The Altima Coupe is the sportiest-looking model to come out of Nissan's factory since the iconic 350Z. Nissan promises that the two-door version of its midsize sedan will deliver "true performance, true technology, true coupe." The last of these claims is irrefutable: with its raked fastback roofline and flowing shoulders, the Altima Coupe marks a bold styling departure from the staid lines of the sedan. Aesthetes may disagree over the car's bulbous rear-end styling, which, depending on your school of thought, is either a dashing, Infiniti-inspired touch of style or a flabby appendage that looks like an aftermarket body kit.
The aesthetic merits of the Altima Coupe's rear end are in the eye of the beholder.
And Nissan has a case for pushing the performance and technology merits of the Altima Coupe. With a choice between a 2.5-liter in-line four and a 3.5-liter V-6, the coupe is not found wanting for power, and we are inclined to favor the smaller engine choice, which is less likely to overpower the front wheels. On the cabin tech front, the coupe has the same available arsenal of gadgets as that of its sedan sibling, including GPS navigation and Bluetooth hands-free calling, although most of the goodies come as part of pricey options packages.
Test the tech: Tunitas Creek Road
The Altima Coupe may look like a sports car, but we had our doubts about whether the front-wheel drive model would actually perform like one. To settle the matter decisively, we set out toward one of our favorite proving grounds south of San Francisco by the name of Tunitas Creek Road. It is difficult to overemphasize the demands that this forest trail high up in the Portola Valley puts on cars during spirited driving. With its corkscrew corners, blind bends, and hairpin turns, the serpentine Tunitas Creek Road is less of a race track than a rally course--the perfect place to test the mettle of the Altima Coupe.
Tunitas Creek Road is not for the faint of heart.
Our test car was equipped with the baseline 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine mated to the standard six-speed manual transmission for which we were eternally grateful: had our loaner come with the optional $500 continuously variable transmission (CVT), we suspect we could have kissed all hopes of a sporty ride goodbye. To get to our test track, we had to drive Skyline Boulevard, a windy, single-track road, but with wider sweeping turns rather than the chicanery of Tunitas Creek Road.
Driving Skyline at around 50 mph, we had a chance to see how the Altima Coupe responded to cornering at speed and short bursts of acceleration and braking. While were impressed with the ability of the punchy four-cylinder engine to get us up to speed quickly, and by the linear quality of the brakes when approaching a turn, we were underwhelmed with the Altima Coupe's handling ability on corner exits. The Altima demonstrated considerable understeer lunging into corners and requiring us to constantly overextend in steering to push the car through the bends.
The Altima Coupe stood up well to the heel-and-toe driving that the winding trail demanded.
Once on the Tunitas Creek Road, we were more impressed with the Altima Coupe's performance. At lower speeds, the car feels much lighter on its feet and steering feels more responsive, with plenty of feedback coming through the wheel. One of the most impressive things we noticed while heel-and-toeing our way down the grueling slalom was the car's solid feel courtesy of its sport-tuned suspension and its rigid chassis, which both stood up well to the road's uneven surface. After 20 minutes of threading our way through the tree-lined course, we emerged from the winding trail with a better impression of the Altima Coupe's performance prowess. This is one car that you can throw about with confidence, providing that you're not traveling too fast.
In the cabin
The interior of the 2008 Nissan Altima Coupe features a clean, sparse design with a neat arrangement of cabin amenities, including an as-standard Intelligent (remote) key with pushbutton start. Our car was optioned up with charcoal leather covering for the seats and door panels, which was offset by some stylish silvery trim for the door handles and storage compartment. On the downside, we were surprised at the lack of fit and finish for the car's spring-loaded center storage console, which when closed left a gaping gap between the plastic cover and the central console.
As part of our test car's heftily priced Premium package, it was optioned up with a number of impressive cabin tech features. For entertainment, we got an upgraded stereo with six-disc in-dash changer capable of handing MP3 discs and input from portable media players via its front-mounted line-in jack. We found the buttons and dials for the head unit to be intuitive and well-laid-out, and we particularly like the generic Display button that enables drivers to cycle through text information on album, artist, and song title names for MP3 discs, and XM station, category, artist, and track information for XM satellite radio.
We like the clean readout given by the Altima Coupe's stereo head unit display.
Also as part of the Premium package, the Altima Coupe gets a nine-speaker Bose-branded audio system, which concentrated its output toward the front seats (a good move, seeing as there is very little legroom for anyone other than small children in the backseats). We found sound quality to be adequate for listening to MP3 discs and XM satellite radio--also part of the Premium package--but that audio output suffered from muddy bass and a lack of acoustic separation at higher volumes.
For communication, the Premium package gives the Altima Coupe one of the most user-friendly Bluetooth hands-free calling interfaces on the market. After a straightforward pairing process during which car and phone find each other, all phone controls can be activated by voice using a command button mounted on the steering wheel. Throughout our time with the car, we were consistently impressed with the ability of the system to understand our spoken commands: as an added bonus, the Nissan's Bluetooth system allows drivers to cut in with a command without having to wait for the car to complete its list of options.
Nissan's Bluetooth hands-free calling interface is one of the best we've tested.
One curious thing that we noticed when using the steering-wheel-mounted controls was that the buttons on the wheel were connected to the car's horn, and that if we held a button down for an extended time or if we pushed a button particularly firmly, we ended up incurring death stares from other road users who thought that we were beeping at them.
Under the hood
As we found in our canyon carving adventure on the Tunitas Creek Road and elsewhere, the Altima Coupe's base-level 175-horsepower 2.5-liter in-line four cylinder engine provides plenty of zip for a car this size, but for those who feel like an extra 100 horsepower, the coupe is also available with Nissan's flagship 3.5-liter V-6. Based on our driving experience in the 2007 Nissan Maxima 3.5 SE , we're not sure of the utility of the bigger engine in the front-wheel drive coupe, particularly seeing as we regularly managed to inadvertently spin the wheels off the line with the smaller engine.
We're inclined to favor the smaller 2.5-liter engine option in the Altima Coupe, which has less likelihood of overpowering the front wheels.
Driving the Altima Coupe around town, it is clear that the car was tuned with sporty driving in mind as throttle engagement and brakes are both sharp to the point of being aggressive. On the other hand, the coupe's power-assisted steering feels far too overboosted at low speeds, which we found to be a little disconcerting (thankfully the steering tightens up considerably at higher speeds). As we noted in our mountain joyride, the Altima Coupe tracks well at lower speeds, but is prone to understeer when thrown into corners at higher speeds.
In spirited driving, the throttle tip-in is well-suited to quick upshifts with the long-throw stick. One of the most enjoyable elements of driving the Altima Coupe is its midrange and in-gear acceleration. While its red line is at 6,500rpm, peak horsepower is up at 5,600rpm, which is where the car feels happiest and most responsive. Handling is firm and rigid thanks to a sport-tuned coil-over-spring front-link and multilink independent rear suspension and front- and rear-stabilizer bars. As of this writing, official EPA fuel-economy figures for the Altima Coupe were not available; however, in our week with the car, we observed an impressive average gas-mileage figure of 27.9 over nearly 300 miles of mixed freeway, city, and slalom-course driving.
Our manual-transmission 2008 Nissan Altima Coupe came with a base price of $20,570, to which we added a hefty $5,100 for the Premium package, giving us a power moonroof; leather-trimmed, heated seats; Bluetooth hands-free calling; the upgraded Bose audio system with an MP3-compatible six-CD changer; XM satellite radio; and some other minor cabin niceties.
The Nissan Altima Coupe is a car that will appeal to commuters and weekend racers who want a sport-tuned ride without the rawness of the 350Z or the price tag of the new Infiniti G37. Its bold styling, broad range of interior tech, edgy driving dynamics, and impressive fuel economy make the Altima Coupe a formidable competitor when weighed against other cars in the segment such as the Pontiac G6 GT Coupe and the Honda Accord Coupe, which gets a major overhaul for 2008.