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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Col Lingus
Col Lingus
1 month ago

Wow. It’s been 60 years since we were at Wall Drug.

But based on the Governor’s go to plan for disposing of unwanted animals, and pets, it will likely be another 60 years before we return…

Frank Wrench
Frank Wrench
1 month ago

I picked the Rio, agreeing with Mark’s line of thinking that a small wagon is always better than a small sedan. And how much worse could the Rio really be compared to the 92 Escort wagon 5 speed I used to own?

GreatFallsGreen
GreatFallsGreen
1 month ago

The cats made me think about a showdown between the Altima and that cow print Neon from a few months ago. My choice would still be Altima.

EastbayLoc
EastbayLoc
1 month ago

I was just trying to remember which car that was.

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
1 month ago

This generation is Peak Altima, before it got better looking but much, much worse underneath. I think it was too expensive of a build to make them money, like the MkV Golf.
And after picking my neighbor up from her broken-down Kia just two days ago- I heard the engine try to run but with all the metal-on-metal noise I’m thinking it dropped a valve- I won’t be buying or recommending Kias or Hyundais anytime soon.

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
1 month ago

I know the Kia is a sucky driver, but sedans are useless and the Altima badge is the Mark of Cain.

Pneumatic Tool
Pneumatic Tool
1 month ago

I’ll take the Altima from the era when Nissan was still Nissan.

Boxing Pistons
Boxing Pistons
1 month ago

Altima for me! Newer clutch is a huge plus! Also, my college girlfriend had an Altima of this generation. It was totally blah but felt well-assembled and was fine to drive.

MY LEG!
MY LEG!
1 month ago

Altima is an easy win. if things go wrong you can walk away, if things go ok you have it forever (or at least another 50-100K miles).

Cal67
Cal67
1 month ago

I wanted to choose the wagon, but Nissan>Kia and saving $500 swung it to the sedan.

Max Headbolts
Max Headbolts
1 month ago

I’m down for the Altima, then me and my cat can roadtrip to Walldrug!

Lewis26
Lewis26
1 month ago
Reply to  Max Headbolts

Walldrug was immensely disappointing and very confusing as to why it was supposed to be such an attraction.

My wife and I were there for about 20 minutes on the way back to Sioux Falls, and were just like “well, that was weird…”

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
1 month ago

I expected to vote for the Kia, but the Altima has maintenance records, will be easier to find parts for, and while Kia has really gotten their shit together, that Kia is from before that really happened. So, while I don’t hate the Kia, the cheaper Altima is the better choice here.

Also cats!

Chris Moore
Chris Moore
1 month ago

Voted Altima…simply the better car. Easy to mod if you want…or engine swap in a better Nissan engine. Handles better, plus all the things.

Also haven’t been to Wall Drug in maybe 25 years now. That bumper sticker brings back memories, a lifetime ago!

Mrbrown89
Mrbrown89
1 month ago

That Altima was the best car we ever had in our family. 1999 Nissan Altima GLE brown exterior with tan leather. Its still around where my parents live, the paint is fading but other than that, all good.

This one has a lot of cats, nothing related to emissions 😛

IRegertNothing, Esq.
IRegertNothing, Esq.
1 month ago

The Altima will be more fun to drive, and it comes from the Long Long Before when Nissan still knew how to build cars. Outside of their halo cars, vehicles like this Altima and the contemporary Maxima were Nissan’s high point. It all went downhill from here.

That’s right kids. There was a time when seeing a Nissan badge next to you in traffic didn’t immediately make you go into red alert mode like Captain Kirk. You didn’t instinctually check your blind spots for an escape route or start moving your foot towards the brake.

10001010
10001010
1 month ago

I’m really not an Altima kinda guy but that cat headliner wins it for me.

FloridaNative
FloridaNative
1 month ago

2nd gen Altima was a solid car, especially in manual. A family member had one from new that I drove from time to time. I was all set to vote for newer wagon, though, until your “glowing” review of it.

Rad Barchetta
Rad Barchetta
1 month ago

I wouldn’t wish a Kia of that era on my worst enemy.

I’m getting Big Altima Energy on this one. Doesn’t hurt that I’ve recently decided cats can be ok as pets. That headliner is just stupid enough to be ok, too.

PlugInPA
PlugInPA
1 month ago
Reply to  Rad Barchetta

I’m enjoying having a cat far more than I expected to when my wife and daughters campaigned to me about the one at a stray-cat-sympathizer relative’s house that snuggled them. I’m never going to be a pets-are-people person and I’m revolted by that whole aspect of our culture, but the thing is funny and friendly, and I do like it.

Rad Barchetta
Rad Barchetta
1 month ago
Reply to  PlugInPA

Always been a dog person myself. My wife campaigned for a cat for many months until she finally hit me with “you’ve got that damn British car. I want a cat”. She won. Now we have two cats and I’m campaigning for a second British car. Also, I like the cats and she still hates the car.

Last edited 1 month ago by Rad Barchetta
PlugInPA
PlugInPA
1 month ago

That cat headliner made me snort. And it looks smooth with solid workmanship! Major internet points to (I’m guessing) the 17-year-old girl that installed it.

Rad Barchetta
Rad Barchetta
1 month ago
Reply to  PlugInPA

Here’s a photo I found of that 17 year old girl. (not porn, I swear)
https://www.lifewithcats.tv/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/johnrollo2.jpg

Outofstep
Outofstep
1 month ago
Reply to  Rad Barchetta

Damn, she’s buff! Also can confirm it isn’t porn (thank god or else I would’ve had a conversation with HR in short order)

Icouldntfindaclevername
Icouldntfindaclevername
1 month ago

I’m allergic to cats!

Cal67
Cal67
1 month ago

I am too, but if they are on a raw diet I have no issues.

V10omous
V10omous
1 month ago

I do know the second movie or book in a trilogy is usually the low point, with two notable exceptions

Agree with both of yours but:

Godfather 2?

Terminator 2?

MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
1 month ago
Reply to  Mark Tucker

Ahem. Lethal Weapon 2.

I will also second V10omous’ submission of GF 2. Slightly better than 1 (both are awesome!) and infinitely better than GF 3. Thank God Sofia Coppola found her true calling behind the camera.

Boxing Pistons
Boxing Pistons
1 month ago
Reply to  V10omous

Agree! Empire was great, too.

Last edited 1 month ago by Boxing Pistons
TOSSABL
TOSSABL
1 month ago

I’m a big fan of wagons, but this time, saving 500 internet bux plus the cat headliner won out.

—though I kinda wonder how stressful having all those tessellated kitties staring down at you would be

Last edited 1 month ago by TOSSABL
Angrycat Meowmeow
Angrycat Meowmeow
1 month ago

I was already sold on the Altima as this gen lacks Big Altima Energy, looks pretty good, has a stick, and isn’t a 2004 Kia…but then you had to throw in the cat headliner? Easily one of the best mods I’ve ever seen. I no longer desire big turbos and bumping subs, I just want a tessellated cat headliner. Take your fancy suedes and Alcantaras and GTFO. Irresistible. I’m sold.

Alexk98
Alexk98
1 month ago

The super high end carmakers DO say that they’ll build you whatever you want with enough money, and now I’m imagining a Rolls Royce Phantom with this headliner, but every cat on it has glowing starlight eyes. Probably a good thing I’m not wealthy.

Angrycat Meowmeow
Angrycat Meowmeow
1 month ago
Reply to  Alexk98

Brilliant.

MEK
MEK
1 month ago

I’m in for the tiny, deathtrap Kia. It’s a wagon with a stick (accepted that it’s a crappy one but still…) and probably will pull over 35mpg pretty easy.

But mostly I just don’t think I could ever admit to anyone that I owned an Altima, the king of Buy-Here, Pay-Here lots all over America. I know that it’s mostly a product of the 3rd gen car but still, Altimas and douchebags go together like Corvettes and New Balance sneakers.

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
1 month ago

Props to the Nissan’s caretakers, but I’m going to see that headliner pattern in my nightmares.

We’ll take the Kia; it’s a tidy little wagon, and doesn’t appear to need much more than a good interior detail. Plus, it’s fun to say “KIA RIO CINCO” in a Robin Leach accent.

Alexk98
Alexk98
1 month ago

If you’re going to be in a beater, have fun with it, no better place to start than a cat print headliner! Also that altima is from the era when Nissan still cared, so I’d trust that over a Kia from the “we don’t talk about Hyuindai/Kia quality” era

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
1 month ago
Reply to  Alexk98

I was thinking the same thing about the Altima’s year – I came across one from the mid-2000s this weekend, and jeeze what an atrocious design, esp. that rear end. Worst. Taillights. Ever.

Cal67
Cal67
1 month ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

Can’t see the tail-lights when you’re driving, so unless you have some compunction about inflicting them on the people behind you in traffic it shouldn’t affect your choice. 😉

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