Hybrid cars are the automaker’s equivalent of straight teeth: everyone wants them. Carmakers without hybrids are beginning to look, well, a little unkempt. Not wanting to be perceived as a snaggletooth, Nissan joins the club with its new-for-‘07 Altima Hybrid. The company describes its first foray into gas-electric frugality as "the first hybrid that drives like a Nissan." The firm’s marketers clearly intend for Nissan’s self-fashioned sporting image to set the Altima hybrid apart from its key competitors. They’re also convinced, presumably, that consumers will know what this tagline means.
That may be too much of an intellectual leap. After all, Nissan's current lineup runs the dynamic gamut, from the nimble Versa to the titanic Titan. Even if we restrict the field to sporting machinery, should prospective hybrid buyers expect the uncouth thrills of the torque-steering SE-R Spec V? The grippy, hefty confidence of the 350Z? The loping, nose-heavy gait of the Maxima? Or, as John Cleese might say, “something completely different?”
Further muddying the waters: much of the Altima Hybrid's running gear is licensed from Toyota. The borrowed tech includes the electric motor and battery pack, electric-assist steering system, CVT transmission and battery-charging regenerative brakes. The resulting fuel savings are spectacular; Nissan says Altima Hybrid drivers can expect 41/36mpg. But with all of these shared components, the Altima Hybrid claims to dynamic uniqueness seem a bit, um, dubious. Is it "the first Nissan that drives like a Toyota?"
First, let’s at least agree that the new Altima doesn’t look like a Toyota. While all midsize sedans suffer a certain inherent stuffiness, the Altima’s shape is more interesting than most, with leaner, crisper lines than the Camry dares wear. Moreover, the ’07 Altima appears— applause, please —more compact than the outgoing model, though its actual dimensions have changed little.
Slide into the Altima Hybrid, and you’ll find that its driver’s station incorporates a similar pinch of pizzazz, supplied mostly by the triple-barrel vents atop the center stack. But the quality of materials used is a bigger surprise; the dash is draped in rubbery, hide-like polymers, while the hard plastics elsewhere are low-gloss and tight-fitting. Sure, the switchgear and bin lids feel a bit more brittle than a Toyota’s, but unlike the last Altima’s cabin, this one can’t be described as “toylike.”
Unfortunately, it can’t be called “spacious” either. While the Altima’s front cabin fits naturally and offers contemporary helpings of head and legroom, the rear bench’s low cushion and fair knee clearance are merely acceptable for this class. Families with lanky, cranky teenagers will appreciate the airier quarters of the hybrid Camry and Accord.
If the aforementioned families do pick the Altima Hybrid over its Honda and Toyota rivals, their teens won’t harbor any great relish for borrowing Dad’s wheels on Saturday night. Fact is, if you’ve driven a Prius, you’ve already experienced the burning excitement that awaits behind the wheel of the Altima Hybrid.
Surprised? Don’t be. After all, most of the elements that suck the fun right out of Toyota’s hybrids are present here, too, from the “slipping-clutch” feel of the CVT’s operation to the limp, twitchy guidance afforded by the hectic-assist steering. Nissan says the Hybrid’s suspension is slightly stiffer than other four-cylinder Altimas’, but there’s little incentive to exercise it, partly because slowing back down involves awkward negotiations with the touchy, feel-free regenerative brakes.
The Hybrid’s accelerative performance doesn’t drip adrenaline either, but that’s expected in a car designed for thrift. As in its other applications, Toyota’s parallel hybrid drivetrain allows you to whoosh around slowly on electric power alone— or keep up with traffic, the gas engine phasing in and out with mild shudders. Brisk moves are accompanied by a strident, hollow drone from Nissan’s 2.5-liter, 162 horsepower four, but at least they’re on the menu.
How much will the Altima Hybrid’s sterile, slightly sloppy dynamics matter to prospective buyers? In all likelihood, very little. With the partial exception of the 253-horse Accord, there isn’t a hybrid on the market that’s particularly stimulating to drive. Given the mechanical disconnect integral to such systems, that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
Instead, the Altima Hybrid offers a package essentially similar to the Camry Hybrid’s, with a little less space, a lot more style and fuel economy that makes Honda’s cooking, sales challenged Accord Hybrid seem like a bad global citizen. (Though both vehicles surpass Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (SULEV) standards and meet Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (PZEV) requirements.) Nissan expects the Altima Hybrid’s base pricing to slot neatly between the $26,200 Camry and the $31,090 Accord.
In sum, I offer an amended version of Nissan’s pitch for this electrified— but not electrifying— Altima: “The first hybrid that looks like a Nissan.” Considering the target market’s priorities, that’s probably enough to put Nissan in the hunt.