Although Nissan has promised to offer battery/electric vehicles by next year, it's still found time to occasionally tinker with gasoline/electric hybrids. That's a good thing, as the 2009 Nissan Altima Hybrid is one of the most enjoyable hybrid sedans on the market.
This isn't, of course, because the Altima Hybrid is at the cutting edge of hybrid technology. No, we enjoy Nissan's entry in this segment simply because it doesn't smack of being a hybrid first and foremost.
You won't find a dozen giant hybrid emblems splattered across the exterior, nor will you see any blue-tinted headlamps, custom wheels, or splashy graphics. Apart from three small "Hybrid" emblems, Nissan has made this hybrid a dead ringer for the stock Altima.
The same is true for the Altima Hybrid's suspension. We've long found this iteration of the Altima to be one of the better front-wheel-drive mid-size sedans, and the Altima Hybrid is no exception. Although it carries an extra 300 pounds versus a base Altima, the Hybrid feels no less sporty. We're not fans of the nonexistent feedback offered by the electric power steering, but the Altima Hybrid feels taut, nimble, and planted in most switchbacks. It's no four-door GT-R, but it feels downright exciting compared with the dowdy Toyota Camry Hybrid.
Nissan licensed most (if not all) of the Altima's hybrid powertrain from Toyota, but the Altima Hybrid responds to throttle input in a manner most unlike a Camry. Goose the gas in the Camry, and you'll hear its engine frantically rev while the CVT slowly winds the car up to speed. Do the same in the Altima, and you're presented with a substantial wall of torque, courtesy of the 2.5-liter I-4 and a 105-kW (141-hp) electric motor working in combination.
Such a punch may suggest that the Altima Hybrid is tuned more for performance than ecology, but that's not the case. Slow, fluid starts and a gentle application of the accelerator pedal can keep the Altima running off electricity at speeds up to 40 mph. It's easy enough to kick the car into EV mode in parking garages and the like, but with some practice, the Altima can also silently cruise around congested downtown areas with ease.
Sadly, the ease of kicking the Altima Hybrid into EV mode doesn't translate into impressive fuel economy numbers. Certainly, the 35/33 mpg city/highway EPA ratings are nothing to sneeze at, but they're less than those posted by the new Ford Fusion Hybrid and the revised 2009 Toyota Camry Hybrid. At times, we didn't even see that - one staffer who piloted the car barely averaged 26 mpg on his weekend trip. We imagine, though, that both the long stretches of highway, coupled with the frigid Michigan winter, played a part in these lower-than-expected figures.
As much as we'd like to see Nissan work on increasing fuel economy even more, its engineers might better focus on a few other areas that deserve refinement. Although the suspension is decidedly sporty for this class, it also crashes over potholes, expansion joints, and broken surfaces in general. We also think some work could be done on the Altima Hybrid's transition between gasoline and electric modes. You'll feel the I-4 fire up in quite an abrupt manner, which isn't the case on either the Camry or the Fusion.
Although this could be a near-perfect hybrid with just a bit of polishing, we doubt that Nissan will take the time to devote much more development work to the Altima Hybrid. As it stands, the car is sold in only eight states (California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont), and the company's already expressed its interest in developing electric vehicles, not hybrids.