We never thought we could have so much fun with a hybrid, but Nissan ups the performance of its 2009 Altima Hybrid with a stronger engine than its rival, the Toyota Camry Hybrid, and adds anti-sway bars to keep it from wallowing in the corners. The Altima Hybrid uses a full hybrid system that behaves similarly to that in the Camry Hybrid, which comes as no surprise because Nissan licenses the system from Toyota.
Fully loaded, the Altima Hybrid runs well over $30,000, but that gets you navigation with traffic, a Bluetooth cell phone system, and a Bose audio system, plus other niceties like a smart key and XM Satellite Radio. Our test car lacked the navigation option, but came with just about everything else. The most obvious lack in the Altima Hybrid is an iPod connection, although there is an auxiliary jack in the stereo face plate.
On the road
For one of our initial drives with the 2009 Nissan Altima Hybrid, we took it on one of our usual routes through the Santa Cruz Mountains. We were expecting the usual sort of commute car boringness from our drive, but early on we noticed the responsiveness of the accelerator.
On the freeway, we found it easy to run the car up from 60 to 80 mph, the gas engine getting a turbo-like boost from the electric motor. But was the suspension up to the boost? During quick lane changes, the steering provided good feedback and the car moved smartly between each new set of lane lines as we snapped the wheel.
This hybrid was encouraging rambunctious behavior, which continued on the two-lane roads off the freeway. Trying a fast launch to 60 mph on a not particularly level piece of road, the front tires let out an initial chirp before settling in for the hard work. The electric boost gauge climbed up to the 150-kilowatt mark. The acceleration to 40 mph felt very fast, but the extra bit to 60 mph seemed to take a long time. Although not ideal conditions for this sort of run, we still managed 7.6 seconds to 60 mph.
The road was damp so we approached the corners with initial caution. But the stability of the Altima Hybrid, coupled with the solid feeling from the steering wheel, had us pushing the envelope ever further. When stressed on a particularly sharp corner, the car's stability made it pivot, the back end trying to come out, and the front wheels pulling it neatly through while the car stayed mostly flat.
Nissan's electronic continuously variable transmission (eCVT) does an excellent job of delivering smooth acceleration, although in some corners we wanted a bigger push, which could have been accomplished with a greater step-down in the drive ratio. A couple of times the Altima Hybrid showed some nasty understeer, which might have been corrected by a little more power to the wheels. There is no sport or manual setting for this transmission, leaving you with the standard drive mode.
Of course, all of this accelerator work and hard cornering isn't in line with the hybrid's main virtue, fuel economy, but we still rolled into the garage with an average mpg of 31.7 on the trip computer.
In the cabin
As part of the Connection package, our 2009 Nissan Altima Hybrid came with leather seats, lending an upscale feel to the cabin. The instrument cluster features some unique gauges for the hybrid power system, replacing the tachometer with an electric boost gauge and putting battery and fuel gauges next to each other.
If the navigation option were present, there would be a hybrid power flow animation on the LCD, but our car merely had the base black face plate for the stereo with an orange display. Although navigation would have been nice, the gauges proved more than adequate for monitoring hybrid performance.
As another part of the Connection package, our car had a Bose stereo system, which includes a six-disc in-dash player that can read MP3 CDs. XM Satellite Radio is also part of this package, but for MP3 player connectivity the car is limited to an auxiliary jack. Given the small display on the stereo, browsing XM channels or folders on an MP3 CD involves going through each station or song sequentially, which isn't a problem if you get the navigation system.