PEBBLE BEACH, CA – The Altima has become critically important to Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.’s continued success in the U.S. market.

Until the third-generation Altima went on sale in 2001, Nissan’s midsize sedan was an also-ran in a segment dominated by the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, never selling more than 150,000 units annually.

This year, the Altima is the seventh best-selling car in the U.S., according to Ward’s data, with sales of 154,909 units through August.

The new ’07 Altima, with a revamped VQ-series 3.5L DOHC V-6 – a 12-time Ward’s 10 Best Engines winner – is a good car made even better.

Styling was the previous-generation Altima’s strong suit, and that hasn’t changed drastically with the new model. Slight modifications include a more steeply raked windshield and smaller gaps between the fenders and wheels.

Plus, Nissan shortened the wheelbase nearly an inch, from 110.2 ins. (279.9 cm) to 109.3 ins. (277.6 cm). Overall length also is down by 2.5 ins. (6.4 cm) compared with the outgoing model.

Downsizing gives the sedan a sleeker, sexier look, much akin to the upscale Infiniti G35.

Nissan says the shrunken dimensions are meant to appease female owners who prefer a smaller body size, and because engineers told planners they couldn’t achieve the desired performance and emissions targets with the upgraded powertrains and transmissions on the old wheelbase.

Incidentally, Nissan boasts the 4-cyl. Altima has the youngest buyers and the highest number of women buyers in the segment.

Like the model it replaces, the new Altima’s height is 57.9 ins. (147.1 cm), although front and rear headroom are down slightly (0.2 ins. [0.5 cm] and 0.8 ins. [2.0 cm], respectively). Passengers also give up 1.7 ins. (4.3 cm) of front legroom.

But behind the wheel, this loss of space is not noticeable, and rear passengers will appreciate the extra 3.1 ins. (7.9 cm) gained. At 39.5 ins. (100.3 cm), Nissan says the Altima has more rear legroom than the Camry and Accord.

Nissan’s decision to reduce mass while most of its competitors add it was a good one, as the road-carving characteristics of the car have not been sacrificed.

Product planner Pete Haidos admits one of the chief gripes about the outgoing Altima was the abundance of V-6 torque steer for this 250-hp, front-wheel-drive car.

With Altima’s new D platform, Nissan says it nearly eliminated that by lowering the engine and placing the halfshafts more parallel to the ground, with the same side-to-side angle.

Nissan also tweaked the Altima’s rear suspension by employing an aluminum (vs. steel) rear radius rod and lower link in an effort to emphasize “nimbleness.”

This improved handling was immediately apparent – and appreciated – in an Altima mule prototype driven in late March and in near-production models driven here in August.

With the revised VQ V-6 now pumping out 270 hp, freeway-ramp acceleration is effortless, and the Altima at times feels like it floats on air.

Torque is improved as well, up from 249 lb.-ft. (338 Nm) at 4,400 rpm for the current V-6 to 258 lb.-ft. (350 Nm) at 4,400 rpm for the revised ’07 variant.

The modified VQ also benefits from twin induction, vs. a single intake runner on the previous engine, and one serpentine timing belt vs. two to cut down on maintenance. Diamond-like carbon is applied to the valve lifters to reduce friction.

The Altima V-6’s output is second in the segment only to Volkswagen AG’s 3.6L DOHC V-6 in the Passat, rated at 280 hp.

Buyers who use the moderately priced Altima as a grocery getter may not appreciate its impressive punch. The continuously variable transmission, which replaces the current 5-speed automatic, thankfully does not emasculate the engine.

The CVT also helps boost fuel economy with the V-6 to 22 mpg (10.7 L/100 km) city and 28 mpg (8.4 L/100 km) highway, a 4% gain over the current model.

Standing in the shadow of the V-6 – undeservedly so – is the Altima’s QR series 2.5L 4-cyl. At times during the test drive of the revised 4-cyl., it was easy to mistake it for the V-6 due to its smooth performance and crisp throttle response.

2007 Nissan Altima 3.5 SL
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 5-passenger 4-door sedan
Engine 3.5L (3,456 cc) DOHC V-6, aluminum block/aluminum heads
Power (SAE net) 270 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 258 lb.-ft. (350 Nm)
@ 4,000 rpm
Compression ratio 10.3:1
Bore x stroke (mm) 95.5 x 81.4
Transmission Continuously variable, lockup torque converter
Wheelbase 109.3 ins. (278 cm)
Overall length 189.8 ins. (482 cm)
Overall width 70.7 ins. (180 cm)
Overall height 57.9 ins. (147 cm)
Curb weight 3,426 lbs. (1,555 kg)
EPA fuel economy, city/highway (mpg) 22/28
Market competition Chevrolet Malibu, Chrysler Sebring, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Saturn Aura, Toyota Camry

With a lower compression ratio (9.5:1 vs. 9.6:1 in the outgoing Altima), larger intake manifold and a dual-mode muffler, Nissan says 20% of the QR 2.5L has been modified, representing this engine architecture’s first major revision.

Horsepower and torque, respectively, remain 175 and 180 lb.-ft. (244 Nm) at 3,900 rpm, numbers that outdo some V-6s. Mated to a CVT, the I-4 also has best-in-class fuel economy of 26 mpg (9.0 L/100 km) city and 34 mpg (6.9 L/100 km) highway, Nissan says.

A 6-speed manual transmission, not driven here, is available with either engine.

Nissan has worked hard recently to inject higher levels of quality into its oft-criticized interiors, even doing a mid-cycle fix on the Altima cabin two years ago.

Although the new model boasts a knit-fabric headliner and soft-touch surfaces, the design scheme is somewhat stark, with a large, unadorned black swath on the passenger-side instrument panel.

However, audio and climate control buttons and knobs are well positioned. On models with available dual-zone climate control, the digital temperature readout is located cleverly within the knobs.

And, water drinkers rejoice: Nissan has carved out space in the console for bottle caps.

Nissan will offer six grades of the Altima in S, SE and SL trim, including the hybrid-electric variant, set to go on sale this winter.

Some notable options for the ’07 Altima include Bluetooth hands-free phone capability; a Bose 264-watt, 9-speaker audio system (personal music player-accommodating auxiliary jacks are available on all audio systems, Nissan says); a navigation system with real-time traffic (a first for a non-luxury model, the company boasts); and rearview camera. There are seven option packages in all.

Altima pricing will be announced closer to its November on-sale date. The outgoing model, with V-6 power and a 5-speed manual, is priced at $23,600.