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2008 Nissan Altima Hybrid Review


PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2008 Nissan Altima Hybrid
DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS

2008 Nissan Altima Hybrid

The third generation Altima, introduced in model year 2002, saw the transformation of the car from a strictly four-cylinder sedan at the small end of mid-size category to a full-line nameplate, with four- and six-cylinder models sized at the upper end of the class. If it then more nearly resembled the most popular cars in that most popular class, an all-too-easy path to potential obscurity, the Altima differentiated itself in its style and demeanor, both more exciting than the conservatism of the mass-market brands. This, and a lineup with a good variety of choice, helped the Altima to become Nissan's top seller.

From a distance, fourth-generation Altima, which debuted for 2007, looked like a restyle of its immediate predecessor. It was much more than that, as it was based on a new chassis architecture, Nissan's "D" transverse-engine, front-wheel drive platform, with improved rigidity and suspension design. Engine choices were the standard-for-the-class inline four or V6, both with a little more personality than competitors, and available with (depending on model) a six-speed manual or continuously-variable transmission (CVT).

Nissan further differentiated the Altima from midsize genericness with the mid-year introduction of the Altima Coupe, which I dove earlier this model year and found to be pleasantly entertaining, even with the 2.5-liter four, and quite practical. With styling that hints at its cousin, the Infiniti G coupe, is in no way a two-door sedan.

And then there's the hybrid. Hybrids have been gaining popularity, and with the recent spike in fuel prices that will only grow. 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.

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. 175 (or 170 for CA emissions states). But that is more than compensated for by input from the electric motor, for a maximum combined output of 198 horsepower. 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, it 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 30 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. 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 for average mpg. 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 33.

At the moment, the Altima Hybrid is a limited-production vehicle as Nissan tests customer reception. It's not being sold everywhere, but is aimed primarily at coastal states that use California emissions standards. But, depending on fuel prices, consumer demand, and further regulations, this could change.

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. It's slightly bulbous in a very French way, must be that Renault influence, eh, Monsieur Ghosn?

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. There is the aforementioned "ev mode" light, and, if the comprehensive (and pricey, at $6,400) "Technology Package" is installed, two of its many features are power use and fuel consumption displays on a screen at the top of the center stack. The Technology Package includes all possible options, and brings the Hybrid (or CVT four-cylinder, for which it is also available) to the ultimate Altima level with leather-trimmed upholstery, heated power front seats, upgraded interior trim, an upgraded Bose audio AM/FM/CD/aux/XM audio system, Bluetooth phone connectivity, and Nissan's touch-screen navigation system, now with XM real-time traffic data. So outfitted, the Hybrid (or for that matter, any other Altima) is a pleasant, comfortable, spacious and upscale sedan. The hybrid system battery pack has to go somewhere, and that's between the trunk and passenger compartment, so there is some decrease of trunk space and no pass-through or folding rear seat.

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. But 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.

SPECIFICATIONS
2008 Nissan Altima Hybrid

Base Price			$ 25,070
Price As Tested			$ 33,325
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
Moonroof wind deflector				$ 100
Power sliding glass moonroof			$ 850
Floor mat set					$ 110
Aluminum kick plates				$ 170
Technology Package - includes:
  navigation system, XM satellite radio with NavTraffic(tm),
  RearView monitor, leather-appointed seats and door
  trim, driver and front passenger heated seats, 8-way
  power driver's seat, rear spoiler, Bluetooth¨ hands-free
  phone system, Bose 9-speaker AM/FM/6CD audio,
  MP3/WMA CDROM audio compatibility, RDS, speed-
  sensitive volume, heated sideview mirrors with integrated
  turn signals, HomeLink¨ universal transceiver, 
  leather-wrapped gearshift knob, auto-dimming rearview
  mirror, rear-passenger AC vents, automatic headlights,
  dual sunvisors with extenders and vanity mirrors, 
  leather-wrapped steering wheel, steering wheel-mounted
  audio and cruise controls, front passenger power window
  auto up/down with auto-reverse, key fob front windows
  up/down					$ 6,400
Destination charge				$    625