Nissan seems pretty tentative about the whole hybrid thing, with a lone hybrid model that is only sold in a handful of states (CA, CT, MA, ME, NJ, NY, OR, RI, and VT, to be exact). The Altima’s hybrid system is essentially the same as that in the Toyota Camry hybrid, although Nissan pairs it with its own 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. As in the Camry, a continuously variable automatic is the only transmission. The Altima hybrid would appear to be very much a me-too vehicle, but in many ways it’s actually more satisfying than the Camry hybrid.
The first thing everyone wants to know about hybrids is their fuel economy, and the Altima’s is quite good, with EPA ratings of 35 mpg city and 33 mpg highway, about on a par with the Toyota’s 33/34 mpg ratings. With the steep hills in my town, I rarely get close even to the city mpg figures during the week I spend in a test car, but in the Altima hybrid I averaged an indicated 33 mpg.
There was no display to watch the energy flow amongst the engine, the battery pack, and the regenerative brakes (it’s included with the navigation option, which this car didn’t have), but I was able to monitor instant and average fuel economy via a readout in the gauge cluster; there’s also a light that comes on to indicate when you’re in EV mode.
Compared to the Camry hybrid, the Altima’s powertrain corrals 11 more ponies, and they’re saddled with about 200 fewer pounds, so acceleration is reasonably brisk. As with all hybrids, there’s a brief shudder when the engine comes on or shuts down, and a bit of an electric whir, which is more futuristic-sounding than offensive. There’s also a bit of surging and slowing as the batteries kick in and then lay off, but you’re unlikely to notice it unless you drive at a steady speed on flat roads.
Like all hybrids, the Altima has electrically-assisted power steering, which can make for limp, lifeless steering, but Nissan has done an admirable job tuning this system. With its heavy battery pack located just behind the rear seat, the Altima hybrid’s rear suspension exhibits a bit more up-and-down motion than other Altimas, but it’s not as pronounced as in the Camry hybrid (possibly because of the Toyota carries more weight). Overall, though, the Altima manages to take the edge off bumps without the penalty of soggy handling.
Both cars sacrifice about one third of their trunk space to the battery pack; the Nissan’s carrying capacity is slightly smaller at 10.1 cubic feet. Passengers fare better, particularly since Nissan has given the Altima’s cabin a comprehensive upgrade in the last few years. Armrests are deeply cushioned, door panels are nicely upholstered, and the black cloth is a high-quality microfiber-like material (an interior treatment, by the way, that has trickled up from the bargain-priced but surprisingly plush Versa).
Overall, the Altima has a pleasant, real-car quality to it, whereas some hybrids can feel a bit like a science-fair project. At the same time, its fuel economy benefits are substantial, unlike “mild hybrids” such as GM’s Chevy Malibu and Saturn Aura. Whether those fuel economy gains make it worth spending significantly more for a hybrid depends of course on where and how much you drive (check out the annual fuel cost calculator at the EPA’s web site, fueleconomy.gov) and whether you place any value in driving an environmentally cleaner vehicle. But here again, the Nissan has an edge over the Toyota. Not only is its sticker price lower ($25,695 versus $26,150 for the Camry) but, because of the federal government’s arcane rules regarding tax subsidies, the Altima buyer could qualify for tax credits of $2350 whereas the Camry buyer would not.
Nissan might not be a hybrid pioneer, but they’ve still fielded a very competitive offering. What they really ought to do is field it in all fifty states.
2008 Nissan Altima Hybrid
Base Price: $ 25,695
As-Tested: $ 27,105
Engine: 4-cylinder aluminum DOHC 16-valve
Horsepower: 158 hp @ 5200 rpm
Torque: 162 lb-ft @ 2800 rpm
Electric Motor: Permanent Magnet Synchronous
AC Power Output: 40 hp @ 0-1500 rpm
Torque: 199 lb-ft @ 0-1500 rpm
Battery Type: Nickel-Metal Hydride
Transmission: Continuously Variable
L x W x H: 189.8 x 70.7 x 57.9 in
Legroom F/R: 44.1 / 35.8 in
Headroom F/R: 40.6 / 36.8 in
Cargo capacity: 10.1 cu ft
Curb Weight: 3471 lb
EPA Rating (city/highway/combined): 35/33/34 mpg