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Nissan becomes the last major Japanese auto manufacturer to enter the hybrid market, with its 2007 Altima Hybrid. While the Altima's Hybrid's technology is licensed from Toyota, the four-door ecosedan is very much a Nissan, with exterior and interior styling and a driving experience all its own.
With a sportier profile than the Toyota Camry Hybrid, the Altima Hybrid delivers a zippier--if a little rougher--ride than its main competitor. Unlike the Camry Hybrid, the base-level Altima is stripped down in terms of cabin tech, and those wanting gadgetry will find themselves paying dearly for the option. Those who do make the investment will not be disappointed, as the Altima Hybrid borrows some of the high-end technologies from Nissan's luxury Infiniti marque, including an outstanding voice-recognition system, a great Bluetooth hands-free calling interface, and an excellent Bose stereo.
On the down side, if you live outside of California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, or Vermont you are in for a long drive home from the dealers, as the model is initially being sold only in those eight states.
Test the tech: Bluetooth pair-off
While its (Toyota-sourced) dual-mode drive train is the headline technology in the 2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid, the car does boast some impressive cabin gadgetry if optioned up with the hefty Technology Package. Among the 25 or so line items that this package offers is Bluetooth hands-free calling with voice-activated dialing, a system that we found to be one of the most intuitive and easy-to-operate to date.
Using the Altima Hybrid's in-dash touch-screen LCD display, users can prepare the car for cell phone connection with the minimum amount of effort (a welcome change from many Byzantine systems that other automakers install in their models). To do justice to this user-friendly Bluetooth interface, our tech test in the Altima Hybrid was to find a cell phone that was equally easy to pair.
For our sample set of phones, we went to CNET cell phone editor Kent German, who provided us with handsets from five different phone manufacturers. The test would be to determine which of these phones was the easiest to pair and use hands-free in conjunction with the Altima system. To prepare the car to pair with each of the phone, we had to go through the simple Bluetooth setup process, involving the following steps on the touch screen: Setup> Phone> Bluetooth setup> Pair phone. With the car thus enabled to search for phones, we then concentrated on the handsets themselves.
The Altima Hybrid's Bluetooth system is one of the most user-friendly we've seen.
1) LG DM L-200: The LG model required a relatively straightforward process to get to its Bluetooth menu (menu> toolbox> tools> Bluetooth> add device), followed by a 15-second search to find the Altima Hybrid's Bluetooth connection. The phone remained connected when we turned the car off and then on again, and our outbound test call got through the first time.
2) Samsung SGH-D807: The Samsung handset required a similar five-step process to activate its Bluetooth search function, and a shorter, 10-second wait for the phone to find the car. Unlike the LG phone, however, the Samsung did not manage to reconnect to the car after it was restarted and the phone required a separate setting to be activated ("authorize device") for car and phone to automatically connect. Like the LG phone, the Samsung worked the first time for outbound calls.
3) Nokia 5700: This was the easiest phone to connect to the car, thanks to the Bluetooth icon on its main menu. A three-step process sets the phone to look for devices, and after less than 10 seconds the phone had found the car. Upon discovery, the Nokia phone asked us whether we would like to connect automatically to the car--a better option than either connecting without asking (not ideal for security reasons) and having to proactively search out the "authorize device" option on the Samsung handset. With phone and car connected, the Nokia made outbound calls the first time using the car's voice dial interface.
4) Palm Treo 750: One of two "smart" phones in the test, the Treo was easy to pair initially thanks to the Bluetooth icon on its main menu screen, and the device found the car without any trouble. However, that's where the good news ended. The Treo was not able to reconnect to the car when the ignition was turned off and then back on, and we had to spend a couple of minutes manually reconnecting. The Treo also displayed a disappointing response when attempting outgoing calls: having dialed via voice command, we had to wait nearly 20 seconds for the phone to connect.
5) HTC S710: This phone was the worst Bluetooth device of the bunch. While it was initially straightforward to pair the HTC S710, the smart phone was unable to call out. Having dialed a number, we waited for around 15 seconds before the phone showed us that we were connected, but there was no sound from the other end of the phone. Despite showing a full signal, the HTC S710 was simply unable to connect via the Altima's hands-free interface.
Smart phones didn't look so clever in our Bluetooth test.
The bottom line from our test appears to be this: for best in-car hands-free calling, use a cell phone rather than a smart phone.
In the cabin
The interior of the 2007 Nissan Altima hybrid is entirely a case of pay to play. For the base-level model the cabin is cleanly designed with good-looking materials and appointments, but from a tech perspective it is stripped down, with the only noteworthy features being a smart key and a single-disc CD player.
For those willing to shell out for one of the three hefty options packages, however, a world of gadgetry awaits. The $7,250 Technology Package, with which our $24,400 test car was equipped, is less of a package and more of a trim level. It includes GPS navigation with XM NavTraffic; Bluetooth connectivity; a nine-speaker Bose audio system with six-CD/MP3 changer and satellite radio; a rear-view monitor, a hybrid energy display; leather seats; a power moon roof; and over a dozen other minor features. Two separate Connections Packages (one with XM Satellite radio, the other with Sirius) are the next cheapest option at $5,250, and deliver many features that would be considered standard on other midmarket sedans, such as HomeLink, an autodimming inside rearview mirror, MP3/WMA compatibility, Radio Data System (RDS), speed-sensitive audio volume, and illuminated console lighting. More substantial features of the Connections package include Bluetooth hands-free calling, the upgraded Bose speaker system, and factory-installed satellite radio, but even so, the package is pricey for what you get.
Having stumped up the cash for the Technology Package, drivers of the Altima Hybrid can at least rest assured that they will be getting a well-designed and tastefully integrated tech features. Most of the digital systems on the Altima Hybrid are controlled via the car's in-dash touch screen LCD display--an Infiniti-inspired system that we prefer immensely to the jog stick arrangement that we saw in the 2007 Nissan Maxima and the Nissan Pathfinder. Menus for navigation, digital audio, and hands-free calling all feature large, bright, well-laid-out buttons, making them very easy to program on the move.
The Technology Package endows the Altima Hybrid with a bright LCD touch screen.
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.
We like the Altima Hybrid's advanced navigation features such as live traffic from XM.
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.
The Altima Hybrid has the compulsory hybrid energy graphic.
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.