On The Road Review: Nissan Altima Hybrid

So far in 2009 America’s top five selling automakers are Toyota USA in first place by a narrow thin margin over the Ford Motor Co., Chevrolet Division of GM in a close third, Honda Motor in fourth, with Nissan the fifth best-selling line. These five brands, of the 37-mainstream automakers doing business here, currently account for over 55 percent of all new vehicle sales in the USA.

Nissan’s surge can be credited to the success of the current Altima midsize sedan and coupe lineup. The Altima, built in Tennessee, is Nissan’s best-selling product here by far.

And now Nissan offers the most powerful hybrid midsize sedan in the market, the 198-hp Altima Hybrid.

Using Toyota’s hybrid technology by license agreement, the Altima hybrid makes more power than the similar Toyota Camry and gets better mileage on the EPA driving cycle, all while driving more like a conventional sedan than the Toyota version. Nissan has gone to great lengths to retain its spirited driving characteristics — a march led by a different drummer that has helped the brand differentiate itself in a crowded field of competent products.

Altima buyers get nicely weighted steering effort and responsive road manners from a fully independent front-drive chassis that has some 350Z sports car DNA built right in. Add a voluminous rear seat, decent trunk space — that shrinks some in the hybrid model due to the location of the battery pack — plus the eagerness of three powertrains and the Altima has a decidedly refined edge to its performance gains over the competition.

In hybrid trim, the Altima loses little of this character while gaining additional fuel economy. Teamed with a CVT automatic transmission — like most players in this category are employing — the Nissan hybrid’s mileage rises from 23/32-mpg for the base sedan with this transmission to 35-city/33-mpg highway in the hybrid. I averaged 36.1-mpg for the week without spending any special attention to maximizing my fuel economy.

While many hybrids boast of elevated city economy ratings, the Altima offers enough electric power to move the Nissan up to 30-mph on just the juice. A low whirring sound is your only sign that this is a different kind of car as the CVT works flawlessly. Depending upon the urgency in your right foot you might, occasionally, feel a slight shudder as the hybrid drive turns things over to the 2.5-liter in-line four-cylinder engine. But this is never offensive.

Price wise, the Altima Hybrid’s $26,650 list is about $3,000 more than a comparably equipped Altima sedan without the hybrid drive system. Standard features include traction control and an anti-skid system, dual-zone auto climate system, keyless push-button ignition, digital media interface, trip computer with outside temp, tilt/telescoping steering column with redundant controls, heated seats and much more. There are nice subtleties such as sunvisor extenders — why can’t everyone offer these? — plus a powerful Bose audio system that complements the XM satellite radio’s capabilities.

Hybrid shoppers have five midsize sedan choices: this Altima, the Camry, Ford’s new Fusion, the Saturn Aura and the Chevy Malibu. Each of these products is considerably larger inside and out than the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius, hence more weight that affects their overall EPA mileage ratings.

Style-wise, these four-door sedans also look just like their normally aspirated counterparts in the lineup. Other than minor badges discreetly placed, most observers will be hard pressed to tell the Altima hybrid from any other Altima; likewise for the Camry, Fusion and Malibu.

This is either a cool strategy for those buyers who want to be more fuel efficient — which these cars are — or, a signal that the manufacturers recognize that not everyone wants a hybrid car that screams a certain message like the Prius and the Insight.

I believe it to be the latter, as these conventional looking products will have their own cachet in the market as drivers look to improve their fuel efficiency while giving up few or none of the virtues that make cars like the Nissan Altima such a joy to drive.

Next week: Volkswagen Jetta TDI Sportwagon


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