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2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid Road Test
Clunky hybrid system mars experience with an otherwise great car

By Bill Roebuck

2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid
Wrapping up a week-long test drive of the 2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid gas-electric model, I feel conflicted about how to report on it. The newly redesigned Altima is certainly a wonderful family sedan -- its handling is great, it's fun to drive, it's quite spacious, and its looks are striking. What's not to like?

Well, the hybrid version of this model changes the story. Compared to other hybrids I've driven from Honda, Toyota and Ford, this one's -- in a word -- 'clunky'.

Unlike hybrids that will travel from stop up to 20 km/h or more on battery power before the gas engine starts, the Altima Hybrid's gasoline engine rattles to life at about 5-10 km/h. (In hybrid systems, the electric motor gets the vehicle going, then the gas engine starts and takes over).

By comparison, I could drive around my neighbourhood in the Toyota Camry Hybrid in what I like to call stealth mode (using only the virtually silent electric motor); by accelerating gently, the only apparent sound was the tires rolling on the pavement. Not so with the Altima, as its gas engine keeps starting, even at the slowest speeds. With it, I could only get the same stealth effect when reversing out of my driveway.

2007 Nissan Altima HybridAnd while other hybrids change from electric to gasoline power almost seamlessly -- you're usually not even aware of the change unless you observe an indicator on the instrument panel -- the Altima Hybrid rattles and clunks every time it switches. You can always hear the gas engine starting, making it very obvious that this is not your normal car.

More noise on deceleration alerts you to this fact, as the electric motor whines when it regenerates power to charge its batteries. I suppose an owner would get used to it but I found the whine distracting.

Like the Camry Hybrid, the Altima's batteries take up a significant amount of trunk space. A standard Altima sedan has 371 litres (13.1 cu ft) of cargo volume in the trunk, compared to 286 litres (10.1 cu ft) in the hybrid model. The rear seats do not fold down to extend the cargo area as they do in the non-hybrid models, although the hybrid has a small, lockable trunk pass-through for skis or other long items behind a fold-down rear armrest.

2007 Nissan Altima HybridOverall, the mileage is quite good on the Altima Hybrid; the trip computer display showed an average of 7.3 l/100 km during my week-long test (and that consisted mainly of city driving with only a couple of short trips on the highway). EPA-rated fuel economy is estimated at 5.6 l/100 km city and 5.9 l/100 km highway.

Fuel economy is aided by Nissan's  Xtronic hybrid-system-specific eCVT (continuously variable transmission), about which I have no criticisms. It provides plenty of take-off torque and is smooth and quiet.

The Hybrid is one of five models in the 2007 Altima lineup, the others being the four-cylinder Altima 2.5 S and 2.5 S with SL Package, and two 3.5-litre V6-powered models, the Altima 3.5 S and 3.5 SE.

The Altima Hybrid powertrain uses a 2.5-litre, four-cylinder engine that produces 158 hp. The hybrid system has a net rating of 198 hp when the 40-hp electric motor is taken into account. The electric motor is powered by a 244.8V Nickel Metal Hydride (Ni-MH) battery. Dual exhausts with chrome tips are standard. The model rated as an Advanced Technology - Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (AT-PZEV) and emits almost no evaporative emissions.

At speed -- under gasoline power -- the Altima behaves just as you'd expect. The ride is fast, smooth and quiet. Too bad the Hybrid model rattles and buzzes at start-up when cold and at slow speeds.

The 2007 gas engine in the hybrid has been refined with a larger intake manifold, increased compression ratio and reduced friction characteristics. It also features continuously variable valve timing, modular engine design, microfinished crank journals and cam lobes, molybdenum-coated lightweight pistons and an electronically controlled throttle.

2007 Nissan Altima HybridThis fourth-generation Altima uses Nissan's new D platform, which provides improved body rigidity and a redesigned suspension. The new platform includes a subframe-mounted front suspension with new geometry and shock absorbers with rebound springs. The half-shafts now have equal angles and are more parallel to the ground, which Nissan says, "virtually eliminates traditional front-wheel drive torque steer." However, on hard acceleration from a stop, you can still feel some torque steer; it may be less than previous models, but it's not completely gone.

Standard safety features on the five-passenger Altima include dual-stage front air bags, front seat side-impact supplemental air bags for chest protection, roof-mounted curtain side-impact air bags for front and rear outboard occupant head protection, and front seat Active Head Restraints.

The front seats provide roomy and comfortable accommodation, and the same goes for the rear, where there's plenty of legroom and headroom. Rear headrests are built into the seatbacks, although there's no provision for one in the centre rear seat.

The new Altima Hybrid is offered in one trimline in Canada. Its standard equipment includes Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC), Traction Control System (TCS), four-wheel power-assisted disc brakes with Anti-lock Braking System (ABS), electric power rack-and-pinion steering, four-wheel independent suspension and 16-inch aluminum-alloy wheels.

These features serve to provide excellent handling, with very little body lean in corners, no diving of the front end on hard braking, and a firm, confident braking feel.

Comfort and convenience features include standard Intelligent Key (you can keep it in your pocket and the car senses its presence) with Push Button Ignition. The dual-zone automatic climate control includes an Altima Hybrid-specific electrically powered A/C that continues to provide cooling even when the gasoline engine is stopped.

The hybrid Altima is built at Nissan's North America Manufacturing plant in Smyrna, Tenn. On Aug. 9, 2007, Nissan produced its three millionth Altima -- 15 years after the first Altima rolled off the line at the Smyrna plant. Altimas also are built at the company's plant in Canton, Miss. (these are slated for the U.S. market only).

The 2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid is priced at $32,998, plus $1,275 for freight and dealer prep, for a total of $34,273. (That's more than $5,000 over the standard base Altima.) There is a $1,500 federal fuel economy rebate available on this model.

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Bill Roebuck is the Editor and Senior Reviewer for CarTest! ©2007.

[Posted Aug. 23, 2007]