The 2009 Nissan Altima coupe isn't a 350Z, Nissan's great little sports car, but for the money, it just might be the next best thing.
My first impression of the Altima coupe, looking at it from a distance from my second-floor bedroom window as it was sitting in front of my house, I thought it was a 350Z. The styling actually is that similar.
The first-ever coupe version of the Altima went on sale last year, adding some dimension to this popular midsize car line that competes against the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
But the coupe isn't just a two-door version of the Altima sedan. The exterior is significantly different, including taking styling cues from the beautiful 350Z, which starts at nearly $29,000 and runs to nearly $41,000 (plus freight and options).
With a starting price under $22,000 for the 2009 model, you can enjoy the practicality and performance of the Altima sedan, but in a coupe body style that has that distinctively sporty 350Z feel.
Before 350Z fans get the wrong idea, I'm not suggesting that the Altima coupe is anything like an equal. But there is enough of the 350Z DNA in the coupe to make it fun to drive, as well as attractive enough to turn heads.
The big difference, of course, is that the coupe is built on the same architecture as the front-drive Altima sedan, while the rear-drive 350Z shares its underpinnings with the Infiniti G coupe and sedan models.
But the Altima coupe has snazzier styling than its biggest competitor, the Accord coupe, although the Accord was redesigned for 2008 and is a lot more sporty-looking than it has ever been.
One of Nissan's strengths is cutting-edge styling, though, and the Altima coupe carries on that tradition.
For 2007, the newest generation of the Altima sedan arrived, featuring an all-new chassis that is actually slightly smaller outside than the previous model. While the coupe has its own unique exterior, it rides on this same new chassis, and benefits from all of the changes the sedan received, including a roomier interior.
Instead of the bland styling of the previous model, the newest Altima sedan's interior looks like that of a more-expensive premium brand, and that carried over into the coupe model as well.
Outside, the rear end has a raked appearance similar to that of the sedan, but the rear side windows are much smaller, giving the coupe a more-drastic swoop from the roof to the rear bumper. This is where it is most like the 350Z.
The coupe is 182.5 inches long, compared with 189.8 inches for the sedan. Both have the same width, but the coupe is nearly three inches lower than the sedan, with an overall height of 55.3 inches.
Keeping true to its sporty mission, the coupe is designed to handle better than the sedan. To aid its handling, the coupe has a wheelbase of 105.3 inches, three inches shorter than that of the sedan.
While the coupe will have limited consumer appeal because it has two doors instead of four, it can seat up to five people quite comfortably, even though the rear passengers have to climb in through the front.
Coupes have come and gone in the U.S. market, with some automakers abandoning them altogether at times on account of apparent consumer disinterest. In fact, Toyota has discontinued its Camry Solara coupe for 2009, although the convertible model continues.
Nissan believes there still is a good market for coupes, especially because empty-nester baby boomers are now buying cars they want instead of the cars they needed when they had the kids at home.
That opens the door for more coupes, because they're usually way better looking than sedans.
Under the hood of the Altima Coupe are versions of the same engines offered in the sedan. The base engine is a 2.5-liter, double-overhead-cam, inline four-cylinder rated at 175 horsepower and 180 foot-pounds of torque.
But our tester, the Altima Coupe 3.5 SE model, comes with a version of the VQ-series 3.5-liter V-6 used in a number of Nissan and Infiniti vehicles, including the 350Z. In the Altima coupe, it's rated at 270 horsepower and 258 foot-pounds of torque. In the 2008 350Z, this engine puts out 306 horsepower and 268 foot-pounds of torque (the 2009 model will be the 370Z, with a 3.7-liter version of this engine and a few more horses).
Coupe models come with a choice of a six-speed manual gearbox, which is standard, or Nissan's continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT).
The V-6 engine and the manual gearbox were included in our tester, and will be the choice of those who want to get the sportiest performance out of the coupe. With this drivetrain, the coupe can go from zero to 60 mph in about six seconds.
Most buyers will want the automatic transmission, though, as it is the easiest to use in city traffic. With this gearbox, zero to 60 is about 6.5 seconds.
Our tester's V-6 engine and manual gearbox combination gave the vehicle EPA ratings of 19 city/27 highway. With the automatic, the numbers are 19 city/26 highway.
Even the four-cylinder engine offers a fun driving experience, and of course, it has the best fuel economy: EPA ratings are 23 miles per gallon city/32 highway with the manual transmission, and 23/31 with the CVT.
Coupe models are offered in base S and uplevel SE versions.
The starting price for 2009 is $21,750 plus $695 freight for the 2.5-liter S model with the six-speed manual transmission; with the CVT, the price goes up $500.
The SE V-6 manual we tested was the 2008 model, which had a base price of $24,890 (plus $625 freight). As with the S model, the CVT is an additional $500. For 2009, though, the price for the SE V-6 jumped to $26,390 (plus $695 freight) for the manual, and $26,890 for the automatic.
Nissan vehicles are designed to be fun to drive, and the Altima coupe is no exception. The car handles with almost sports-car precision, and was quite capable of handling the Hill Country curves out past my home near Medina Lake.
The power steering is speed-sensitive, and there was no wallowing. Sports cars are supposed to feel like that, but it's rare for a car that's designed as an everyday driver that can carry the whole family.
Coupes with the four-cylinder engine come with 16-inch wheels, while the V-6 has 17-inch aluminum-alloy wheels.
Among the equipment standard on all models are four-wheel antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution; traction control; sport-style front bucket seats; a 60/40 split-folding rear bench seat; air conditioning; and keyless entry and ignition system with push-button start.
Standard safety features include front-seat side-impact air bags and roof-mounted side-curtain air bags for front and rear passengers, and a tire-pressure monitoring system.
Options on our test car included the Premium Package ($3,200), which added a Bose audio system with nine speakers, a Bluetooth hands-free phone system, satellite radio, dual-zone automatic climate control, leather-trimmed seats/doors/shifter, heated front seats, auto-dimming rearview mirror, and a universal garage/gate opener; electronic stability control ($600), available only on the V-6; and carpeted floor and trunk mats ($175).
With options and freight, total sticker for our 2008 tester was $29,490; for 2009, a coupe equipped the same way would list for $31,030.
Nissan builds the Altima coupe in Smyrna, Tenn.
The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at 210-250-3236; email@example.com.
2008/2009 Nissan Altima Coupe
The package: Midsize, two-door, five-passenger, four-cylinder or V-6 powered, front-drive sport coupe.
Highlights: Nissan has added a coupe version of its popular midsize Altima sedan for 2008. This is a sporty car with great styling that is quite different from that of the sedan.
Negatives: Electronic stability control should be standard, but is a $600 option; cargo space is half that of the sedan version.
Engine: 2.5-liter inline four cylinder or 3.5-liter V-6.
Transmission: Six-speed manual or continuously variable automatic.
Power/torque: 175 HP/180 foot-pounds (I-4); 270 HP/258 foot-pounds (V-6).
Length: 182.5 inches.
Curb weight: 3,052-3,271 pounds.
Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock.
Trunk volume: 7.4 cubic feet.
Side air bags: Front seat-mounted, roof-mounted side-curtain for both rows, standard.
Electronic stability control: Optional, available only on V-6 model.
Fuel capacity/type: 20 gallons/unleaded regular (I-4); unleaded premium (V-6).
EPA fuel economy: 19-23 mpg city/26-32 highway.
Major competitors: Honda Accord coupe, Pontiac G6 coupe.
Base price range (2009): $21,750-$26,890 plus $695 freight.
Price as tested: $29,490 including freight and options (2008 SE V-6 model with manual); the 2009 price for the same model and options would be $31,060.
On the Road rating: 9.3 (of a possible 10).