Home » Just Your Basic Little Beaters: 1998 Nissan Altima vs 2004 Kia Rio Cinco

Just Your Basic Little Beaters: 1998 Nissan Altima vs 2004 Kia Rio Cinco

Sbsd 4 29 2024
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Good morning! Today we’re keeping it simple, and taking a look at two cheap little stickshift cars that would make ideal “spare” cars, just something simple and reliable to have around when you need it. Teach your kid (or your neighbor’s kid) how to drive a manual with them. Drive them into the shady parts of town without worry. Change the oil whenever you feel like it. Who cares? They’re cheap.

Now, before I go any further, I have a quick programming note: Tomorrow, I leave on the first of three cross-country drives to move to Maryland. I’ll be driving my old Forest Service truck and towing my MG on a U-Haul trailer. My plan is to keep writing, and choose local cars from wherever I stop for the night – call it “Shitboxes Across America” – but if I suddenly go dark and you see someone else’s byline appear here, you’ll know it’s not going well. And if you see a big green pickup towing a little yellow sports car, both wearing Autopian stickers, wave hello.

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On Friday, we had a four-way shootout with a twist: I asked you to pick a pair of cars. The clear winner, and obvious choice, was the most expensive pairing: the big maroon Caddy and the little green Kia Soul. For once, I agree with the majority. See? I’m not contrarian all the time.

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Now then: Since I’m still in Portland, both of today’s choices are as well. They’re nothing special, but they’re affordable, manual, and honest-feeling. Let’s see which one you think is the better deal.

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1998 Nissan Altima GXE – $1,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.4 liter overhead cam inline 4, five-speed manual, FWD

Location: Portland, OR

Odometer reading: 158,000 miles

Operational status: Runs and drives great

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Being the middle child isn’t easy, or so I’ve heard. I’m the older of two myself, so I don’t really have any first-hand knowledge. I do know the second movie or book in a trilogy is usually the low point, with two notable exceptions. When it comes to the Nissan Altima, a lot of people forget the second generation existed at all. The first Altima was a lively, sporty little sedan everyone seemed to love, and the third began the Altima’s reputation as the choice of deadbeat dads everywhere. The second was just a “Really? That’s not a Mazda? Huh” sort of car.

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This second-gen Altima is a somewhat uncommon five-speed manual. It’s powered by a 2.4 liter four that was in the 155 horsepower range, no slouch in its day, and plenty powerful to keep up with traffic today. The seller says this one has been all over the west, including two trips to Denver and back, and never missed a beat. It got a new clutch about 30,000 miles ago and has new struts. The seller also has maintenance records from previous owners, which is always a good sign.

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It’s hard to get a really good idea from the photos, but it looks pretty clean overall. The paint is weatherbeaten, but I don’t see any signs of rust or damage. The Wall Drug sticker is a nice touch. Man, I haven’t been there in about twenty years now.

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Inside, it looks all right as well, though a previous owner replaced the headliner with sort of a weird tessellated cat pattern:

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It could be worse, I suppose. At least it isn’t falling down.

2004 Kia Rio Cinco – $2,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.6-liter dual overhead cam inline 4, five-speed manual, FWD

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Location: Vancouver, WA

Odometer reading: 170,000 miles

Operational status: Runs and drives great

The first-generation Kia Rio has the distinction of being the most disappointing new car I have ever personally test-driven. It was a Cinco model like this, but a couple of years earlier. The engine made more noise than power, the brakes were frighteningly weak, and I swear the shift linkage was made from a Fruit Roll-Up. My opinion may have been colored, I admit, by the fact that I drove a third-generation Mazda Protege an hour earlier, which I ultimately bought. Had I driven the Kia first, it might have felt fine, or at least acceptable.

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Regardless of my opinion, someone must have liked this one enough to put 170,000 miles on the odometer. It runs great, the seller says and gets about thirty miles to the gallon. The Rio’s engine was upgraded a bit in 2003, from 1.5 to 1.6 liters, adding a few horsepower and a bit more torque, which has to be an improvement. I doubt, however, that Kia did anything to improve the rubbery gearshift feel.

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When you consider that this was just about the cheapest new car you could get in 2004, the interior has held up remarkably well over the past twenty years. The steering wheel rim is discolored, but the seats look all right, and I don’t see anything obviously broken.

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It does look like a really useful little wagon, which is why I test-drove one in the first place. Small cars like this should all be hatchbacks or wagons; I never understood the practice of selling so many tiny cars as four-door sedans. They look ungainly, and they lose a ton of versatility, for no reason.

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So there they are, just a couple of little runabouts, nothing special, but they’ll get the job done. You’ve got the Nissan with lower miles, but with cats on the ceiling, and the Kia wagon, which is a little more expensive, but it is a wagon. Which one would you buy?

(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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Jatco Xtronic CVT
Jatco Xtronic CVT
9 days ago

That Altima may be a good car, but it is lacking the most efficient, refined, smooth, and sophisticated transmission that allows for perfect power delivery, the CVT. Even better, the Jatco Xtronic CVT requires zero maintenance, with its lifetime fluid, unlike an archaic manual transmission.

Alec Harvey
Alec Harvey
22 days ago

KA24DE will last forever, Altima for me

PaysOutAllNight
PaysOutAllNight
22 days ago

Is it safe to stare at the headliner while driving down the highway?

SirRaoulDuke
SirRaoulDuke
22 days ago

It depends….are you on acid?

Argentine Utop
Argentine Utop
22 days ago

Well, the Altima will always land on its feet, so there’s that (I can’t believe nobody made that silly pun before me).

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
22 days ago

I’m sorry I like a wagon but more miles and poorer performance doesn’t translate into more money. As for the cats I couldn’t swear that my 3 cars are free from this artistic bent.

Greensoul
Greensoul
22 days ago

If only the KIA could’ve had the cat headliner. Would have made it the ultimate cheap pussy wagon

Last edited 22 days ago by Greensoul
Andy Individual
Andy Individual
22 days ago

I can’t believe I’m going for the Altima. The beige tragedy. Is there a word for that? Beigedy? Taupedy? Oh, right, Toyota beige.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
22 days ago

Well if we recognize it as just Asian we can call it Beigeing (Beijing)

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
22 days ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

No, no no. If we’re going to fork on this then maybe Hertzedy, or Avisedy. I got it Budgetedy! I’m gonna call Pantone right now and get that registered.

*I deliberately left out Alamo to keep this safe for work. You’re welcome.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
22 days ago

Sorry mine is better. Maybe two toned beige and redcall ot taupon.

JDE
JDE
22 days ago

Altima for the win, we all know the fate of most of them due to inability to be killed by conventional means. The manual trans being the main reason it survived the vortex suck of the Buy Here Pay Here lots. The Wagon is actually a lot more handsome than I expected out of this era Hyundai, but it also is a really small displacement in a biggish car from an era when Hyundai reliability had not really taken off yet.

FuzzyPlushroom
FuzzyPlushroom
22 days ago

I like small wagons, but the Altima’s simply a much better car, and it’s cheaper. I dig that headliner, too.

FuzzyPlushroom
FuzzyPlushroom
22 days ago
Reply to  FuzzyPlushroom

Oh, I meant to mention that someone who worked at my high school had one of these Altimas. She was from Texas, and her Nissan was named “Ricardo the Altima”. I don’t recall it doing wrong by her, whereas even then (~15 years ago, when these early Rios should’ve been common used cars) I didn’t see many Cincos about, unfortunately.

Baja_Engineer
Baja_Engineer
22 days ago

Altima as it’s got a fairly recent clutch and a friend from college owned one of these and also got the clutch replaced at about 150K miles so there’s several hundreds I don’t need to pay for in the foreseeable future.
They’re also roomy and well built, just before Nissan merged with the French.
And the KA24DE will outlast most Kia made engines from the now and then so that would be my vote

Freelivin2713
Freelivin2713
22 days ago

The Altima by default since the other one is a Kia. Obviously, now the Altima has the typical stereotypes, but I did like some of their 90’s cars like the Maxima- I know someone who had one of those and it was great. I used to have a 2002 Sentra but didn’t like it besides the 5-spd stick especially w/ it going through fuel pumps and window switches like candy which it’s known for (I replaced 1 of each during about a year and a half of ownership- only got it since I got I got a deal on it through someone I knew) I’m not much for Nissan besides certain ones like the Skyline GT-R and the Pao, of course!
I do the the Wall Drug sticker since I used to have one that said “Where the hell is Wall Drug?” On my ol’ 84 Jetta when I had it and drove back and forth across the country 2 years ago. Have been there 2 times and you just have to stop, what w/ all the billboards for free water! There’s so much cool tourist trap stuff to see, it’s a fun experience, and the history is interesting. Also, The Corn Palace, Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, Badlands, Black Hills, Sturgis, etc.
Good luck on your move Mark! I’m still surprised you’re moving there. I love the whole “Shitboxes Across America” theme.
Also, the other sequel that was better than the 1st was Terminator 2. The 1st time I watched that I was blown away. Love the “You Could Be Mine” video/collaboration. The 1st is amazing, but T2 was fantastic.

Last edited 22 days ago by Freelivin2713
Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
22 days ago

Kia Rio Cinco, just for the name. Sounds like an old B western. So, for today, make this Cinco de Mine-o.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
22 days ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

An old Egg Roll Western not to be confused with a spaghetti Western?

Dottie
Dottie
22 days ago

Cat headliner? Shut up and take my money

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
22 days ago
Reply to  Dottie

Toke, chill
Another toke, chill
Another toke, contemplate the morning sun
Another toke, recline and take it all in baby…

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
22 days ago

I like the Kia Rio Cinco more than I should, so that’s what I voted for.

Cyko9
Cyko9
22 days ago

I’m skeptical of the Kia’s longevity, and the cat headliner actually gives the Altima some character. Be a great manual learner!

Dolsh
Dolsh
22 days ago

Now there’s a trip down memory lane… I had a 99 Altima exactly like this one – picked it up as a lease return. It was only about 18 months old, and was pretty cheap. Not this cheap, but cheap for 2000. Same colour, same trim, same everything. I should have kept it. The only issue I had was the window regulator… but that’s a Nissan thing they’ve never gotten right. It’s other problem was that it was also boring, so I traded it in for a Pathfinder. That was also quite dependable, but really expensive to fuel (and this was at a time when gas was 1/3 of what it is now).

So yeah… nostalgia says pick the Nissan. (Though family had that Kia at the time too… and had to drive around with a lemon painted on the side window to get the dealer to fix its many problems, so I’d stay away from it)

Rad Barchetta
Rad Barchetta
22 days ago
Reply to  Dolsh

Same colour, same trim, same everything.

Yours had a cat headliner, too? Was that a factory option? How cool!

Dolsh
Dolsh
22 days ago
Reply to  Rad Barchetta

Heh… I was missing that little detail. The headliner did fall down early though…

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
22 days ago

I’m gonna go for the Rio even though I know it’s worse to drive than the Altima. I like the wagon practicality.

Though when I say it’s worse, it’s not dreadful. Also the Rio was loosely based on the early 1990s Mazda 323/Protege and the engines are basically 1990s Mazda designs. .

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