The Nissan Altima line includes sedans and coupes and a gas/electric hybrid. Altima represents a sporty alternative to mid-size stalwarts like the Ford Fusion, Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.
Noteworthy changes for 2009 start with a substantial upgrade in standard equipment and a wider range of paint color choices. Most models add automatic door locks, and the Altima Coupe adds an 18-inch wheel option with larger tires. For 2009, the coupe has a glossy, painted grille. The Altima sedan launched as a 2007 model. The Altima Coupe and the Hybrid were introduced for the 2008 model year.
The Altima is a driver's car among work-a-day mid-size sedans and coupes. For drivers who appreciate sharp handling, the Altima excels. It connects with its driver and inspires confidence. It's steady and predictable in fairly extreme situations. Its suspension is firm compared to some competitors, but the Altima's ride isn't harsh.
The standard four-cylinder engine is one of the strongest in the class, but it still affords good fuel economy. The standard 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine is rated 175 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque (170 and 175, respectively, in California).
The upgrade V6, closely related to the engine in Nissan's 370Z sports car, delivers exciting performance to those who seek it. The 3.5-liter V6 is rated at 270 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque.
The gas-electric Altima Hybrid sedan boasts an EPA-rated 35 miles per gallon City, extending its range past 600 miles between fill-ups. The Hybrid features a less powerful version of the four-cylinder (158 hp) and Toyota's proven electric hybrid drive. Its electrically powered air conditioning works even when the engine is stopped.
Most Altima models are equipped with a continuously variable transmission, or CVT, which works like an automatic. Nissan has excelled at CVT technology. Most Altima models are available with a six-speed manual transmission.
The Altima sedan is comfortable, practical and well suited to growing families. It gives up little rear seat room to the larger Nissan Maxima, with plenty of room in the trunk for stuff. In both sedan and coupe, Altima's cargo space can be expanded into the cabin, thanks to a standard fold-down, locking rear seatback.
The two-door Altima Coupe looks a bit sportier than the sedan, perhaps a bit more stylish, but it sacrifices a substantial amount of rear seat room. We'd say it's basically a car for two passengers.
The Altima line fits a wide range of tastes and budgets. The base sedan comes with the essentials (except a radio), while the line-topping Altima 3.5 SL has features and leather-trimmed ambience that hints at luxury class. The Altima 2.5 S can be optioned with leather, navigation and just about everything offered in the V6-powered cars, with the improved fuel economy of the four-cylinder engine.
All variants offer a sporting flair that separates them from the pack, yet Nissan has done a good job in recent years of smoothing some of Altima's rougher edges. Interior finish and overall smoothness have improved considerably, and are now more competitive with the best in the class.
The Altima models get high marks for safety, earning the full five stars in government front- and side-impact crash tests. All are equipped with a full complement of airbags and standard anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution. A rearview camera is optional. Unfortunately, electronic stability control is optional, and not even offered on gas-only four cylinder models.
We'd venture the Altima sedan stands out from the competition a bit more prominently than the coupe. Still, drivers who put an emphasis on bang for the buck will find both variants worth a look.
The Nissan Altima sedan was redesigned for 2007, while the Altima Coupe was introduced in 2008. Styling changes for 2009 are therefore minimal.
The Altima sedan and coupe look edgy and stylish. The sedan is about five inches longer than the coupe, but both of these mid-size cars share familiar Nissan/Infiniti design cues. The Altima Coupe, in particular, has a hint of Nissan's GT-R sports car.
In profile, the sedan's rear deck is distinctively short. Its fender flares are pronounced, allowing the rest of the body to be narrower and slip through the wind with less frontal area. The gap between the tires and flares looks tight, just as we like it.
The headlight and taillight clusters are elaborate, almost exotic. The halogen headlamps are irregular, vertical trapezoids with soft edges, with four bulbs inside for the high beam, low beam, turn signal and parking lights. Nissan calls the headlamp arrangement a multi-parabola, which means its coverage is all over the place. As for the taillights, Nissan says they cost nearly as much as the headlamps, so don't back into anything. They're covered with clear plastic like the headlamps, and contain a silver ray-gun looking cylinder with the red lamp, plus a round white beam for the backup light, and a big orange piece for the parking lamp and turn signal.
From the front, the Altima Coupe looks pretty much like the sedan, despite Nissan's pronouncement that the only common body panel is the aluminum hood. In side view, though, the Coupe is pure sport coupe. There's good balance between the longish hood, greenhouse and short trunk lid, with just the right amount of sheet metal between the cleanly outlined wheel arches. Credit for these proportions goes to a wheelbase (distance between the tires front to rear) shortened by four inches from the sedan, which enabled a shortened overall length.
The Coupe's back end shows bustle shape that's a bit pinched, and fed by the arc of the roof flowing toward the trunk lid. This design probably increases stability at socially irresponsible speeds, but at rest it looks almost plump. The rear glass wells at the sides, reducing the impression of mass and improving rearward visibility from the driver's seat.
In all models, the Nissan Altima offers a roomy, comfortable interior, at least for front passengers. Appointments range from fairly sparse to fully loaded, with no radio for the base car and Bluetooth, navigation and backup camera at the top of the line.
Sparse is relative, of course, and there's a significant upgrade in standard features for 2009. The price-leader Altima 2.5 sedan adds power sideview mirrors, a standard trip computer and outside temperature gauge, a rear seat lock, speed-sensitive variable intermittent windshield wipers, and perhaps most significantly, standard air-conditioning with a cabin air filter.
The overall level of fit, finish and refinement inside the Altima has improved substantially compared to pre-2007 models, and interior quality is far more competitive in the class. The available leather upholstery feels rich, and it's a big step up from the standard cloth. Soft materials are used for touches like padded armrests.
The Intelligent Key that comes with all models allows the car to be started with the key in your purse or pocket. When the key is close enough to the car, the driver starts it by pressing a red button to the right of the steering wheel. Many owners find these systems convenient, but you can wind up with a dead battery if you inadvertently press the start button two times instead of once to shut down the car. That leaves the system in the accessories mode, and it can eventually drain the juice. We prefer traditional keys.
The front seats in the Altima sedan are relatively large. They feel firm, and longer and higher than those in previous models. They also have optional power lumbar support and elevate substantially, allowing a better view between all the SUVs on the road. The seats in the Coupe are unique, with more aggressive bolsters befitting this model's sporty aspirations. There's adequate thigh support.
Beyond the seats, most interior parts are common to the sedan and coupe, starting with the dashboard. It's functional, without being boring, and stylish without being frilly. The round air registers in the center of the dash would be better if they could be shut like the rectangular ones at each end.
The four-spoke steering wheel has an original, artistic design, with two spokes flowing vertically downward. The gauges are arranged in a practical tripod shape, with speedometer in the center, tachometer on the left, and fuel gauge and water temperature on the right. The lettering is sharp, white on black, with red needles. LCD insets display trip information, outside temperature, safety-related data and personalized settings.
The center stack is neatly designed, with three big HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) knobs at the bottom. They're easy to understand and operate. Controls for the base and up-level audio systems sit just above the heater knobs, and they're friendly to the eye and fingers. The base audio system, with single CD player, is satisfactory. The nine-speaker Bose upgrade sounds particularly rich.
The optional navigation system features a 6.5-inch touch-screen above the audio controls. It also allows voice commands, but some features are tricky to learn. Without the owner's manual, we would not have been able to begin to figure out how to make real-time traffic information work. Not even with a passenger devoted to the challenge while we were stuck in traffic. Pay attention during the post-sale walkaround or study your owner's manual.
The shift lever occupies the forward portion of the center console separating the front bucket seats. Altimas with the continuously variable transmission have a foot-operated parking brake, but the gear selector is slightly awkward for using the manual shift feature. Cars with a manual transmission have a handbrake next to the shifter. Even when it's not engaged, the handbrake sits up at just about the right height to trip the bottom of a coffee cup as it's lifted out of one of the cup holders situated between the shift lever and the bi-level center storage bin.
The primary storage space inside the Altima is the glovebox. It's huge, and it locks, so you can store a laptop computer in there. There's also a storage bin with a hinged cover at the bottom of the center stack. The problem is that the only power point accessible for plugging in a radar detector is tucked deep inside this bin, and it stretches for all but the longest coiled cord. The fixed pockets in each front door are too small for maps, but they have molds that fit half-liter water bottles. That's nice, because tall, thin bottles are too small for the center console holders, where they flop this way and that through the mildest maneuvers. There are two more cup holders in the rear seat.
The Altima sedan's rear seat is roomy enough for two good-sized adults traveling to dinner or the movies, though we're not sure about a cross-country trek. The center seat is best left to age 12 or less. Access to the rear seat is easy, in the sedan.
The coupe is a slightly different story. Its front-passenger seatback has a release lever on the inboard side that allows the driver to ease passenger access to the rear seat. That access isn't particularly awkward, because the lever folds the seatback and slides the entire front-passenger seat forward in its track. Only problem is that the front seat forgets its settings, returning to a pre-set, default position in its track and seatback angle. Seeing as how coupes costing the same and even less than the Altima have seats that manage to remember the settings, this is inexcusable.
Once a passenger is settled in the Coupe's back seat, the change in exterior dimensions is obvious. Most of the Coupe's four-inch reduction in wheelbase translates to a decrease in rear-seat legroom, and this isn't a place most adults will want to spend more than 20 or 30 minutes. The Altima Coupe is a coupe, to be sure, and tighter rear-seat space is probably expected. Still, it seems tighter in the Altima than in the Honda Accord Coupe.
In trunk room, the Altima sedan is competitive in its class, with 15.3 cubic feet of space. Thanks to a relatively short trunk lid, though, a lot of that space stretches forward under the rear parcel shelf. The Altima Coupe isn't really in the game. It's 7.4-cubic-foot trunk is substantially out-spaced by the Accord Coupe (12.8 cubic feet).
Good handling and strong engines make all the Nissan Altimas fun to drive, and more fun, probably, than their obvious import brand competition.
In the grand scheme, Honda's Accords are a bit better balanced than the Altimas, with an outstanding mix of ride quality, good handling and smoothens. Toyota's Camry sedan is more refined still, and even more comfortable. Yet Nissan has made great strides reducing noise and vibration and improving the finish in all Altimas, while retaining an edge in performance that might please car enthusiasts.
The 3.5-liter V6 is the preferred engine for drivers who measure a car's desirability by how quickly it gets away from a stoplight, or how readily it might attract the attention of cars with flashing red lights. The V6 makes a potent 270 horsepower, and it's a very close relative of the 3.7-liter V6 in the Nissan 370Z sports car. There's more than enough scoot here, and it's awesome for passing. The 6600-rpm redline is a blast. There's also 258 pound-feet of torque in the V6, which is very useful with the optional CVT automatic transmission.
The four-cylinder engine may be the more prudent choice, given the reality check of today's gas prices. Altima's four-cylinder engine delivers competent performance, so there's less reason to pay more now at the dealer and more later at the gas pump. The Altima 2.5 S models we drove had plenty of power, from our perspective, especially with the manual transmission. Modern and refined for a large four-cylinder, Nissan's 2.5-liter engine delivers 175 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque. These ratings easily top other standard four-cylinders in this class.
Of the two transmissions, the six-speed manual is the choice for fun driving. This manual is relaxed and manageable, and, quite frankly, a better transmission in terms of sharp, precise gear selection and tight shift patterns than those in some more expensive European sports sedans.
The CVT, or continuously variable transmission, works like and automatic and is intended to improve fuel mileage compared to a conventional, stepped-gear automatic. Regardless, EPA ratings do not surpass those for gas-only Altimas with the manual transmission: 23/31 mpg City/Highway with the four-cylinder, 19/26 mpg with the powerful V6 (premium fuel required). Indeed, some Altima models with the CVT are rated slightly lower.
The sophisticated electronics managing the CVT attempt to keep the engines turning at an optimum rpm that balances power output, fuel economy and emissions. In doing so, the transmission can make the engine sound a bit noisy, or just funny, particularly with the four-cylinder. In full automatic mode, the CVT can seem lazy and ill at ease, leaving the engines wandering about their power curves and often sounding as if they're straining, even if they aren't. And most of the time they aren't.
We found the CVT works better when it's shifted manually, changing its ratios in steps like a conventional transmission. Using the shift lever, this transmission responds quickly and consistently to the driver's commands. When we used it in the real world, shifting the Altima like a 370Z on the road from the Golden Gate Bridge to Stinson Beach, the CVT was beautiful. Downshifting to slow down worked well, complementing the brakes when rushing toward those downhill curves.
In general, the current Altimas retain their fun-to-drive character, but they also demonstrate significant improvement in the overall management of noise, vibration and harshness. The chassis feels much tighter than pre-2007 models, keeping noise and shaking down in the cabin. Powertrain sounds aren't intrusive, except for some roaming whine or groan as the CVT wanders through its infinite ratios. There's little wind noise, though the thump from tires will keep Altima occupants well informed of pavement quality.
The suspension in the line-topping, luxurious Altima 3.5 SL sedan is quite firm, and it delivers responsive handling. There's no swaying in switchback turns, so the steering stays true. Yet it isn't harsh over jagged parts of the road. It takes some good punches from potholes without flinching.
Steering is respectably responsive in all Altimas, if not especially crisp, with competent turn-in and feedback through the steering wheel. Torque steer (a tendency for the steering wheel to jerk to-and-fro under hard acceleration) is well managed in all models, and that's saying something with the 270-hp V6.
The Altima Coupe drives like a well-tuned front-wheel-drive car. Like the sedan, it has a major front-end weight bias, ranging from 60/40 front/rear in the four-cylinder manual to 63/37 front/rear in the V6 CVT. But its relatively short wheelbase and well-tuned tuned suspension do a good job of compensating. Coupe buyers shouldn't expect pure sports car handling, though. When pushed, the coupe's dominant characteristic is nice, safe understeer (where the car wants to go straight instead of turning), which intuitively encourages the driver to ease up on the gas pedal. Truly quick, aggressive left-right-left transitions set the coupes relatively light back end to wallowing as it tries to keep up.
The brakes are vented discs in front and solid discs in the rear. All Altimas come with four-channel, four-sensor ABS with Electronic Brake force Distribution (EBD), which optimizes the front/rear brake balance depending on load condition (passengers and cargo). A variable-ratio-pivot brake pedal provides a rigid feel at freeway speeds and less sensitive, more controllable operation in city driving.
When fuel economy is the priority, the Altima Hybrid sedan is the choice. Just remember that it will take years and years of driving to make up the $5,000-$7,000 price premium in reduced gasoline costs, compared to a conventional four-cylinder Altima. The Hybrid is EPA-rated at 35/33 mpg, comparable to the 34/34 mpg rating for the Toyota Camry Hybrid.
The Hybrid uses a somewhat de-tuned version of the 2.5-liter four-cylinder, rated at 158 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque at 2800-4800. Mounted in tandem, its AC synchronous motor-generator can produce up to 40 horsepower and 199 pound-feet, both at 0-1500 rpm. Potentially, that totals a substantial 198 horsepower and 261 pound-feet of torque.
Such high torque at low rpm allows the Altima Hybrid to start from a dead stop using only the electric motor to accelerate. So precisely where a conventional internal combustion vehicle is operating at minimal efficiency, the Altima Hybrid isn't using any gasoline at all. After the electric motor provides initial acceleration, the gasoline engine quietly starts and shoulders most of the load. Eventually the electric motor shuts off, and the gasoline engine does what it does best, which is constant-speed cruising. Then, when required, the electric motor restarts to give the gas engine some help in, say, a passing situation. It all works seamlessly, though it takes a fairly light foot on the accelerator to maximize the Altima Hybrid's operation in electric mode. Drivers who routinely mash that gas in most circumstances aren't likely to see the maximum improvement in mileage.
In the Hybrid, the CVT works with the master control system to determine which power source or combination of power sources will turn the wheels. The Hybrid uses regenerative braking to recharge its 245-volt nickel-metal hydride battery, turning the electric motor into a generator as the car slows down. You never have to plug it in. The Altima's hybrid technology is licensed from Toyota and has proven to be reliable.
The Nissan Altima offers a sporty alternative to the other midsize cars and is available in sedan and coupe body styles. Altima is available with a strong four-cylinder engine, a gas-sipping electric Hybrid powertrain, or a truly powerful, satisfying V6. The Altima sedan is roomy, comfortable and stylish, and overall we consider it the better choice versus the competition. The coupe makes a solid, appealing two-door, but it's not a great four-passenger car.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent J.P. Vettraino reported from Detroit, with Sam Moses in San Francisco, Tom Lankard in Minneapolis, and John Katz in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.