So far Nissan hasn't been particularly enthusiastic about hybrid vehicles, not considering them to be a particularly good business proposition. However, new emissions regulations in California and a handful of other states have forced the company's hand. For 2007 they introduced a hybrid version of the Altima, but it's only available in California and other states that have adopted California regulations. Unfortunately, Michigan is not among those states, but Nissan brought one in anyway and dropped it off at the the AutoblogGreen garage for a week of evaluation.
Back in the late nineties when Carlos Ghosn took over the reigns at Nissan, he kicked off a complete revamp of the product line that included new platforms and a different styling direction. The first mainstream product to get the modern Nissan design language was the 2002 Altima, and that look has taken a natural evolution into the 2007 model. The basic profile of the previous generation model, from the curve of the front end to the base of the windshield, followed by a single continuous curve of the greenhouse is carried over. The details have all been updated and given a more upscale look. The sides of the older model were fairly slab sided, while the new car has some surface contouring that yields a more muscular appearance.
Continue reading the ABG review of the Altima Hybrid after the jump including a video of the car in action.
The headlights of the '02 version had a fairly generic looking horizontal layout, while the new edition has vertically stacked lights with multiple reflectors and integrated turn signals that wrap back into the fender-line, providing a definite family resemblance to the 350Z and the Infiniti G35. A more distinct character line flows from the front bumper over the side of the hood and into the base of the A-pillar. The front fenders flare out more prominently over the wheels and the character line from behind the wheel well now flows back into a wider shoulder along the rear fenders. The side mirrors get built-in LED turn signal repeaters on the front surface. At the back corners, the rear lights are not as tall but wrap further forward into the fender surface. Even the four cylinder hybrid Altima gets dual exhaust outlets, not that it makes the car sound any better. Hybrid badges adorn the trunk-lid and each front door.
Moving inside, the Altima has no key, just a fob with buttons to lock/unlock the doors and open the trunk, along with usual "I lost my car in the mall parking lot!" panic button. When you get in the car, as long as you have the fob, you just step on the brake and press the start/stop button on the dash to "start" the car. Of course as a hybrid the engine usually doesn't fire up immediately when you do this. Starting the car, causes the electro-hydraulic brake system to pressurize the high pressure accumulator that provides brake boost, and the rest of the car to boot up. After about ten seconds the ready light in the power gauge comes on and you're ready to go. When I recently drove a Cadillac STS, it had a similar key-less fob, but with the GM cars that use the system, they automatically unlock when you approach the car with the fob in your pocket or purse, and locks the doors when you walk away. You never have to take the fob out. With the Nissan you don't need to take it out to start the car, but you still need to take it out to get in the car which largely negates it's usefulness. One thing drivers need to be careful of is to make sure they stop the drivetrain before walking away from the car. I pulled into a parking lot, put the transmission in Park, locked the doors and walked away. When I came back the car was still turned on. When the key leaves the vicinity of the car it should probably just shutdown automatically.
Update: Nissan spokesman Darryll Harrison got back to me with the following information: The system was designed to allow you to have the key fob nearby whether it be in your hand, in your pocket, in a bag, etc. in order to allow you to press the button on the handle to get into the car. The same is true for the push button ignition. If the car you had didn't allow you to access the vehicle by simply having the key fob in the proximity of the vehicle (no matter where it was located) please let me know and I'll have it checked out.
On the inside the Altima had an attractive, well finished layout, with padded soft-touch, surfaces and easy to reach controls. The standard 2.5L Altima with a CVT bases at $20,300. The Altima Hybrid starts at $24,400 with the CVT. The test car was loaded with the Technology package that bumped the price up to almost $33,000. The tech package means you get all the gadgets a geek could ever want in a car. Along with dual zone automatic climate control, the tech package includes a center console touch screen display that provides an interface to the XM radio, DVD/GPS navigation system, Bluetooth phone controls, rear view monitor, the power energy flow display with mpg history. The rear view monitor is pretty slick, with a camera mounted just above the rear license plate that gives a wide angle view behind the car that shows up on the display whenever the transmission is put in reverse, and has colored distance indicators that allow you to judge the distance to objects behind you.
Down at the bottom of the center stack is a 3.5mm auxiliary input jack for the stereo. This lets you hookup your iPod or other device to run directly into the stereo so that you can listen to the AutoblogGreen podcast on the go. Unfortunately, if you do this you need to make sure you don't plug in the iPod to charge while it's playing. There is a major ground loop somewhere in the system that causes a lot of noise in the system. Unplug the power and everything is fine. If you use an FM transmitter like the DLO TransPod, the reception of the radio is excellent even in areas with crowded radio waves. In the back, the rear seat loses the ability to fold down since the Panasonic made 244.8V NiMH battery pack sits immediately behind the seat back. The presence of the pack consumes about one third of the trunk space, dropping it from 15.3 cu.ft. to 10.1 cu.ft. The remaining volume is well shaped and useful, but small.
The transmission is a steel belt CVT that exhibits the usual characteristic of such a device under acceleration. When the accelerator is pressed, the engine revs up to a preset speed and stays there as the car accelerates. It's hard to judge just what that speed is as the tach has been replaced by a power flow gauge. The gauge is calibrated in kW and under acceleration or cruising, the needle goes into the white zone indicating the net power flowing out of the drivetrain combination of engine and battery. When the accelerator is released it moves down into the blue zone indicating power flowing into the batter from regenerative braking. When coasting, only a small amount of power flows in with the regen set to provide deceleration comparable to engine braking. All of this is of course simulated since there is no engine braking on this car. As soon as the right pedal is released, the engine shuts off. Press on the brake pedal and the power needle moves deeper into the blue zone.
Update: Darryll Harrison provided the following information on the CVT: The eCVT transaxle in the HEV is very different than the conventional car's steel belt CVT. It incorporates two electric motors coupled to the engine via a planetary gear set, and the relative motions of the sun, planet and ring gears determine vehicle speed. The system is the same as other similar Hybrid configurations with the main difference being Nissan's unique software tuning that controls the system (Nissan has added a more sporty feel and the Extended EV mode capability).
The blending of regenerative and friction braking is outstanding. The pedal feel was completely natural and never in 438 miles of driving over one week was it possible to distinguish any transition between friction (normal hydraulic braking) and regenerative braking. Pedal feel was very linear and easily modulated. Of all aspects of the hybrid system, this was probably the best implemented solely for the fact that it was completely unnoticeable. On the other hand, engine starts at light throttle conditions were definitely noticeable. Under moderate to heavy acceleration, the engine startup was fairly transparent, but under light throttle acceleration a bit of shuddering was noticeable, as the engine fired. Even more noticeable, when sitting still with some accessories running and low battery charge levels, the engine idle speed seemed too low, causing some shaking was easily felt. This was particularly prominent because most of the time, when sitting still the engine was not running at all, making the car silent. Since most modern fuel injected, electronically controlled engines idle so smoothly, this trait was somewhat disappointing.
Under the hood, the hybrid has a detuned version of the 2.5L four cylinder that is standard in the regular Altima with 158hp vs the 175 in the standard version. The electric motor adds 40hp more bringing the net output to 198hp. Of course this extra power is only available when the battery has some minimal level of charge. If the battery pack is low, the motor provides no help and in fact the extra 300lbs of the motor, battery and associated hardware causes a drag on performance. Since none of the various displays actually give any indication of the state of charge of the battery, it's hard to judge when it will provide any benefit. Some informal acceleration runs showed moderate but acceptable performance. From a standing start 30mph took about five seconds and 60mph followed at about nine seconds. Unlike some CVTs such as the ones used by Audi, this one is not preprogrammed with specific ratios, but instead the engine just revs to a predetermined level and stays there as the vehicle accelerates. The actual engine speed remains a mystery since the tachometer is absent. Unlike the idle speed, the engine remains smooth and quiet throughout. When the battery does have some juice available it does help out when starting from a standstill.
The ride of the Altima was firm and well controlled but never harsh. It absorbed the abuse of Michigan roads with aplomb. Body roll was kept to a minimum and the steering felt precise and well weighted. Accelerating through freeway on-ramps demonstrated a neutral stance with a stable feel but no excessive plowing. The Altima Hybrid isn't a sports car by any stretch of the imagination, but it won't embarrass itself either.
As with all hybrids, coming to a stop almost always means silence as the engine shuts down and then automatically restarts when you move off. There are some occasions when the engine runs when the car is not moving, such as at night when the lights are on and the heater is running. As always it depends on the state of charge of the battery. When the battery is charged up, moderate acceleration can yield electric only running up to speeds approaching 40mph for short times. Maneuvering around a parking lot requires extra care since it is often in silent EV mode.
So what does all this mean to the bottom line? The standard Altima, is rated by the EPA at 26/34mpg city/highway. The hybrid sees the EPA numbers jump up to 42/36mpg. In my own week of driving I racked up 438 miles and averaged 32.4 mpg with average driving. I didn't baby the car, but I didn't thrash it either. My driving cycle is about a fifty/fifty mix of urban and highway driving. For comparison I used to have a 1998 Dodge Stratus with a 2.0L four cylinder and five speed manual. When I finally got rid of that car in early 2005, it had 111,000 miles on the clock, ran 0-60 in about 9 seconds, and was still averaging 31mpg on the same driving cycle and style and could easily see up to 35mpg on long highway runs. The Stratus was similar in size to the Altima, and had the full size trunk of a base Altima. The Altima had a much higher level of refinement than the Stratus, and was better equipped.
Is it worth buying an Altima Hybrid? That's a good question that only you can answer. The Altima is fine automobile and very enjoyable to drive overall. It's solid, very attractive, well equipped and gets decent if not great mileage. Odds are a standard four cylinder, six speed Altima would get pretty close to the same fuel economy, without sacrificing one third of the trunk space. An Altima with a modern 2.0-2.5L turbo-diesel four cylinder would probably get similar performance and significantly better fuel economy. After living with the Altima for a week, it's understandable why Nissan is dubious about the benefits of hybrids and is restricting sales to only those states where the rules demand it. For the rest of the country, I have no qualms about recommending the standard Altima.
Other cars from the AutoblogGreen Garage: