What's the recipe for creating a niche coupe, using two of America's perennial top-selling sedans as a base? Lose the rear doors, craft an attractive rear end, and offer an optional manual gearbox to please enthusiasts. But unlike purpose-driven performance coupes such as the Chevrolet Camaro and Ford Mustang, sedan-based coupes must capture the essence of the four-door original in order to carry its fan base. As recently as two years ago, the list of two-door iterations of sedans included entries from Toyota, Chevrolet, and Chrysler. Since then, however, the field of midsize coupes has shrunk to a number you can count on one hand. And with two of the standouts, the 2011 Honda Accord and Nissan Altima coupes, remarkably similar in terms of dimensions, horsepower, and price point, we decided to see how each manufacturer applies the tried-and-true formula.
On paper, the comparison between two midsize coupes shows the Altima sitting in the shadow of the Accord in terms of size, horsepower, and price. The output of their 3.5-liter V-6 engines is within one horsepower of one another (theoretical advantage: Honda), and their as-tested prices are within $100 (advantage: Nissan), save for our Accord's $2000 optional navigation system. A closer look at each car's driving dynamics and packaging, however, reveals that two fewer doors also gives each car a different character on the road. While the sedate sedan versions seem to pull at the same strings of America's pocketbooks, that's not as likely with the coupes.
Both coupes' exterior styling is clearly derived from their sedan siblings. The Accord's styling is smart and inoffensive, a careful adaptation of the sedan's squared-off lines. By contrast, the Altima coupe's design is an attempt to court low-budget aficionados of the Infiniti G37 coupe. It marries the staid front end of the Altima sedan with a sleek rear end, but some awkward lines make the sides look frumpy.
Interior quality and styling also illustrates the continuity between coupe and sedan. Drivers familiar with the archetypal Accord's clear gauges and near-perfect ergonomics will have no trouble adjusting to the Accord coupe's; the same, familiar feeling fills the Altima coupe's cabin, aside from our model's kickin' red leather seats, a clear departure from the beige mainstream. Our sole nit to pick with the Accord's interior was its outdated navigation interface, and copy editor Rusty Blackwell wondered "what year is it again?" upon discovering its trunk-mounted CD changer. Art director Matt Tierney summed up most editors' feelings about the Altima's handsome interior, which he described as having "finishes [that] are 99 percent gorgeous," marred only by "the strange, not-quite faux brushed metal compartment in the center stack." Interior space in the Altima coupe is notably less generous than in the sedan, whereas the difference was less dramatic in the Accord coupe.
Under the skin, the differences between the coupes start to become more distinct. Although the two powertrains are remarkably similar -- both engines displace 3.5 liters and produce in the neighborhood of 270 horsepower -- the differences between them become apparent once you step on the gas. The Altima's slightly torquier VQ-derived V-6 emits a coarse growl, while the Accord's smooth power delivery is the antithesis to the Nissan's caterwaul howl.
Unlike their V-6 sedan counterparts, both coupes offer six-speed manual transmissions. The no-cost manual in the Accord coupe is a repeat performance of the familiar, silky Honda gearbox; smooth, short shifts demonstrate the éclat of the Accord's engineering. By contrast, the Altima's engine histrionics carry over to its six-speed manual (a $2330 option), which feels balky and disconnected, with vague throws. Although manuals are usually sacrosanct in stirring our enthusiast souls, the Altima's standard continuously variable transmission is the smoother choice in this application. Though neither stick shift is likely to become the majority choice among buyers, Honda and Nissan's outreach gesture to a perceived demographic of drivers who enjoy driving does not go unnoticed.
Both coupes utilize a front-wheel-drive chassis, and suffer from varying amounts of torque steer, although they're quite quick off the line. As assistant editor David Zenlea wrote, "What never ceases to amaze me is just how FAST these coupes are when tied to a six-speed manual. If you're in an older Mustang or Camaro and see one of these pull up next to you at a light, don't laugh."
However, there is a difference in the way that the two cars drive, and most editors felt that the Accord delivered superior dynamics. Combined with the soggy manual gearbox and stiff clutch, the Altima's raucous engine note, less satisfying steering and body control did not harmonize. West Coast editor Jason Cammisa summed up the Altima coupe's personality: "It looks like it's supposed to be sporty, but it doesn't deliver in any way, shape, or form. Sure, it's fast as the Dickens, but it ends there." In contrast was the Accord's sharp steering and its sporty, yet well-dampened ride. The Honda makes good on the promise of its sporty pretensions without losing the character that defines the Accord sedan.
At the end of the day, it's the Accord's all-around refinement that sets it one class above its competitor. The Altima, conversely, overpromises and under-delivers both against the Accord and within the Nissan lineup itself. The highly entertaining 370Z is within $2000 of the Altima, or, for a bit more dough, sister division Infiniti offers the sporty and refined G37 coupe.
Perhaps deputy editor Joe DeMatio said it best: "The Honda Accord coupe has always felt like a discount Acura, whereas the Nissan Altima coupe feels like a dressed-up economy car." In this comparison of all-too-similar coupes, the nod goes to the Accord, hands down.