Toyota Camry (96.9 ft3), Honda Accord (101.7 ft3), and 2001 Altima (94.0 ft3), and greater than its supposed bigger brother, the Maxima (102.5ft3). The explosion in the light truck market also caused Nissan to raise the seat height by 1.5 in. to appeal to buyers moving out of those vehicles.
In what is quickly becoming a design signature for the company, the gauges are housed in a three-hole pod atop an instrument panel that arcs from the base of the windshield to an area just above the center console. This design gives a large surface area without mimicking the look or feel of an I-beam, places the HVAC and radio controls within easy reach, and imparts an open feeling to the front cabin.
The 2002 Altima is proof that the whole is often greater than the sum of the parts. Nissan finally has produced a mid-size sedan with the necessary size, heft, personality, and presence on the road. No one will mistake it for anything else, especially from the rear. And it will be interesting to see if it causes any ripples–or near-death experiences–in the design and engineering centers of competitor's around the world.