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What would Donald D. Winnicott drive? Although the English psychoanalyst shuffled off this mortal coil in 1971 — a year when gas-guzzling dinosaurs roamed the earth and the Bandit had yet to be smokied — one wonders if the originator of the "good enough mother" would have opted for a "good enough car." You know, a set of wheels that provides what the driver needs, but leaves a time lag between the driver's demands and their satisfaction, and then progressively increases the gap. A car not entirely unlike the outgoing Nissan Altima SE.

Before exploring the nuances of this concept, I wish to state for the record that there is nothing wrong with the Nissan Altima. Criticizing this car is a bit like telling a customer in a diner that they'd be happier with a scoop of Ben and Jerry's Phish Food on top of their apple pie instead of boring old vanilla. Like most of the vehicles at the top of the American sales chart, virtually every automotive vice both real and imagined has been ruthlessly engineered out of existence. The Altima is safe, comfortable and frugal. It handles well, stops just fine and doesn't fall over in the corners. It's not ugly. It's not expensive. It doesn't break. But is it good enough?

Obviously, the question begs another: for what? A child can't choose its mother; so whether or not Mummy Dearest is "good enough" is — at least for the child — a moot point. By the same token, if someone gave me a Nissan Altima SE, which they did for a week, I'd drive it without spending a lot of time wishing I was in something else. This is not what PR flacks call a "ringing endorsement," but it certainly suggests a commendable (if minimum) level of contentment. It's only when you kick it up a notch, increasing your demands on the Nissan's dynamic abilities, that a satisfaction gap appears.

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The only major chink in the Altima's otherwise impregnable armor surrounds the fact that it's a front-wheel drive car with a 250hp 3.5-liter V6 nestling in its nose. If you baby the Altima's progress pedal, all is well. She accelerates with class-leading brio, accompanied by an engine note that almost turns a persistent whine into a pleasant snarl. If, however, you shout at the Altima to get-a-friggin'-move-on, she spins her wheels and loses directional stability. While the natural tendency is to blame the victim — what business do you have asking mommy to drag race? — this athletic machine has clearly outgrown its genetics. It needs a rear-wheel drive makeover.


The Altima's ride quality is a logical corollary to the front-wheel scrabbling. Take it easy and the SE's top drawer underpinnings — independent sub-frame mounted struts (front) and multi-link (rear) — deliver an entirely acceptable level of ride quality. Up the pace and it begins to feel a bit harsh, crashy and, well, cheap. Our test car's optional V-rated tires certainly didn't help matters, but I reckon Nissan decided that SE drivers should sacrifice ride comfort for safety and control. And we all know that Mommy knows best.

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The funny thing about the "good enough" car is that it's always getting better. Each time we get a new Nissan Altima, our expectations are raised and fulfilled, raised and fulfilled. I fully expect the new-for-'06 '07 Altima (due out this summer) will replace its industrial grade plastics and relatively poor fitment with better polymers, oil-dampened action and skin-tight closures. I assume the Altima's engine will grow even smoother, with more torque and aural refinement. The advance photography assures us of a more dignified demeanor and authoritative stance. I'm sure it will be good enough — until it's time for the next one.

In that sense, Nissan's constant and predictable Altima refreshes violate Winnicott's basic principle: a good enough mother gradually increases the gap between desire and fulfillment. In that sense, the domestics are really the good enough cars, and Nissan and Co. are, well, great. [by Robert Farago]

New York Wrap-Up: Nissan's New Altima [internal]