The spin from Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. since its now-legendary turnaround plan kicked in almost two years ago is that “good product” is going to save the automaker.

Sure, new management and parent company Renault SA may have something to do with its revival, as may global consolidation of plants, staff and platforms. But more than good business sense, Nissan declared that it would ride into its comeback on a fleet of reinvigorated cars and trucks.

With the all-new Altima, Nissan is putting its money where its mouth is. The Altima for years has been an unremarkable, secondary player in Nissan's sedan lineup. And who can blame Nissan for letting it founder? It's easy to see how the automaker could have regarded going head-to-head against competition the likes of the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord as a battle not even worth fighting.

But Nissan, enjoying its fiscal revival, experienced a bit of a philosophical turnaround as well. The automaker with the third-generation Altima decided it didn't need to impersonate the Camry or Accord. In freeing itself from that copycat mindset, Nissan has created a true contender in the midsize sedan segment. The vehicle aggressively goes after disgruntled sedan consumers who, unsatisfied with vanilla-bland import sedans, often defect to sport/utility vehicles in search of performance, style and roominess.

The Altima, completely restyled and re-engineered, is Nissan's most significant new entry for '02 a year that also brings a restyled Maxima, Frontier and Xterra, as well as a sporty SE-R version of the Sentra.

Like other new entries from Nissan and upscale sibling Infiniti, the Altima emphasizes power an emerging tenet of Nissan's new identity. For the first time, the traditionally 4-cyl. Altima comes with the option of a 240-hp DOHC 24-valve 3.5L V-6, part of Nissan's lauded VQ engine series. Also available is an all-new 180-hp 2.5L DOHC 16-valve 4-cyl., which produces 25 hp and 25 lb.-ft. (34 Nm) of torque more than the previous generation. Each engine can be matched with a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission.

Body and structural improvements account for an up to 170% increase in body rigidity over the last generation, and torsional rigidity has increased some 70% for smooth and certain handling.

The clean-sheet design also is sure to boost the Altima image, which has suffered through previous incarnations. Strong lines, a high waist and an eye-catching forward-motion stance create a dynamic appearance that tries to set it apart from its rivals.

The solid and stylish design continues in the vehicle's interior, which manages to be comfortable and roomy as well as maintaining a stylish countenance throughout.

The new Altima has gotten so good, however, that Nissan now has two very similar midsize sedans in jeopardy of eating into each other's sales. The size and power increase brings Altima close to Nissan's other midsize sedan, the Maxima. Not only do both sport a V-6, but the Altima has grown to a 110.2-in. wheelbase, up 7.1 in. from the previous generation and even larger than the Maxima's 108.3-ins. wheelbase. Both vehicles are 191.5 ins. long.

When the next all-new Maxima comes to the U.S., either as an '04 or '05, the two will be based off the same platform with both built at the Smyrna, TN, plant, where the Altima is now, insiders say. At this point, however, Nissan will further differentiate the Maxima as a performance sedan. Already, the automaker is taking the Maxima in that direction with its '02 facelift.

For now, the Maxima gets an engine upgrade, to a 3.5L DOHC 24-valve V-6, which at 260-hp produces 38 hp more than the 3L V-6 it replaces. It also comes with the option of a close-ratio 6-speed manual transmission with an optional torque-sensitive helical limited-slip differential for increased traction and performance. The front grille and fascia also are redesigned and the suspension retuned, and Nissan now is offering more luxury features.

Despite the similarities between Altima and Maxima, Nissan insists that two entries in the midsize sedan segment will not prove to be redundant, with officials often comparing the two to the Pathfinder and Xterra similar SUVs with unique nuances.

Nissan acknowledges that Maxima sales will decrease as Altima's increase, with Maxima's falling to 80,000 (from 129,000 in '00) as Altima sales rise to 190,000 (from 137,000 in '00). But executives insist that the two strong products will draw new consumers to the brand.

Whether or not the consumers will be able to detect the subtleties that differentiate the two sedans remains to be seen. But if consumers can spot a decent product or two, then Nissan may be onto something.

2002 Nissan Altima

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 5-passenger 4-door sedan
Engine: 2.5L DOHC I-4; 3.5L DOHC V-6
Power (SAE net): 180 hp @ 6,000 rpm; 240 hp @ 5,800 rpm
Torque: 181 lb.-ft. (245.4 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm; 246 lb.-ft. (333.5 Nm) @ 4,400 rpm
Compression ratio: 9.5:1; 10.3:1
Bore × Stroke (mm): 89×100 mm; 95.5×81.4 mm
Transmission: 4-speed automatic/5-speed manual
Wheelbase: 110.2 ins. (279.9 cm)
Overall length: 191.5 ins. (486.4 cm)
Overall width: 70.4 ins. (178.8 cm)
Overall height: 57.9 ins. (147.1 cm)/16 in. wheels; 57.8 in. (146.8 cm)/17 in. wheels
Curb weight (auto): 2,998 lbs.-3,244 lbs. (1360.5 kg-1472.1 kg)
Market competition: Toyota Camry, Honda Accord