What I'm Driving At: Big Shorty & Sport Biggie

Only in the auto business do the freshest blooms appear the fall. Although formally unveiled for public viewing last spring, Nissan's refurbished Altima and Volvo's spruced-up S70 are '98s that only began reaching showrooms in significant numbers at summer's end. Even more importantly, both of these models are giving their respective manufacturers a welcome shot in the arm. Indeed, despite a generally sluggish October for U.S. auto sales, Nissan's Altima launched upward 29.5 percent last month, compared to a year ago. Volvo's combined October numbers are up 9.7 percent for the month; the Swede's figures are not itemized by model, but since deliveries of the S70 are only just hitting full stride, this model is earning the lion's share of the credit. Neither car is spectacularly new. They both represent, however, shrewd updates of automotive formulas that have already won popular followings. Nissan Altima GLEHeretofore an affordable mass-commuter model in the crowded midsize category, the Smyrna-made Altima decided to spiff itself up for its second-generation makeover. Fortunately, the stratagem hasn't boosted price -- in fact, quite the opposite. In terms of similar equipment comparisons, certain new Altima models are actually less expensive than last year's versions: The best-selling, mid-level GXE model with auto transmission, for example, now stickers at $17,990 compared to $19,498 in '97. The car tested for this column was a top-of-the-line GLE, which bundles virtually every conceivable option into the standard equipment list -- except floor mats ($79) and ABS brakes ($499). Go figure. There's no ignoring the Altima's new look. In much the manner of last year's Infiniti Q45, the Altima affects a bit more stately pose. The car's wheelbase is the same as before, but height and width are larger and thereby afford slightly more interior space. The signature design element is the car's blunted hindquarters. Criticized as too abbreviated by some, the slightly angular deck lid and rear quarter panels actually succeed in giving the new Altima a posh personality that its predecessor's jelly-bean motif didn't have. While sizing up the new Altima, in fact, enthusiasts will recall the classic "Kamm tail" aerodynamic profile made famous by race car designers of the '60s. Driving the new Altima, you'd never guess it's ranked a compact car. It feels roomier yet lighter than, say, Ford's arch-rival Contour. Handling isn't quite as sophisticated as the more sport-oriented Ford, but Nissan's fully independent coil-spring suspension soaks up bumps with comfortable aplomb.The Altima weighs right at 3,000 lbs., so its 150 horsepower is ample if not generous. The car is at least capable of a 9-second zero-to-60, which is about par for the category. More significant for the daily driver, however, is the pairing of motor and transmission. The four-speed auto shifts smartly without jarring -- even better, it displays none of the annoying "hunt-and-peck" schizophrenia that plagues less decisive gearboxes. The Altima's powertrain delivers a solid throttle response, whether accelerating from a standing stop or making a passing move at 60 mph.The only real penalty drivers will pay for the Altima's overall sprightliness is noise. Since its debut in '93, the Altima has consistently drawn complaints for interior noise, and a full-frontal, 37-point action plan to cure the condition in '98 is tacit acknowledgment of the problem. If the car feels light, it also sounds like a lightweight, so that road noise -- especially from the rear wheel wells -- is still significant. After a time, it actually becomes a sort of soothing white-noise background; only in the rain does the idea come to mind of 33 BBs jangling around inside a tin can. Come to think of it, though, people pay good money at The Nature Company for those South American rain sticks that sound just the same.Volvo S70 GLTIt's not rain but snow that comes to mind whenever the subject of Volvo arises. Perhaps it's the near-permanent peril of snow and ice on Swedish mountain roads, or maybe it's the cradle-to-grave fosterage of Swedish socialism -- either way, Volvo's reputation for safety and soundness supersedes nearly every other remarkable quality of its cars. At the company's '98 new-model introduction in Santa Barbara, Calif., however, the stylish new S70 reveled instead in the fun and sun. A scion of the venerable 850 sedan, the S70 features a new exterior design that has been reworked rather than redrawn. The result, appropriately enough, is svelte. The silhouette looks leaner, lankier, more low-down than before. Sportiness supplants the old staid, cautious demeanor. Hardly ostentatious, the S70 nevertheless manages a look of intrigue where once there was only respectability. Not that the car's legendary safety engineering is in any wise diminished. The trademark "three box" architecture of the body still protects occupants within a rigid framework surrounded by "deformable" crush zones front and rear. Standard front-passenger side airbags now supplement the frontal bags and "pyrotechnically actuated" front seat-belt tensioners. Three-point seat belts and padded headrests are supplied for all five passengers -- even the one sitting in the middle of the anti-submerging rear bench seat.The design accomplishment with the new S70, however, has been to relegate the car's "good-for-you" ethos to the aesthetic background. Thanks to low-pressure turbocharging and a five-cylinder layout, Volvo's S70 GLT makes 190 torquey horsepower with the same 2.4-liter displacement that Nissan's Altima needs to make 150 HP. This Volvo sedan doesn't exactly fly (although the upmarket T5 model with 236 turbo-HP comes close), but it does sprint zero-to-60 in 7.2 seconds -- quite respectable for a 3,754-lb. curb weight. City/highway mileage for the GLT rates 19/27 miles per gallon, respectively.Driving feel is hard-edged, European-style. The Volvo is athletic, taut, and secure -- not uncomfortable, mind you, but there's no wasted motion either. The S70 corners relatively flat for a sedan, and despite the crisp precision of its maneuvers, seating is so ergonomic that occupants are nestled rather than tossed when the driver elects to "wick it up" a bit. A certain illogic seems to govern the placement of some controls like the power-lock switch and the power-mirror adjuster. Layouts of instrumentation and switchgear are otherwise straightforward in a conscientiously unobtrusive way.The S70 is a big, roomy Euro-sedan -- moderately affordable at $35,480 for its upscale station in life. It's a legitimately sporty car that dares to be safe; more's the pity some image-conscious aficionados won't give this safe bet its sporting chance.

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