In a bold move, Nissan has built a coupe version of its popular Altima midsize sedan. The 2008 Altima coupe is impressive with its sporty handling and a powerful V-6 engine, but it left me wondering if this niche in the market needs another player.
Luckily for Nissan, the two-door Altima outperforms the competition on the street, but both the 2007 Honda Accord and Toyota Camry Solara coupes are more practical when it comes to overall ride and space. Also, once equipped with a V-6 engine and a few pricey upgrades, my test car came close to Nissan 350Z territory, which is just one more way the Altima straddled the fine line between sports car and comfortable coupe without fitting perfectly in either segment.
Nissan has done an excellent job making the coupe its own distinct vehicle when it comes to driving dynamics. The Altima sedan was redesigned for 2007, and it was an improvement on the previous model in terms of power, handling and ride. These enhancements carry over to the coupe, but here Nissan puts more importance on handling than ride comfort.
The more aggressive suspension and large 17-inch wheels on the 3.5 SE I tested led to a relatively rough ride for the segment. It wasn't as rough as a sports car, like the 350Z I recently tested, but it seemed to ride the not-so-fine line between acceptable and grating.
Steering, however, was nearly perfect. The Altima didn't demand sports car attention, but it did give excellent feedback that, in the end, was the reason the car was so enjoyable to drive.
Power comes from either a 170-horsepower four-cylinder or a 270-hp V-6, like the one in my 3.5 SE. That's a lot of power. The Accord manages 244 hp, while the sportier Mustang GT achieves 300 hp, and the Altima feels like it falls right in the middle of those two, as the numbers suggest. If the power weren't going to the front wheels, this might be more of an enthusiast choice; the front tires, though, routinely lost grip while accelerating hard and chirped coming away from stoplights. That is not the response you want from a sports car.
Also bucking the enthusiast trend is the car's continuously variable automatic transmission. A CVT basically allows the car to accelerate without the traditional shifting of gears. In theory, this setup should deliver smoother power. I've tested a lot of CVT cars and have never thought power came smoothly or adequately, even in the Altima sedan. Driving the coupe for the first time, though, I completely forgot it had a CVT. I mashed the right pedal, the car revved up and I was off like a shot. It wasn't a slow buildup, like you get with many CVTs, and I found the experience immensely pleasurable. The transmission was a nice surprise and gives me hope that other models will be able to deliver similar performance. A manual transmission is standard on both models.
EPA mileage for the 2008 model is decent for both engine options, with little change for different transmissions.
|2.5 S||3.5 SE|
|Manual transmission |
|CVT (mpg city/highway)||23/31||19/26|
*Beginning with 2008-model-year vehicles, the EPA is using a new, more-representative test to estimate gas mileage. The figures are lower than they would be using the 2007 method.
Aesthetically, the Altima coupe has a distinct advantage over both the Accord and Solara. The Altima is masculine-looking with large fenders, big headlights and a cutting-edge design around back. That leaves the generic Accord and disjointed Solara in the back of the pack in terms of eye appeal. However, the Altima somewhat resembles the Pontiac G6 coupe, which isn't a compliment.
There are some nice touches, like body-colored side mirrors, door handles and splash guards, as well as dual exhaust that comes standard on both the base 2.5 S and the 3.5 SE.
Inside, the Altima coupe matches the updated sedan in terms of its high-quality fit and finish, a solid steering wheel, clear instruments and high-quality buttons and controls. My top-of-the-line 3.5 SE came with leather seats that were incredibly comfortable and seemed like they would be durable for years.
The driver's seating position has a slung-back layout so your head won't hit the low, sloping roof. The optional moonroof reduces headroom by about 2 inches. I didn't like the setup, as I'm of average height, but taller drivers might like being able to stretch their legs forward in such a manner. This also takes up what little space rear passengers might have enjoyed in the coupe. Trying to sit in the back is futile for anyone of average height. At 5-foot-10, I was forced to hunch over because my head abutted the roof and rear glass. My knees were in my chest and my feet were squished under the seat. Not fun.
The fact that this is a car for primarily two people shouldn't be a major drawback, as buyers of this type of car expect to give up those conveniences. However, the competition does a better job of making the space livable for all passengers.
The Altima coupe gets a lot of hand-me-down standard equipment from its four-door brother, including a keyless ignition system that sounds like luxury car frivolity but became second nature to me. Nissan is still trying to fix complaints that the fancy key fobs can become inoperable if put in contact with an operating cell phone. Oops.
Both windows have one-touch operation from the driver's side. Steering-wheel controls for the radio are standard on the SE, while both models come with a standard six-speaker audio system with an auxiliary input for an MP3 player.
Steering-wheel-mounted audio controls are standard only on the 3.5 SE — unfortunate, considering many automakers are making the feature standard on less expensive models.
Nissan, with few exceptions, also makes options available only in expensive packages. Besides an $850 moonroof option, things like leather seats, upgraded audio systems and dual-zone climate control must be purchased in a $3,200 Premium Package for the 3.5 SE. That price jumps to $5,100 for the 2.5 S, where the package also includes the moonroof.
There is also a $2,000 Technology Package that includes a navigation system and backup camera. Backup cameras are usually found on SUVs and other large vehicles, but here the system helps with the reduced rear visibility that results from the coupe's high back end.
The Altima coupe comes with front-seat-mounted side airbags, as well as side curtain airbags for the front and rear occupants. While we're happy to hear there are standard active head restraints to protect front occupants in rear collisions, it's surprising that electronic stability control is offered only as a $600 option. Car dealers often don't order vehicles equipped with stability control if it raises the sticker price. Federal law will mandate stability control in 2009.
Altima Coupe in the Market
There's no question the Altima coupe trumps the competition in terms of performance and style, two vitally important factors for shoppers in this category. Where we find fault with the car is in its pricey option packages and lack of standard stability control. When optioned out, the price of the V-6 Altima coupe gets dangerously close to 350Z and Mustang GT territory, and then choices get a bit fuzzy. Judged in a vacuum, though, the Altima coupe is mighty impressive.
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