2009 Nissan Altima Hybrid Review


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DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS

2009 Nissan Altima Hybrid HEV

If Nissan is not be the first automaker to come to mind when you think of advanced drivetrain technology, maybe it's time to change your thinking. Nissan has tested the hybrid market for the past couple of years with the Altima Hybrid, and that's only the beginning. Nissan has recently announced that it will have a purely-electric vehicle available for sale to selected "beta test" groups by the end of 2010, and the general public by 2012. If Nissan can pull its ambitious plan off, it just may have the first mass-market EV (electric vehicle).

But that's getting a little ahead of our story. In order for practical, real-world EVs to be a reality, there needs to be a functional recharging infrastructure -- which will require agreement on voltage, connectors, and myriad other details by automakers, governments, and utility companies. That could be more of a challenge than any engineering...

A gasoline-electric hybrid, complex as it may be, is a much simpler vehicle when infrastructure is considered, as it runs on readily-available gasoline.

The Nissan Altima Hybrid is based on the current, fourth-generation, Altima sedan. Like its competitors in the midsize sedan category, the Altima is a transverse front-engine, front-wheel drive machine offered with four-cylinder and V6 engines. In style and demeanor, the Altima tends toward the more interesting, less generic end of its class, and that has helped make it Nissan's best seller. The Altima Hybrid loses none of its basic character and road manners, while allowing Nissan to explore hybrid technology.

Hybrid development is expensive, but much has already been done by Toyota. And Toyota has no problem sharing its hybrid technology... for a price, of course, but that price is likely far less than complete in-house development, and gives other manufacturers access to what is now proven technology. So, several years ago, Nissan struck a deal with Toyota, and began hybrid development using the previous generation of the Altima. A hybrid model of the fourth-generation Altima became available partway through the 2007 model year. Changes for 2009 are minimal, with automatic-locking doors and new color choices.

Don't expect a Toyota engine in the Altima Hybrid - that piece is Nissan's 2.5-liter QR25. It's tuned differently than the version in the regular four-cylinder Altima, producing a little less power - 158 hp vs. 170. But that is more than compensated for by input from the electric motor, for a maximum combined output of 198 horsepower. And that motor has 199 lb-ft of torque available as soon as it begins to rotate. As in other cars using the Toyota full-hybrid system, a computer-controlled CVT manages power delivery, which can be purely electric, purely internal combustion, or by both, and the battery pack is charged during driving by regenerative braking.

How is it to drive? Like any other current Toyota-system hybrid, the Altima Hybrid feels little different from a regular internal-combustion only car. Get in, push the start/stop button (all Altimas have Nissan's "Intelligent Key" system now), and... the engine may not start immediately. No problem, the car is designed to operate electrically as much as possible. With the battery pack charged, light-throttle running at speeds up to 35 mph will likely light up the "EV Mode" light on the instrument panel. The engine kicks in noticeably when it's cold; once it has warmed up, it can be hard to tell if it's on or not. Further gains in mileage are delivered by shutting the engine off at long stops, such as traffic lights. When power is needed, as for merging into quickly-moving highway traffic, it's there, and strong, even at highway speeds. Because of the CVT, there is no shifting, but again, that is no different from the regular Altima so equipped. Throttle response isn't always directly proportional to input, as the motor/engine combination constantly changes, but it is much better than in earlier hybrids. And won't be noticed much in everyday driving, as it's little different from what happens when a torque converter in a regular automatic transmission is not locked up.

The most noticeable difference between the Hybrid and other Altimas comes when it's time to stop for gas. The standard four-cylinder, with CVT, is rated 23/31, so figure low to mid twenties overall. The Hybrid is rated at 35/33, and in a mix of city and highway driving with plenty of non-green full-throttle application, I got between 33 and 34.

And the electric vehicle? That's here in prototype form, and I had the opportunity to drive it recently. Although only an experimental vehicle, it was nearly as refined as any production car -- much more so than an Atltima Hybrid prototype I drove some years back -- and, with only an electric motor, very quiet. The recharging infrastructure is the biggest hurdle to overcome for practical use, but look to Nissan to be at the forefront of developments there, too.

APPEARANCE: With the exception of "hybrid" badges on the front doors and trunk lid, the Hybrid looks like any other current Altima. Which is not all that different from the previous generation in basic shape, and completely different in every detail. That means rounded masses offset by chiseled lines, the current Nissan "T-shaped" grille, vertically-stacked headlights, prominent flat wheel arches, a long semi-fastback passenger cabin and high rear deck, and taillights covered with clear plastic.

COMFORT: As outside, the Hybrid's interior is standard Altima with a few strategic changes. The instrument cluster replaces the tachometer with a power consumption and generation gauge, which is more appropriate for a hybrid since the driver does not have direct control over engine speed. The aforementioned "ev mode" light tells when the car is operating as an EV. As in other Altima models, there is plenty of interior space, and useful storage areas around the cabin. The basic equipment level is high, but a number of option packages are offered that can upgrade to an entry-luxury level. If you want the full-bore hybrid system display, that means the pricey but comprehensive "Technology Package" with navigation system and backup camera. One thing missing on the Hybrid is some trunk space, as the battery pack sits between the rear seat and trunk. What looks at first glance to be a passthrough behind the rear seat center armrest is an access panel for the batteries and associated electronics.

SAFETY: Like other Altimas, the Hybrid has the full complement of airbags, a chassis structure designed to protect occupants with a strong safety cell, front and rear crumple zones, and body side reinforcement. Active head restraints, a tire pressure monitoring system, and the VDC vehicle dynamics control system are also standard.

RIDE AND HANDLING: A regular Altima gives a more enjoyable driving experience than the typical mid-size sedan, and the Hybrid is an Altima before it's a hybrid. That means a positive driving experience based on a rigid chassis, fully-independent strut/multilink suspension tuned for comfort and agility, good steering feel, and low interior noise levels. Many hybrids seem to be meant for people who don't really like cars; the Altima Hybrid is not one of those. As in other hybrids, regenerative braking improves stopping ability as well as charging the batteries.

PERFORMANCE: Yes, all of that hybrid technology adds weight, about 300 pounds worth compared to a 2.5S with the CVT. It also boosts maximum power to from 170 to 198 horsepower, which more than compensates. When there is a need for full-throttle acceleration, the Altima Hybrid is no slouch, and gets you there, quickly. An electric motor makes maximum torque as soon as it starts to turn, and the Altima Hybrid's motor adds 199 lb-ft to the mix when it's turning at 0 to 1500 rpm. Some hybrids have little power left over for acceleration at real-world highway speeds -- not the Altima. Hybrid performance is as much about reduced fuel consumption, too, and with a 33mpg average, it does well for a car of its size.

CONCLUSIONS: Nissan tests the hybrid waters with its Altima Hybrid HEV in preparation for future electric vehicles.

SPECIFICATIONS
2009 Nissan Altima Hybrid HEV

Base Price			$ 26,650
Price As Tested			$ 31,855
Engine Type			aluminum alloy dual overhead cam
				 16-valve inline 4-cylinder with
				 variable cam phasing
Engine Size			2.5 liters / 152 cu. in.
Horsepower			158 @ 5200-6000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			162 @ 2800-4800 rpm
Electric Motor			Permanent Magnet AC synchronous
Horsepower			40 @ 0-1500 rpm (assisted power)
				105kW (141) hp max @ 4500 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			199 0-1500 rpm
Battery pack			244V NiMH 
Combined maximum horsepower	198
Transmission			electronically-managed CVT
Wheelbase / Length		109.3 in. / 189.2 in.
Curb Weight			3482 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		17.6
Fuel Capacity			20.0 gal.
Fuel Requirement		87 octane regular unleaded gasoline
Tires				P215/60 R16 94T Continental
				 Conti Pro Contact
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc, ABS, EBD, BA,
				  and regenerative braking standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent strut/ 
				independent multilink
Drivetrain			transverse front engine and motor, 					 front-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		35 / 33 / 33
0 to 60 mph				est 8  sec

OPTIONS AND CHARGES
Convenience Package - includes:
  rear spoiler, 8-way power driver's seat,
  automatic on/off headlights, dual sun visors
  w/extensions and lighted vanity mirrors, 
  leather-wrapped steering wheel, steering wheel-
  mounted audio controls, front passenger power
  front window with one-touch up/down		$ 1,300
Connection Package - includes:
  leather-appointed seats and shift knob, driver
  and front passenger heated seats, driver's seat
  power lumbar support, BOSE® AM/FM/6CD
  9-channel audio w/MP3, WMA CD playback
  capability, XM satellite radio, RDS, speed-
  sensitive volume, manual folding outside mirrors
  w/auxiliary turn signals, HomeLink® universal
  transceiver, auto-dimming rearview mirror 
  w/compass, premium interior finishes --
  wood tone for blond, metallic for charcoal,
  rear AC vents					$ 3,100
Floor mat set					$   110
Destination charge				$   695

Complete specifications on the 2009 Nissan Altima Hybrid HEV and other vehicles are available at the New Car Buyers Guide!

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