Based on this coupe's voluptuous looks, you expect it to drive like a bargain-basement Infiniti G37. In fact, it's much more similar to the Pontiac G6 coupe and the Toyota Camry Solara. That makes sense given that the Altima is, like those cars, a variant of a front-wheel-drive sedan, and not a de-contented hot rod built on Nissan's venerable FM platform.
That said, it's still rather disappointing to find out that such a good-looking car drives so plainly. The steering is lifeless and vague. The driveline reminds me a bit of its cousin, but that's not quite a compliment. Like the G37, the manual transmission is balky, with a clutch that's difficult to modulate. The 3.5-liter V-6 provides a familiar cacophony as it grinds and howls its way to redline. But whereas the G37's bigger V-6 at least rewards all that racket with strong performance, the Altima never really feels like it's packing its rated 270 hp. There was a time when the VQ engines were far and away the most powerful on the market, but nowadays many competitors provide similar performance with a lot less noise, vibration, and harshness.
I understand Nissan's quandary. The company wanted to capitalize off the halo of its G37, which enjoys near cult status among young people, without undermining sales of the more expensive car. The Altima coupe probably makes sense in four-cylinder form for folks simply looking for a dose of G-coupe style at a reasonable price. But our loaded tester is nothing short of a con job, costing nearly as much as a base G37 while providing none of the driving experience.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
I'll second the notion that this car makes a lot more sense as a four-banger. The Altima coupe looks pretty good inside and out, but there is absolutely no performance to back up the rather attractive curves. Although 270 hp looks good on paper, the front-wheel-drive layout, rather soft springs, and excessive body roll make anything more aggressive than commuting futile. And for this $33,000 sticker, you're well into Mustang/Challenger/Z-car territory, yet those cars offer more power and rear-drive as well as good looks.
Not only do I advocate ordering your Altima coupe with a four-cylinder, I'd also recommend the CVT in place of the manual transmission. Again, when you take out any sporting pretentions, the car is much more palatable. The same goes for the transmission. I can't really drive this manual smoothly, and there's not enough performance to justify the clunky shifts. My past experience with an Altima powered by the smooth four-cylinder/CVT combo was quite good.
Long on style, short on substance. The Altima coupe is the sort of car you wish you could like more, but there just isn't enough oomph to justify anything but a base car, perhaps with some options like a better stereo or leather seats. If you're set on a front-drive coupe, look to the Honda Accord if you enjoy driving even a little bit. If you're looking for a genuine performance car, it's worth the extra money to buy a 370Z.
Phil Floraday, Senior Online Editor
Last week I was quite harsh, essentially calling you out as a weak, overpriced poseur. Well, I had a chance to push you today on dry, completely empty roads (the best part of Christmas for a Jewish person, aside from the Chinese food), and while I don't retract any of my statements, I am willing to look at you with a bit more of a glass-half-full attitude.
Yes, your VQ engine is dated and noisy, but it rises to the challenge when the rpms rise, providing power in second gear that no other mid-size sedan can match. Your manual transmission isn't as good as what I'd find in an Accord coupe, but at least you offer one - that's a growing rarity in the segment (save the aforementioned Accord). And, as I said before, you are beautiful.
For next Christmas, tell Nissan engineers you want stiffer front struts; wider, stickier front tires; and a thicker rear antiroll bar. That should largely cure your annoying axle hop and torque steer, and it might make you less likely to plow nose-first through fast turns. You still won't be the stripped-down G37 your exterior promises, but you'll be able to shock the hell out of some Mustangs.
I'll look forward to that.
P.S. What are your plans for Easter?