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.
The handling in the Altima Hybrid proves to be surprisingly good.
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.
Under heavy acceleration, the electric boost runs up to 150 kilowatts.
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.
Lacking navigation, our Altima Hybrid has this basic stereo interface.
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.
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.
This phone display doesn't show which number is being called.
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.
Nissan licenses Toyota's hybrid system, but uses its own 2.5-liter four cylinder engine.
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.
The transmission doesn't offer a manual or sport option. B stands for engine braking mode.
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.