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.
The Bose stereo system includes nine speakers and produces a strong sound. It's not a true audiophile system, but it sounds a lot better than the typical six-speaker system found in this class of car. It doesn't produce great clarity, somewhat muddling the mids and highs, but the bass was strong enough to shake the mirrors on our car.
The Connection package also comes with Bluetooth cell phone support, which works in conjunction with a voice command system. We found it painless to pair a phone to the system, and the call quality was good. Unfortunately, you will have to manually enter phone numbers to the phone book, as the car can't download them from a phone. When using the phone system, there is some feedback on the radio display, but it doesn't go so far as to show the number you're dialing, or the number for incoming calls.
Under the hood
As we found while driving the car, the 2009 Nissan Altima Hybrid combines performance with its thrifty hybrid power train. Its gasoline engine is a 2.5-liter four cylinder that makes 158 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque, while the electric motor, running up to 1,500rpm, creates 40 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque. Nissan puts net horsepower at 198, while the Toyota Camry Hybrid has a net horsepower of 187.
This Toyota-licensed hybrid system works very well, letting the Altima Hybrid run from zero to over 35 mph under electric power only, as long as you're gentle on the accelerator. In urban and suburban areas, you can get away with lengthy gas- and emissions-free driving. As implemented in the Altima Hybrid, the gas engine shuts off not only when you are stopped at a light or in traffic, but also when you are coasting at speeds below 35 mph. Although the system produces some odd power fluctuations, akin to turbo lag in a turbocharged engine, it operates very smoothly, making it hard to tell when the engine has kicked in.
As with many newer cars, the Altima Hybrid uses electric power steering, which lessens the load on the engine, saving gas. While some electric power steering we've used has been over-powered, making the steering too light, Nissan puts a lot of road-feel into this system. You have to put a little effort into turning the wheel when the car is stopped, but that also translates to solid handling in the corners.
We mentioned the stability at the beginning of this review, helped by anti-sway bars. The Altima Hybrid also features what Nissan calls Vehicle Dynamic Control, a stability program, and traction control, all standard. Other safety measures include antilock brakes with brake force distribution and a full set of airbags around the cabin.
Fuel economy should be the primary attribute of any hybrid, and the Altima Hybrid does reasonably well in this regard. Its EPA rating is 35 mpg city and 33 mpg highway. In spirited driving, we didn't dip below 30 mpg, and our real world mixed driving, with a bias towards highways, produced an average of 33.6 mpg.
For emissions, the Altima Hybrid falls short of the AT-PZEV Holy Grail, only coming in with a SULEV rating from the California Air Resources Board (CARB). Nissan only sells the Altima Hybrid in states that follow CARB emissions rules, and warns that maintenance or repairs may involve delays in other states.
The 2009 Nissan Altima Hybrid bases at $26,650, a good $5,000 more than the non-hybrid Altima. Our car came with the Connection package, which added all of the cabin tech and various comfort features, for $3,100, and the Convenience package, with things like a power adjustable driver seat, adding $1,300 to the total. Along with $110 for floor mats and $695 for destination, our total came out to $31,855. The Technology package, which includes the navigation system and a rear-view camera, would have added $2,000 to the price.
A similarly equipped Toyota Camry Hybrid will run a couple of thousand less than the Altima Hybrid, although the Camry doesn't offer traffic on its navigation system and has a slightly inferior stereo. We also think the Altima Hybrid delivers more sprightly performance than the Camry Hybrid, while fuel economy is about the same.
We gave the Altima Hybrid top points for its performance, as it combines good fuel economy with a sporty driving experience. Its cabin tech rating didn't score as high. It covers the bases with navigation, Bluetooth, and a decent stereo, but none of these components is really top-notch. It does, however, get a little bump from the traffic reports integrated with its navigation system. For design, the Altima looks mundane, but it has some styling that deserves a second glance. The electronics interface is functional, but basic.