BETTER LATE THAN NEVER
Nissan may have been very late coming to the hybrid party, but their first crack at building one turned out pretty good. It’s a gas/electric version of their midsize Altima sedan, and it’s designed to go head-to-head with the Toyota Camry Hybrid.
Since they were a late arrival, Nissan didn’t start from scratch to develop their own hybrid system, but instead adopted Toyota’s proven technology and many of their hybrid components. However, the gasoline engine and the electric motor is Nissan’s.
The engine is a detuned version of Nissan’s 2.5-liter, four-cylinder mill that generates 158 horses. It’s mated to an electric motor, which chips in with another 40 to give the whole package 198 hp. Completing the power train is a CVT—continuously variable automatic transmission.
Driving the Altima (and other hybrids) takes a little while to get use to. There’s no sound when you start the engine, and it is only when you look at the gauges that you know it’s running. Secondly, there is no shifting of gears with the CVT transmission when you accelerate. Power comes on in a steady flow, much like a train does pulling out of a station. Around town, the Hybrid uses mainly electric power. On the freeway, the gasoline engine takes over. When a burst of power is needed, both units work together. I found that the Altima accelerated briskly getting away from traffic lights, and had more than ample power climbing hills. My gas mileage was also impressive on this midsize sedan at 34 mpg.
The 2007 Altimas don’t look radically different from last year’s models, but the styling seems to have a bit more character. The new headlights and taillights are very elaborate, and add sparkle to an overall pleasing design. The new platform is stronger, but the wheelbase is a tad shorter than last year’s model. The overall length has been reduced 2.5 inches as well, yet the interior space remains the same. Nissan moved the windshield forward, and the rear window further back, to maintain the cabin’s size. However, trunk space on the Hybrid is smaller (9.1 cu-ft) due to the battery pack.
As with last year’s model, head and legroom, fore and aft, are more than adequate. But if you are looking for exciting styling inside the Altima, you will be disappointed. There isn’t much to delight the eye. The design of the dash, including the radio and climate controls, is ho-hum. The only bright spots you’ll see are bits of brushed silver trim on the steering wheel and CD changer.
The Hybrid model gets some upscale features not offered on the base Altima. Automatic air conditioning, keyless entry and start, antilock brakes and an anti-skid system are all standard. Buyers can also chose from several option groups. My test car came equipped with the Technology package, which included a navigation system, leather upholstery, a Bose stereo and 23 additional features, for a whopping $7250.
The driving characteristics of the ’07 Altima, including the Hybrid, reflect a number of changes that Nissan engineers made to the underpinnings of the car. They mounted the engine lower and revised the front suspension to minimize torque-steer—the pulling on steering wheel under hard acceleration. They also revamped the rear suspension to make the Altima more nimble, and installed a new speed-sensitive power steering unit.
All these enhancements make the Altima a more fun car to drive. The steering is sharper now and provides the driver with a decent feel of the road. This car also displays poise and balance taking corners. But there is one fly in the ointment, the ride quality, which is disappointing. Unless you’re on a glass-smooth freeway, the ride is stiff and choppy. On rough two-lane roads, the Altima bounced all over the pavement. Hopefully, the Nissan engineers will address this problem in the 2008 model.
Excellent Gas Mileage
More than Adequate Power
Base Price: $25,615
Engine: 2.5-ltr gas/electric motor
Transmission: CVT auto
Brakes: disc, ABS
Gas Mileage (EPA): 42-36 mpg