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Nissan didn't change much on its Altima sedan for 1994, but you wouldn't expect much tinkering on a marque that was all new last year. The changes they did make were welcome and badly-needed up-grades.

For '94, the Altima has shed those annoying, motorized front seat belts in favor of three-point active belts with adjustable shoulder anchors.That change was made possible by the addition of a passenger's side airbag for '94, which brings this year's Altima up to the current standard in safety gear.

This is helping to boost sales for a car that has already been dubbed a hit.

Considering that the Altima entered the most crowded and competitive segment of the market in 1993 - the compact segment where such sharks as Honda Accord, Ford Taurus and Toyota Camry have long cruised at the top of the food chain - its sales figures are solid platinum.

Last year, Nissan sold 134,000 Altimas, nearly twice as many as it sold Stanzas, the car it replaced, in 1992. It is currently selling 12,000 to 15,000 Altimas per month, compared to 8,000 Stanzas in that marque's best year, 1990.

Total Nissan sales last year were up nearly 100,000 units over 1993, pushing Nissan into second place for imports - behind Toyota and knocking Honda from the No. 2 spot - and much of that increase is attributed to Altima sales.

"We've had 20 consecutive months of year-over-year sales increases and we're up 26 percent in '94 over last year," said Nissan spokesman Jim Gill. "True, some of increase is due to increased Pathfinder and Quest sales but it's clear the Altima is a unqualified hit."

Interestingly, the Altima has scored in the market not by reinventing the wheel - there is nothing revolutionary about it - but by simply offering a good, solid compact car that does everything well and is priced competitively from a low of $14,000 for the "value oriented" (but seldom sold) XE model to the fully-loaded GLE for just over $20,000. In between are the sportier SE and the most popular model, the GXE.

That's the car I've been driving this past week: a "Vail White" GXE with automatic transmission and a base price of $15,979. An option package which included air conditioning, AM/FM cassette stereo, power antenna and cruise control added $1,200. California emissions and destination charges put the bottom line at $17,709.

Other luxury items that came standard on the car were power windows and outside mirrors, a digital clock, dual cupholders and console storage, a rear-seat armrest with pass through to the trunk, and tilt steering wheel.

You may recall that Nissan has been marketing the Altima as "The Affordable Luxury Sedan" - a slogan that has been phenomenally successful. Somehow, the idea of getting something for nothing - a luxury car for a plain vanilla price - has hit home with buyers.

The slogan seems to be even more successful than Nissan's "Four Door Luxury Car" ad line that it formerly used for its Maxima sedan, Nissan's top-of-the-line car (if you don't include the upscale Infiniti line, marketed separately from the other Nissan products.)

The styling of the Altima is also part of the appeal. From the rear, it looks like none of its competitors, or even like any other car, with the exception of its luxury sibling, the Infiniti J30, which costs nearly twice as much.

The styling was created at Nissan Design International in San Diego (and built in Smyrna, Tenn.; so much for being a "foreign" car). Last year, it won the Design Excellence award of International Design magazine.

Inside, the only cues that might lead one to believe this is a luxury car, affordable or otherwise, are the chrome door handles and locks and the real oak trim on the instrument panel - a touch usually reserved for the likes of Jaguar, Cadillac, Lexus and BMW.

Consider it a touch of marketing genius on Nissan's part that it found a way to impart a lot of status while spending only a little extra.

That any car company would label one of its models a luxury car when it is powered by only a four-cylinder engine is another bit of marketing chutzpah that Nissan has pulled off. All Altimas, from the XE up through the GXE, SE and GLE (are you keeping all these initials straight?) are propelled by a 2.4 liter, dual overhead cam, 16-valve, 150 horsepower four-banger.

I can hear some of you proclaiming you wouldn't dream of paying 20 grand for a four-cylinder car, but if you take one for a spin you might change your mind. I was certainly impressed with the torque and acceleration of this power plant. The first time I drove it I was convinced that Nissan had slipped a six-cylinder engine under the hood.

It turned out to be just the four, but it's a good one. Car and Driver magazine reported 0-60 mph comes up in just 8 seconds, faster than a lot of V6-powered cars and even more impressive for a four-door sedan weighing nearly 3,000 pounds.

As an added incentive, the EPA rates the Altima at a frugal 30/24 mpg when equipped with the manual 5-speed transmission and 29/21 with the electronically controlled four-speed automatic with overdrive.

The Altima's handling is very good, aided by four-wheel independent suspension and something called "Super Toe Control" rear suspension. The passenger compartment seems well isolated from road imperfections and noise levels are quite low as should be in a "luxury car." Anti-lock brakes are optional.

Chalk it up as a fun car to drive but with all the utility of a sedan. Not a bad combination.