Coldest day of the year. Single-digit, negative windchill cold. The rented Sony Digital Beta machine almost fits into the trunk of the newly minted Nissan Altima Coupe. The speakers for the Bose stereo hang down too low and block what could have been a glove-tight fit. Time for plan B. While the boffins at the video equipment rental house are watching from the window, I back the car into the middle of the parking lot to swing that big coupe door out as wide as it'll go. Okay, does the front seat lie flat? No... damn. The back seats do fold down and the front headrest is removable. Hmm. Front passenger seat slid all the way forward and reclined all the way back gives me *just* enough room to cram the big broadcast unit into the car where it has a cozy space to rest. That'll learn ya to buy a coupe. Expect scenes like this to be oft-repeated if you carry more than a messenger bag with your car.
Let's get this out of the way; the Altima Coupe is not a poor man's anything. Its looks certainly set expectations. There's plenty of Infiniti G37 in the lines of the Altima Coupe, but it can stand on its own considerable merits without basking in the halo of some other cousin with totally unrelated architecture. The 2.5S Coupe is more 912 than 911, more 318 than 335, which is not an entirely bad thing. It's shorter, lower and lighter than the sedan, and the happy vibes are served up in big portions.
All photos ©2008 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.
Nissan's Altima Coupe has two different trim levels, the 2.5S like we drove, and a more premium 3.5SE that carries the excellent VQ six cylinder. The 3.5SE has 95 more horsepower, but chassis balance changes with the larger engine. Balletic poise aside, the 2.5 liter four's 175 horsepower is plenty. The big four isn't sonorous and snarly like the VQ, but it avoids the standard four-cylinder traits of thrashy and trashy. Nissan's 4 is well mannered, an especially neat trick when displacements push above 2.2 liters.
We were pleased to find a smooth-acting six-speed manual gearbox handling the ratios. Shifting slowly is the name of the game in standard-trans Altimas, because they tend to hang on to revs while you row the gearbox. Shifting lazily gives the engine management time to fiddle with the throttle, and as revs finally begin dropping, you can smoothly engage the next gear. A lot of cars do this, and it's not endearing. The drive-by-wire games keep the exhaust clean, and we'll gladly take a little behind the wheel aggravation for less smog. After just a short time with the Altima, you'll be snapping through gears like a pro. The clutch takeup is smooth and forgiving, and even though the pedals aren't exactly right for heel and toeing, the controls work together in a way that makes the Altima Coupe a joy machine. Equally pleasurable is the way the 2.5S settles down and uses its strong torque to cruise highways in a relaxed, quiet fashion while delivering 32 mpg on the EPA cycle. We saw combined average mileage in the high 20s and took great pleasure in watching the econ meter peg out while cruising the highway. Coffee drinkers beware, the 20-gallon (!) fuel tank in the Altima will laugh at your bladder; it takes a long time to run the tank down.
Although the chassis tuning of the 2.5S leaves you wondering what it could really do with more serious tires, it's a good compromise. The ride in the 2.5S doesn't pummel you and it's a good handler. Like the 318 and 912 we used earlier to illustrate its demeanor, the 2.5S is not the top dog, but serves up smiles with every clipped apex. The variable-boost steering could do with a little more heft, a little less speed off center, and some more communication, though. We found ourselves correcting mid-turn after over-turning on entry. That's about all we have to gripe about, besides the way revs hang. The Altima's platform is solid, and the shortening and hunkering the Coupe gets only serves to reiterate that point. At speed, things are quiet, and the tracking is relaxed. The Altima coupe knows where straight-ahead is, and the V6 models are actually a little less calm due to some extra starch in the suspension. The 2.5S is the way to go if you don't want to jiggle over surface aberrations. 175 horsepower is what sixes were laying down not too long ago, and with a hair under 3,100 pounds to haul around, performance is sprightly. Only if you're hung up on spec sheets would you feel the need for more underhood. A more forgiving ride is a higher priority for a daily driver than huge power that largely goes unused, anyway.
The interior materials are very good in this iteration of the Altima. Not slap-your-mama opulent like a Bentley, but things are on the good end of material and assembly quality. The dash graining is attractive, and the same material wraps the top of the door panels. It's soft to the touch, and further down the door panel is equally soft leather. The seats are well bolstered and supportive, and the heaters get nice and toasty. One overarching theme of the interior in our test car: black. Carbon nanotube, Smell The Glove black. The moonroof lets a lot of light in, though, averting the life-sucking potential of such a dark interior. Controls are well-placed and simple to use, and our car had the premium package, bumping the $20,490 base price by $5,100 and adding a big paragraph of equipment that most people want. Stepping up to the Premium Package nets you leather on the seats, wheel, and shift knob, 16-inch alloy rims, a Bose 6-disc audio system with XM and auxiliary input, Bluetooth for the phone, Homelink, heaters in the seats, dual zone temperature controls, automatic headlamps, auto dimming mirrors, and an extra level of spiff on the interior trim (either wood or metallic, depending on the interior's base hue).
Nissan insists on outfitting its cars with pushbuttons for starting, and it's annoying. Booting up takes a little bit longer than you'd expect, it's certainly less positive than twisting a key and hearing a starter obediently whirr to life. What happens is you get in, stow the fob in its hard to find slot by your left knee ( it usually latches on after the third try), step on the brake and clutch and press. Then you wait. Eventually, the engine starts, and you're ready for liftoff. Besides the pushbutton affair, the fob also enables keyless locking/unlocking. As long as it's on your person, you can just press the little black button on the exterior door handles and gain access to the car. It's nice not having to fiddle with a key to get in or out, so if that's the price we pay for the kitschy pushbutton, okay.
The interior has a lot of storage, and the Altima likely has the world's largest glovebox. The storage bin at the base of the center stack hides a 12 volt power outlet, and is big enough to store a lot of CDs for feeding the Bose stereo. If that's not enough space, the two-level storage box under the armrest is also humongous. Roominess is an ongoing theme in the Altima Coupe, at least for front seat passengers. The coupe loses a slice of length, however, which takes a whack out of rear legroom. We're not sure that an all-day comfortable rear compartment is that important to the typical coupe buyer, anyway. The mid-size form factor means there's a large trunk, and if that's not enough, folding the seatbacks opens up more room. Bulky items might require creativity to wedge through the trunk or door openings, but once that's figured out, there's a lot of useable space in the Altima Coupe.
The exterior is finely drawn, infused with a sense of forward motion. The rear quarter panels, for instance form haunches as the C-Pillars wrap inward. The backlight has a hint of Zagato from some angles, and the flanks are clean. There's a little too much ride height, leaving a lot of space around the wheels within the fenders, but that visual offense is offset by the supple ride. Come upon the car in the right light, and it can look a bit stubby too, but overall, Nissan's designers did a good job making a car that's attractive and won't look dated in four years. The taillights in particular shine like finely cut rubys, and the front end has been given a strong family resemblance to the rest of Nissan's lineup. We did miss foglamps up front, no matter how useful, they would've at least looked better than the blanking plates in our tester. Again, small quibbles are about all we can muster.
It's not a big surprise that the Altima Coupe is so satisfying. What started out as the replacement for the Stanza has grown in size and sales numbers to occupy a slot once inhabited by the Maxima. The amount of bases covered by the Altima has also expanded; it's a car that offers something for virtually every automotive desire short of a wagon, and wouldn't that be tasty? There are commodious sedans with miserly four cylinders, a burly V6 is available in all flavors, as are standard transmissions. Hybrid powertrains are even available in the Altima, though not in the coupe. The Altima sedan was also recently named a "Best Value" by Consumer Reports, and that moniker could easily be applied to the 2.5S Coupe we drove, too. It's a stylish, satisfying car filled with a bucketload of equipment, and it returns decent fuel economy, retains a level of usefulness, and rang up $26,380 tally on the sticker (though can be had in the low $20k range). Its most direct competitor, perhaps, is the new Accord Coupe, but the Altima is a little more compact than the Accord, which now is classed a "large car." The Altima also drives with a certain sense of joie de vivre that's not always a standard feature in cars from other makers, and that enthusiasm is probably its most endearing trait.
All photos ©2008 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.