Users can program the navigation system either via the touch screen or by voice command. We were impressed with the car's ability to understand our spoken directions and the fact that the voice-command system uses a series of prompts for multilevel commands rather than requiring us to repeatedly press a Talk button or continually confirm our last command. The responsiveness of the voice command system was particularly evident in our Bluetooth test, in which we managed to call out phone numbers in their entirety at full speed and have the system understand us perfectly nearly every time. The Altima Hybrid's navigation system also features some advanced options--including a "Where am I" screen, which gives drivers information on their present location relative to major roads, and a "Nearby Traffic Info" screen, which lists local traffic incidents by proximity. In contrast to the car's touch screen menus, the graphical rendering of the maps on the Altima Hybrid are decidedly last-generation--a particular shame as the useful (and expensive) color-coded XM NavTraffic service can sometimes be difficult to decipher.
More positive features of the Altima's cabin include its superb-sounding 9-speaker Bose audio system, which delivers far better audio quality than many other systems. We were particularly impressed by the clarity, acoustic separation, and lack of distortion of the system at higher volumes. When playing compressed digital audio formats such as MP3 and WMA discs, the LCD screen shows full ID3-tag information, and, similarly, shows channel, artist, title, and track information for music playing on Sirius or XM satellite radio.
A prominent and very accessible auxiliary input jack above the CD slot enables drivers to connect portable audio devices such as iPods without having to open the glove box or the central console. Beneath the LCD touch screen, a straightforward HVAC system includes stylish digital readouts in the temperature controls for both driver and passenger sides.
As a hybrid, the Altima Hybrid comes with the obligatory energy flow schematics that show the relationship between the battery, gasoline engine, the electric motor, and the wheels. And while it may have borrowed its hybrid technology from Toyota, Nissan's software and graphics interface are unique to the car, with a specific chart showing fuel history and the amount of energy reclaimed through regenerative braking.
Under the hood
With 198 net horsepower, the 2007 Nissan Altima hybrid feels quick around the city and adequately powered on the highway. The drive train is motivated by the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine from the standard Altima assisted by a 40-horsepower electric motor. All this propulsion is transferred to the front wheels via an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (CVT), which makes for a surprisingly smooth ride.
Like other hybrids we've seen, the Altima's regenerative braking translates the car's kinetic braking energy into electrical charge, which is stored in the battery. Unlike other hybrids we've driven such as the Mercury Mariner and Ford Escape hybrids, the effect of the Altima Hybrid's regenerative braking is subtle enough to ensure that it does not significantly interfere with the feel of the brakes.
In true hybrid fashion, the Altima Hybrid has a couple of gauges dedicated to informing the driver of the current state of hybridity: a gauge to the right of the steering wheel shows the level of juice left in the battery, while in place of a tachometer, a power meter shows what kind of electric charge is being used (when undergoing regenerative braking, this meter goes into electricity-generating territory).
The Altima hybrid is happiest in the city, where the EPA estimates that it will get an average gas mileage of 42mpg. In urban driving in electric-only mode, the car displays impressive throttle response at low speeds, and we enjoyed the smooth ride courtesy of the electric motor and the CVT. When the combustion engine does rumble into life, the effect is smooth and sometimes imperceptible, although on the freeway, the ride is a little less-refined than that in the Camry Hybrid, which feels better equipped to damp out uneven road and noise.
In contrast with the EPA's 2007 estimates for the Altima hybrid's gas mileage (42 city/ 36 highway), we observed an average fuel economy of 34.1mpg in mainly city driving. However, under the EPA's revised testing system, the car has a 2008 estimated mileage of 35 highway/ 33 city--exactly in line with our driving experience (as a good comparison, revised 2008 numbers for the Camry Hybrid are 33 city /34 highway). Standard safety equipment for the Altima Hybrid includes stability and traction control, ABS, and Nissan's advanced airbag system.
The 2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid comes with a base sticker price of $24,400. Our test car came optioned up with the colossal $7,250 Technology Package and another $100 for floor mats. With a destination fee of $615, that brought the final price tag up to a pretty steep $32,365, although it is worth mentioning that the Altima Hybrid qualifies for a $2,350 tax credit (available until three months after Nissan sells its 60,000th model). With the discontinuation of the Honda Accord Hybrid this year, the Altima will go squarely up against Toyota's Camry Hybrid, with which it shares much of its DNA.
The Camry and Altima hybrids divide the sedan market nicely. For those wanting a sedate ride with a higher level of cabin refinement, the Camry offers the best choice; for those who want a sportier experience with superior onboard tech, the Altima has the edge.