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2009 Nissan Altima Hybrid Review

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Who Knew
By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

I sat next to a Nissan exec at an auto industry briefing a couple of weeks ago and the conversation touched on the future of hybrid cars. When he mentioned the Altima Hybrid I was a bit surprised. I didn’t know there was one. Well, there’s now one in my driveway for review. It looks just like the regular Altima – that is, a stylish mid-size sedan that’s just a bit brash. But it has a green “Hybrid” emblem on the trunk.

It’s not like Nissan has independently developed a hybrid powertrain. It turns out they have licensed Toyota’s respected Synergy drive system, one of the first and most successful of the hybrid power systems, that features a modest-sized 4-cylinder engine with a continuously variable transmission mated with an electric motor. Sophisticated electronic controls manage the two power sources and the delivery system, as well as regenerative braking, to maximize – or at least nearly maximize – the efficiency of the whole package. We are sometimes on just the electric motor; sometimes on the gasoline engine; and sometimes on both.

There are two reasons I was unaware of the Altima Hybrid. First – I guess I’m not on Nissan’s A-list when it comes to new product launches. And second – the Altima Hybrid is only available in those few states that have signed on to California’s stringent emissions limits. It doesn’t make sense that Nissan would commit a lot of resources promoting a product that is focused on such a limited market, I guess.

If you’re thinking you might want a hybrid sedan (Altima, Camry, Insight, Fusion, or even Yukon) to save money on fuel you might want to rethink. Try running the numbers first. Take into account the extra cost you’ll pay over the cost of a comparably equipped 4-cylinder Altima (or other) sedan. Then consider your individual driving environment; taking into account how much congestion you regularly contend with, how long your commute, other driving patterns, the cost of fuel (tough to quantify with the volatility in fuel costs), and the difference in fuel economy based on your situation. Unless you spend a lot of time in seriously congested traffic you may not realize the maximum rated mileage.

If those numbers don’t show a significant advantage for you, think about the other reasons you might want to buy a hybrid, like making a statement about your environmental consciousness - your green credentials, let’s call it. Remember, if you’re considering your overall carbon footprint you’ll need to consider the entire life cycle of the car including the batteries. Your total carbon footprint might not be what you think it is.

For example, my son-in-law Mike, who lives in Chicago, has a 45-minute commute morning and evening on freeways where traffic coagulates incessantly. He bought a Camry Hybrid last year and is getting somewhere around 41mpg. Over a three or four year period his numbers will probably work out well. Mine, however, would not since I seldom suffer that kind of city traffic. I would probably make out better with the economical 4-cylinder variant of the Altima, Camry or other hybrid.

The Altima 4-cylinder, by the way, gets 23 mpg in the city and 31 on the highway while the Hybrid gets 35 in the city and 33 on the highway. You’ll have lots of math to do. And, while we’re talking performance let me add that the Altima Hybrid will do zero-to-60mph in just 7.6 seconds. That’s dammed good, but it sounds but at full throttle with both the gas engine and electric motor at their respective limits it feels a bit thrashy with the continuously variable transmission controlling it all.

Our sporty-looking Altima Hybrid (built in Smyrna, TN) with Dark Slate paint and Charcoal leather interior begins at $26,650. This one is loaded with all three available major option packages (Convenience, Connection and Technology), plus the special floor mats and destination charge making our bottom line $33,855. Not bad for being loaded.

It doesn’t feel like an over-30-grand car, though. While it’s nice in terms of design, trim, quality and overall ambiance, it feels rather “white-bread” to me. Yes, its ride and handling are a tad sportier than its competitors and its design, both inside and out, are a tad more unusual. But it’s not as bold as the last two generations of Altima. I think the design is getting a bit more homogenized with each generation.

While driving Altima Hybrid this week I tried to get a sense for the car’s balance between gas and electric propulsion. An illuminated bar in the gauge cluster shows instant fuel mileage. When just the electric propulsion is active the bar is sold, indicating infinite mileage, or gas engine off, we might say. Once, I kept it on just electric until just over 20-mph. But I couldn’t do that every time. The engine would shut off at full stop, of course, and it would shut off even at 70-mph on the highway if I was on a down slope or coasting to slow down.

One disadvantage of any of these hybrid sedans is that trunk space is limited because of the bulky battery pack. In this case the regular Altima has 15 cubic-feet of trunk space but the Hybrid has only 9.

If the numbers and the philosophy all work out for you then put the Altima on your shopping list – that is, if you live in one of the eight selected states.

Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved