NEW YORK – Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. CEO Carlos Ghosn takes the wraps off the all-new Nissan Altima sedan today at the New York International Automobile Show here.

The new ’07 Altima goes on sale in the U.S. in the fall. A hybrid-electric vehicle version, Nissan’s first HEV, is set to debut in winter 2007, a slight delay from the original late 2006 launch.

Nissan previously has told Ward's sales of the Altima HEV will be limited to geographic region, due to stricter emissions regulations in the Northeastern U.S. and California.

The Altima, lauded for its stylish appearance and sporty handling, is Nissan’s best-selling vehicle in the U.S.

The current-generation Altima led the brand’s resurgence in the first half of the decade, with sales of 255,371 units in 2005, compared with annual sales of 100,000-140,000 units in the late 1990s.

The Altima last year was the fifth best-selling passenger car in the U.S., behind the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Toyota Corolla/Matrix and Honda Civic, according to Ward's data. Altima is the sixth best-selling passenger car this year to date.

While Nissan admits it could have rested on its laurels and just tweaked the vehicle’s appearance, the auto maker is well aware that competitors are closing in.

“Those powertrains in the current-generation Altima, the platform itself, were strong enough to carry over,” Pete Haidos, director-product planning for Altima, says at a preview of the vehicle for select media in Ann Arbor, MI, last month.

“We could re-skin that car and come to market with it, and it would have been successful. But we were so serious about protecting our hard-fought position for best dynamic performance in the class that we completely updated the platform.”

Haidos specifically mentions a possible threat to Altima’s performance leadership from the new Honda Accord, due next year, noting the Civic is proof of Honda Motor Co. Ltd.’s new aggressiveness.

With that in mind, Nissan has moved the Altima to a new “D” platform, from the current generation’s “FF-F.”

Haidos says the new platform allows Nissan to place the engine 1.2 ins. (3.0 cm) lower in the engine compartment, improve body rigidity via a new brace between the frame rail and hood ledge and have half shafts that are of equal angle and more parallel to the ground.

He says the suspension changes have “virtually eliminated the torque steer,” a common complaint of the current-generation Altima.

The wheelbase now is 1 in. (2.5 cm) shorter at 109.2 ins. (277 cm), which Haidos says was a necessary change to maintain the car’s performance characteristics, especially in lieu of the weight that safety systems now add to vehicles.

“The engineers said, ‘If you want best-in-class (leadership) for powertrain performance and chassis performance, you’ve got to let us make the wheelbase a little bit shorter. That’s the best way for us to keep the weight down and the body rigidity up,’” Haidos says.

The shorter wheelbase provides for a better turning ratio, and no interior space was sacrificed. He estimates there was a “fractional reduction in trunk space” for the new Altima.

In the rear, Nissan has added rebound springs in the shock absorbers to control roll speed and roll angle in cornering maneuvers.

The Altima retains its two engines, a 2.5L 4-cyl. and 3.5L V-6, but both are updated.

Haidos says the V-6 “VQ” engine, which has been on Ward's 10 Best Engines list for 12 consecutive years, received its third major update, with changes focusing on friction reduction and better acceleration.

The 4-cyl. saw its first major overhaul, with new exhaust manifolds and camshaft, as well as a new shape for the combustion chamber.

New for ’07, the Altima receives its first continuously variable transmission. Nissan is pushing the technology in order to increase fuel economy in its vehicle lineup. The auto maker already has installed a CVT in the Murano cross/utility vehicle and will offer a CVT version in the upcoming Versa subcompact.

The Altima, which is built at Nissan’s Smyrna, TN, and Canton, MS, plants, will receive its CVT from supplier Jatco Ltd.’s Mexican plant.

The CVT is similar to the Murano’s except for a new controller with adaptive logic that processes gear-ratio changes 50% faster and downshifts automatically in aggressive driving situations. It can be mated to both of the Altima engines, Haidos says.

Also new for the Altima is a speed-sensitive power-steering system that Haidos says was needed to provide light steering at low speeds and firmer steering at high speeds.

Inside the car, Haidos says the difference between the current Altima and the ’07 model is “night and day,” as Nissan moves to a powder-slush-molded instrument panel vs. the former vacuum-molded IP.

Armrests now are padded, and lids, knobs and other controls have what Haidos calls a better “operating quality.”

He says when the ’07 Altima was shown to a consumer clinic in Dallas last year, it received the best clinic results Nissan has ever had. However, previous Altima owners complained that a “feeling of personal reward” was missing from the car, Haidos says.

For this reason, Nissan is offering a keyless entry system with push-button start, for which it expects high penetration rates; covered storage compartments and nine cupholders.

A 9-speaker Bose audio system is optional, as well as a Bluetooth Hands-Free Phone System and dual-zone air conditioning.

The March sneak peak of the New York show car, as well as a test drive of two mule prototypes – a 4-cyl. and V-6 model – were pleasing. Altima’s styling is sleeker in its new iteration, as the car loses some of its bulk in the front and rear ends.

While little is changed in the rear, up front the new sedan is reminiscent of Nissan’s luxury Infiniti G35 sports sedan, with Altima’s trademark honeycomb grille replaced by a narrower grille with thin horizontal bars.

In profile, the Altima is reminiscent of the Lexus GS, especially at the back end, as both have a short trunk area.

Interior styling is equally sleek, with some materials having higher quality than those in the new Toyota Camry, specifically the headliner fabric.

In short test-drives, both models mated to CVTs revealed little difference in acceleration and handling. Indeed, the smaller four performed like the larger six. In manual mode, the CVT downshifted quickly and smoothly, as promised.

The ’07 Altima was sprightly in both straight-line driving and on curves, giving it a leg up on the ’07 Camry, which, with the exception of the sporty SE trim, felt heavy and sluggish at times during a Ward's test-drive last fall.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com