Driving Al Gore crazy
IntroductionNissan Altima Hybrid – Review: She drove a white Prius, and my, did she ever want to race. Kept revving her engine. Rolling, forward and back and glaring over. So when the light changed, we were off, both cars inching off the line, neither wanting to be the first to start their engines. It was exhilarating: five, 10 and up to 30 mph, until she accidentally goosed the throttle, the Prius coughed to life and took off, leaving just the memory of its “Hillary” bumper sticker behind. Sure, the Nissan Altima Hybrid may not make a statement like the Prius, it may be noisy and overpriced, but it's still one of the more fun and comfortable hybrids on the road, at speed or in silent racer mode.
If you're gonna drive a hybrid, you may as well do so in southern California where Prius – is it Priie? – roam in packs. To make it even better, our Altima Hybrid was decked out with all the best stuff: leather (kind of), Bose audio, sunroof, reversing camera w/navigation, and more. Though we did not have a window sticker, we did a price check and found the hybrid to cost a whopping $32,625, including $615 destination charge and two main option packages: Technology, for $7,250, and Convenience, for $1,300. Without the extras but with the destination, an Altima Hybrid would cost about $25,015. Good luck with that, however. Nissan is only building a few of these and in “green” states, and most will be optioned to the nines.
The Altima Hybrid is a credible competitor to its virtual brother, the Toyota Camry Hybrid, and may in fact be more fun to drive. A combined 198 horsepower and a bunch of hearty, low-end torque (162 lb.-ft at 2,800 rpm from the engine, 199 lb.-ft at 1,500 rpm from the electric motor) makes for spirited take-offs and enough power to get you over hill and dale. Perhaps more to the point, however, is how the clean-air side of the Altima hybrid works: impressively, we drove it past 40 mph on just electric juice. That's not easy, however: We babied the throttle and chanted “AL GORE” sixteen times to make it happen. We ended up with a real-world average of 28.6 miles per gallon.
Granted, the redesigned 2007 Nissan Altima is not tuned for sport handling, and the Altima Hybrid is certainly no exception: Take the Altima with the 2.5-liter four cylinder engine, add almost 400 pounds and what you get is a sedan that wallows around corners like a drunk. Elsewhere, steering is vague, especially at slow speeds, and though it improves as the speed increases, it still feels quite imprecise. Aggressive braking reveals a spongy pedal, some plow and a little tug in the front end, while normal braking is plagued by a touchy pedal, but one you do get used to. On the bright side, the suspension absorbs bumps well while feeling crisp and planted during normal driving situations. Just take it easy around those corners.
The squared-off rear-view mirrors of the 2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid improve visibility, and our tester had a fabulous back-up camera that made pulling out of shopping center parking slots a breeze. You don't really need the camera, however, because the A-and B-pillars are thin and there's a wide expanse of glass in back. Rear side windows are large, as well, while the integrated head restraints in back are a potential visual block, but that's a small concern.
Fun to Drive
Hybrids really aren't too fun to drive, unless the initials “GS” are glued to the back of the car, right next to the word “Lexus”. Mainstream commuter hybrids, well, they're designed to do less: less pollution, less gasoline, and, as a result, less fun. It's pretty simple, and one of the culprits is that continuously variable transmission (CVT): it takes the sporting life out of a powertrain that actually has quite a bit of pep to offer. On the other side of fun, however, is driving the Altima Hybrid without engaging the engine. Sure, that's fun, in a nerdy sorta way.
It's pretty roomy inside the Altima, with nice amounts of leg room, shoulder room and head room. Seats offer satisfactory support: nice, firm bolsters and a wide seat bottom for, um, larger loads. The leather upholstery seems pretty low-grade, however, as does the steering wheel. It lacks grip and is encased in what looks and feels like poor quality plastic. Nissan, however, didn't spare expense on the dash cap: It's a low gloss and soft area, which eliminates glare and increases preservation. Same goes for the arm rests: all are wrapped in soft leather.
Nissan clearly has a winner with the redesign of the Altima, at least from a comfort perspective. Front to back, there's plenty of room for legs, and there's also comfortable seats, though the back seat bottom bench felt a little too flat and the beltline a little too high, making one feel unduly constrained. Despite this, there's plenty of room, and as with the front, soft touch surfaces all around. It's one of the more comfortable sedans we've driven in some time.
Dang, that powertrain sure makes a bunch of noise, whining all the time. It's especially irritating when you put your foot down and hammer the throttle. That's when you get to listen to the squealing cries of the continuously variable transmission (CVT), the shiver that goes up the chassis when the four-cylinder kicks on and the thunks and electric whine when you slow to a stop. Wind and tire noise is also pretty noticeable, but those bugaboos are drowned out by the sound of the hybrid powertrain, doin' it's magic. That's okay – just turn up the nice Bose audio system and pretend you don't hear a thing.
This is where Altima hybrid shoppers suffer perhaps the most. With all that synergy drive stuff stashed in back, cargo room vanishes from a 15.3-cubic feet trunk to 9.1 cubic-feet. Also because of those batteries, there's no pass through or 60/40 split – though the little door is still there. It leads to a manual trunk release, though we're not quite sure why there needs to be two manual release levers for the trunk. Otherwise, liftover is low, and the opening is big enough for most things. Finish materials such as covering and carpeting, however, are pretty low-grade; this is one trunk that may not age well.
For $32,000 and change it wasn't too much to ask for a test car with a glovebox that closed all the way, nor was it too much to expect a center console unit that's stable and affixed, as opposed to loose and loopy. And there's more: the center panel plastic that surrounds the environmental controls had slightly protruding sharp edges on the bottom side; the passenger side vent was loose, the sunglass holder in the ceiling-mounted unit rubed. Outside, the hood was on slightly crooked, the trunk didn't fit evenly, the badge was tweaked on the back and the chrome trim along the passenger side was loose at the front door.
Save for a slightly rubbery feel to the leather, the Nissan Altima Hybrid has some nice materials for a mainstream sedan. Plastics may not fit together, but they do have a nice grain, and floor carpeting looks and feels durable. The woven headliner/pillar covers add a nice feel to the ambience of the cabin, and the fake wood grain, is, well, it's not bad. The shifter does feel cheap to the touch, however, though the environmental controls have a nice rubber ringlet around the outside of the chrome border.
Blah. De blah, blah, blah. It's a beige world inside, and after a little while it begins to creep into your thinking. After a year, why, here's betting that the dark beige/light beige balancing act inside the Altima Hybrid would turn the most liberal tree-huggin' hippy into a certified Young Republican. Yikes. That may actually be good thing, however, just like the fake wood, the matte aluminum trim and shiny chrome accents around vents and controls. It's not a very dynamic place to spend a commute, to be sure, and the outside is also pretty mainstream, save for the tail lights and spoiler. Overall, a nice looking mainstream vehicle, inside and out, and all the boredom that comes with it.
Kudos to Nissan for designing and building an excellent front cupholder, one that's removable and able to hold multiple-sized “cups.” Add to that the very usable bottle holders molded into the door panels, and you've got one convenient sedan. Consider, too, the glovebox: Sure, it may not close right, but inside there's plenty of room, the door is damped and there's even a usable pen/pencil holder. The center console bin, despite the low quality feel to its plastics and construction, offers a deep well and a smaller tray. Best of all, it opens from the front, making it easy to use for driver and passenger.
Nissan's upgraded stereo and map are incredible. The map, for example, offers brilliantly clear graphics, with easy to understand commands. In addition to your standard map/directional fare, drivers get real-time traffic and an energy flow screen (ala Toyota) that provides an overview of what's going on under the hood and behind the back seat. You can also choose a historical accounting of your fuel efficiency. Meanwhile the audio system is crisp and sounds good when it's loud,– a necessary benefit considering the amount of noise that comes from the Altima Hybrid's powertrain.
It's simple. Three knobs for the dual zone climate control, and an environmental off button that also controls fan speed. Underneath that, four buttons for directional airflow and six buttons below that, for settings. It all comes together in an attractive and easy to use package, with one flaw: the ringlets around the temp control were loose, thus losing their quality feel.
It's something we often take for granted until the execution is botched, at which point we complain and bellyache about poorly designed buttons and knobs. As far as the Nissan Altima Hybrid is concerned, there are few – if any – flaws in its control layout, and that includes secondary controls like the steering wheel and window controls. For example, the auto up/down feature has a nice, solid two-click feel to it that's hard to miss and easy to control. The steering wheel has nicely shaped and placed buttons, for easy use.
You could claim that there's only one true direct competitor to the Nissan Altima Hybrid: its brother, the Toyota Camry Hybrid. Close in size and power, they literally share hybrid bits, thanks to a now-ended license agreement between Toyota and Nissan. The demise of that license agreement makes things murky for the Altima in the long term, while other competitors such as the Honda Civic Hybrid and Toyota Prius – though smaller and less powerful – beat the Altima like a rented mule when it comes to price and mpg. Add to that list the Saturn AURA Green Line, and then all the other four-cylinder sedans out there in car world, and, well, the short term ain't looking too clear for the Altima Hybrid, either.
2nd Opinion -- Buglewicz
Nissan Altima Hybrid – Buglewicz's Opinion:
Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn is publicly ambivalent about hybrids. On one hand he dismisses them as something of a fad, but he's also a savvy enough businessman to know that people are buying them, and that Nissan should be in the game. Licensing Toyota technology for the Altima Hybrid was a good cost-saving idea, but the execution is lacking. This hybrid feels unrefined, with abrupt transitions between all-electric and dual power modes, and I frequently found myself gently accelerating when moments before I had been at a steady cruise. The rest of the car is good, a notable step up from the previous Altima, but Ghosn should either commit to or quit the hybrid game.
2nd Opinion -- Wardlaw
Nissan Altima Hybrid – Chris Wardlaw's Opinion:
Aesthetic judgments aside, the 2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid is an impressive machine. Driven gingerly, it returns fuel economy on par with smaller sedans. Driven aggressively, it's entertaining and feels light on its feet thanks to a taut suspension, grippy tires, and impressive roll control. Also, though it's a hybrid, it moves pretty quick when the accelerator is floored. Our test car was loaded with leather, Bose audio, sunroof, reversing camera, navigation, and fake wood décor, and a mere glance confirmed that Nissan's cost-cutting efforts result in cabins that look and feel inexpensive. Given that, and my distaste for the Altima's audacious taillights and junk-in-the-trunk design, I'd still select a Camry Hybrid or wait for the Saturn Aura Green Line.
Photos courtesy of Ron Perry, Brian Chee