Home » Ugly Sticks, Round 2: 2003 Hyundai Sonata vs 2004 Nissan Altima

Ugly Sticks, Round 2: 2003 Hyundai Sonata vs 2004 Nissan Altima

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Good morning! On today’s Shitbox Showdown, we’re following David Tracy’s excellent used car shopping advice and looking at a couple of “ugly sticks“: cars that you wouldn’t look twice at with an automatic, but which become palatable (if still not exactly desirable) when equipped with a manual.

You all weren’t shy about expressing your distaste for Friday’s projects, that’s for sure. But let’s see how the voting turned out:

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Yeah, I think that’s the way to go. I see where the builder was trying to go with the fake Bugatti, but it’s just not right. The wood-bodied Beetle is at least an original design, and pretty far along, and I still think the wood is meant to be used as a mold for fiberglass, which would let you re-make body panels as needed. Or even sell kits!

OK, fine. If those were too far out for you, perhaps you’ll feel more at home with a pair of nice safe four-door sedans. I’ve recently accepted a new day job, and while it’s going to be a huge positive step otherwise, my commute distance is going to more than double. I fear my poor little $500 Corolla is going to get used up in short order. I’m not in a position to replace it now, but I’m keeping an eye on what’s out there. These two strike me as the sort of car I should be looking for: a little newer, a little nicer, but still economical, and still manual. Let’s take a peek at them.

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2003 Hyundai Sonata – $2,495

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.4 liter DOHC inline 4, 5 speed manual, FWD

Location: Tacoma, WA

Odometer reading: 146,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yep

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Hyundai’s styling and design department has hit a couple home runs recently, but it’s important to remember that they got where they are by hitting dribbly little grounders that snuck by the second baseman. This fourth-generation Sonata was just about the Korean carmaker’s most adventurous design to date. The result is… not a pretty car, even if you try to take artsy shots of it from across the street, as this dealer apparently has done.

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Pretty or not, Hyundai’s reliability and build quality were much improved from the bad old Excel days. It’s still no Camry, but this generation Sonata seems to enjoy a fairly good reputation. Manuals appear to be really rare in these: I only found one review in my quick search that mentioned a manual. The 2.4 liter inline four is still a Mitsubishi design; it has a timing belt and is an interference engine, so a timing belt change should be the first order of business unless they have a receipt saying it was changed yesterday.

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This Sonata looks all right otherwise, with some missing clearcoat and mismatched trim on the outside, but no big damage. Inside it looks fine as well, though I do want to know what that aftermarket gauge is, and why they feel it’s necessary. The upholstery looks like it has held up well, and while it’s not as fun as the fabric in some older Hyundais, which looked like they were covered in confetti or maybe donut sprinkles, it does have an interesting herringbone pattern to it.

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Overall, this car looks like it would be fine transportation for a couple years, but not offer many thrills along the way. But hey, at least it’s not beige. Or an automatic.

2004 Nissan Altima – $2,400

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.5 liter DOHC V6, 5 speed manual, FWD

Location: Kent, WA

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Odometer reading: 187,000 miles

Runs/drives? Just fine

Come on; you knew we had to get around to a third-generation Nissan Altima eventually. Few inexpensive cars are more maligned, not because of what they are, but because of how they get treated. A value when new, with better than average performance and durability, Nissan’s Altima sedan has become a fixture of buy-here-pay-here used car lots, and can be commonly seen on American freeways with deeply tinted windows and minor body damage, passing on the right at 80 mph on a donut spare.

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But it wasn’t always like that. The Altima launched to great fanfare and critical acclaim in 1993, and was praised for its civilized road manners and good performance. Nissan highlighted its smoothness and build quality by copying Lexus’s “wine glass” and “ball bearing” advertisements. But the second generation Altima was utterly forgettable (go ahead; just try to picture what one looks like) and the third gained a reputation as a cheap horsepower machine.

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Well, that reputation isn’t wrong, especially not here: this Altima is powered by Nissan’s VQ35DE dual-overhead-cam V6, cranking out a whopping 245 horsepower and 246 lb-ft of torque, almost unheard-of in this size and class of car in its day. And this one sends its power to the front wheels through a rare five-speed manual. This car will get down the road just fine, thank you.

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It looks like it’s in OK shape, with a few dings and dents but nothing major. The seller says it runs and drives fine, but they just got it in a trade and don’t know its history. Good thing they have a reputation for toughness. Unfortunately, you’d have to be seen driving a third-generation Altima.

Knowing how to drive a stick is increasingly like having a superpower, and it’s still a great way to save money, by opening up possibilities that aren’t available to those who can’t or won’t.  Either one of these cars would be more expensive with an automatic, especially in today’s wacky used car market, and driving them with automatics would be like watching paint dry. So, manual lovers: I know they’re not really the cream of the crop, but which one ya got?

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(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

 

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Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
1 year ago

The Altima comes in a cooler color combo and has leather and a sunroof, but that V6 is difficult to work on.

The Sonata is a 4-cylinder version that’s easier to service 🙂

Drad
Drad
1 year ago

I’d not normally pick a Nissan, I hate Nissan, Nissan are over-hyped garbage. But on this occassion that sweet sweet leather interior and the V6 punt it over the line, that Sonata is just too ugly and too basic.

STEPHEN WALTER GOSSIN
STEPHEN WALTER GOSSIN
1 year ago

I think this is the same engine that’s in my ’03 Stratus Coupe. If I recall correctly, Hyundai, Mitsu and Chrysler were each in on using that mill.

Going on Year 7 of daily driving it without any engine concerns/issues whatsoever. I’m officially a fan.

https://www.theautopian.com/how-i-got-six-years-of-service-out-of-a-220-car/

XLEJim700
XLEJim700
1 year ago

Me? I’ll take that little Korean bulldog and row them revs high as I plow thru the wasteland of Staten Island and downtown Manhattan.

Of course I no longer live there, but this is all I see when I look at this car. Park it on the street while I visit my old pals at the world’s greatest taverns strewn throughout TriBeca and Soho? Yep, and it’ll be there when I get back–ready to cut and thrust between potholes, proud manhole covers, and tilted sewer grates. Maybe not something Mad Max would drive, but I sure would.

Eddie Aftandilian
Eddie Aftandilian
1 year ago

I had an ‘02 Altima with the V6 and a five speed. It was kind of hilarious to drive — too little traction and too much torque steer. Not a bad car, just not very refined.

StillPlaysWithCars
StillPlaysWithCars
1 year ago

Altima for me please. This is from a good place in Nissan history where they were putting out decent products. Sure they’re maybe cheap interior aspects but for $2,500, ef it.

Unrelated to my decision, on of my college buddies had a Sonata of this vintage. He left a bag of gummy bears on the passenger seat which proceeded to melt and turned into an interesting goop on the upholstery. He never could get it clean.

BrakShowStarringBrak
BrakShowStarringBrak
1 year ago

Were they carved by gummy artisans working exclusively in the medium of gummy?

Donald Petersen
Donald Petersen
1 year ago

Once again, I find myself with two choices that are both pretty awful to me, but this time it’s easy to pick the 245hp red one over the crappy 4-banger that’s the color of sleep-drool.

Citrus
Citrus
1 year ago

If you get the Hyundai you have the same taillights as a Noble M400. That has to mean something, right?*

*It didn’t mean anything.

SirRaoulDuke
SirRaoulDuke
1 year ago

Cheap power, all day long.

Neil Borucki
Neil Borucki
1 year ago

BAE is always the answer!

Big Altima Energy!

These cars do like 280mph!

Cal67
Cal67
1 year ago

I always thought those Sonatas were a poor attempt to rip off Jaguar styling themes. The Altima I find a bit bland, not ugly. I voted Altima but in reality I would stay in the family and buy a G35x/G37x. Around here you can get them in the same price range. The all-wheel drive with the rear bias and the traction control is great for traction in the winter. (Note the Infiniti below is an automatic)

https://www.autotrader.ca/a/infiniti/g/burlington/ontario/19_12379065_/?showcpo=ShowCpo&ncse=no&orup=2_3_3&pc=N1R%205B6&sprx=100&modalXS=1

https://www.autotrader.ca/a/nissan/altima/mississauga/ontario/5_56265624_on20080206114327226/?showcpo=ShowCpo&ncse=no&orup=1_2_2&pc=N1R%205B6&sprx=100

Mr. Fusion
Mr. Fusion
1 year ago
Reply to  Cal67

It’s funny seeing the comments in here regarding the Altima’s reputation, when there is not one single Infiniti G35/7 owner in my entire city who isn’t a complete chode.

GreatFallsGreen
GreatFallsGreen
1 year ago

Hyundai offered the V6 with a stick too in this gen which is at least interesting, although at this time, the 2.7L V6 they offered had less horsepower than even Nissan’s 2.5L I4 (to the point about cheap horsepower). C&D did a comparo when these were new that was supposed to be all-manual family sedans, but the Sonata V6 they got was an auto. The Altima was a V6/5MT but tied midpack with…the Subaru Legacy L.

Nissan quality was spotty at this point but the I4 was a bit more problematic than the V6. They still look good, though. A similar 3.5SE started parking at my building recently and it still looks good even with some of the design cues being very of-the-era.

IRegertNothing, Esq.
IRegertNothing, Esq.
1 year ago

I voted for an Altima. May god have mercy on my soul.

Donald Petersen
Donald Petersen
1 year ago

Perhaps that username needs to change. Nah, but seriously, something out there had to be worse than an Altima. Why not a 4-banger Hyundai?

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
1 year ago

I have referred your name to Satan over at opposite-lock.com…

Fruit Snack
Fruit Snack
1 year ago

One wonders how much life is left in either car, they have been wrung out for a lot of miles. Having owned a Nissan VQ with 140 grand before.. something is about to blow up. On the other hand, that Sonata is still worse.

Alexander Moore
Alexander Moore
1 year ago
Reply to  Fruit Snack

Sonata will probably be dead reliable, though. Those Korean cars from 2000-2009 (pre-Theta) were pretty damn unbreakable (if ugly) since they were relatively old-fashioned using tried and true Mitsubishi tech. The Theta was when they went to GDI and a whole bevy of other issues cropped up from their perhaps undertested new engine production lines.

Redfoxiii
Redfoxiii
1 year ago

Altima. I’m sure I can find an obnoxiously loud exhaust to share the horribleness with everyone.

James Mitchell
James Mitchell
1 year ago

If it’s just which car is going to be more fun, then the Altima is an easy win. But if we’re talking about dailying it? Gee… that’s pretty tough. I had a 2002 Pathfinder and while it never stranded me, I ran out of patience with Nissan BS pretty quickly. The answer for daily is probably ‘1999 Toyota Camry CE 4Cyl 4Drs 5 Speed Shift Manual Tranny Runs Drives Great!!! – $2,099 (Seattle)’, and I have to wonder if you were saving that one.

Mr.Asa
Mr.Asa
1 year ago

I’m gonna go with the most obnoxious exhaust note currently on the market, the VQ35 in the Altima

Mr. Fusion
Mr. Fusion
1 year ago
Reply to  Mr.Asa

This x10, but at least it’s tolerable with the stock exhaust. It mainly becomes a problem with aftermarket exhausts installed by people who, for some reason, actually *want* to hear that engine?

Parsko
Parsko
1 year ago

Never Nissan.

StillPlaysWithCars
StillPlaysWithCars
1 year ago
Reply to  Parsko

Why? This was actually from a generation where Nissan was still putting out quality products that batted well above their price point. Everyone loves to hate on Nissan but in the ‘90s and early ‘00s they were putting out some really decent vehicles.

Mr. Fusion
Mr. Fusion
1 year ago

People bagging on Nissans of this era (*especially* the Altima) clearly don’t remember what the competition was like.

Alexander Moore
Alexander Moore
1 year ago

What? Are we seeing the same Altima? sure, in the ’90s Nissans were still those Japanese marvels that were engineered to an even crazier standard than Toyota, but by the mid-2000s Ghosn had taken control at bankrupt Nissan and his cost-cutting made sure just about every post-2002 Nissan sucked ass and was unreliable. Head gasket failures, oil consumption, the weird trait of ingesting its own catalytic converter, it was all on the table. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nissan_Altima#Mechanical_issues
Maybe less so with the 3.5 VQ, but the 2.5 QR had a miserable reputation in this generation of Altima. My former roommate and her family had one absolutely fall apart without too much prodding, replaced by a sewing-machine smooth 2004 Civic.

Jon Myers
Jon Myers
1 year ago

As long as you don’t ever have to commute in traffic, a manual transmission is great. I got rid of our manual transmission cars after getting tired of dealing with stop and go commute traffic and the constant shifting and clutch work. 3mph to 15mph, shift 1-2, slowing again, shift back to 1st, stopped, clutch in…. over and over and over again.

Angry Bob
Angry Bob
1 year ago

245HP in an Altima?! I had no idea! I would drive that! (With deeply tinted windows so nobody saw me in it.)

Is that a typo? Didn’t you mean 145hp?

JDE
JDE
1 year ago
Reply to  Angry Bob

nope, they were basically fancy Maxima’s before the CVT and Middle eastern leader debacle.

Lhn91
Lhn91
1 year ago

My brother in law had a 2006 Altima with the 4 cylinder, and later a 2009 with the 3.5. the 2006 he thoroughly abused, not through aggression but through neglect, and it ran and ran and ran. And it was genuinely nice to drive. The 2009 was great until the CVT grenaded, but the 3.5 was still fine and the one today has a manual. And around here it’s only the last couple of years that this generation Altima got a bad rap, so I’d be fine driving one.

Boxing Pistons
Boxing Pistons
1 year ago

The quality manager at the factory I worked at a few years back drove the wheels off one of these Sonatas. His kid was getting rid of it, but wasn’t going to get anything for it by trading it in, so he made it his commuter. It was super rough with virtually no clear-coat left, but was it ever a runner! It was still going with well over 200k on it when he retired and finally bought himself something nice. I still voted Altima, though. That VQ/manual combo is hard to resist and it could be a decent looking car again if one were so inclined. I thought they were decent looking cars when new, and legitimately quick with that motor.

ExAutoJourno
ExAutoJourno
1 year ago

At least both have manual transmissions….

Altima wins, as far as I’m concerned. Not because I like it, but the V6 should, theoretically, make it less dreadful than the Sonata.

V10omous
V10omous
1 year ago

6>4 and sometimes it doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.

For $2500, one can’t be too choosy about the social reputation of ones vehicular choices.

Boxing Pistons
Boxing Pistons
1 year ago
Reply to  V10omous

solid, simple logic.

Man With A Reliable Jeep
Man With A Reliable Jeep
1 year ago

Altima. The FDSC dream can be yours, on the cheap!

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