2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid
2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid. Click image to enlarge


Review and photos by Jil McIntosh

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Oshawa, Ontario – Fixing the environment is not an easy business. Automakers are approaching it from several angles, including current solutions such as smaller engines and cleaner diesels, and futuristic engines that run on hydrogen. But perhaps the one that most people think of first is the gasoline-electric hybrid.

Among Japanese manufacturers, Toyota and Honda have ruled the hybrid segment, but Nissan now moves in for 2007 with a gasoline-electric version of its popular Altima sedan.

Available in a single trim line for $32,998, the Altima Hybrid uses a 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine that’s the base engine in the conventional Altima, mated to a hybrid system sourced from Toyota. The sole transmission choice is a CVT that’s very smooth and responsive; under most driving conditions, it feels more like a conventional unit.

By itself, the engine produces 158 horsepower, but the combined system creates a net power of 198 horses. Nissan says that it’s a company known for sporty operation, and it has combined a stiff chassis, sharp handling and this relatively powerful system to create a vehicle that’s more like a performance sedan.

Indeed, the company has done exactly that: press this hybrid hard, and it will respond with power that feels like a V6. It hugs curves with almost no body roll, and takes switchbacks in stride; while 350Z owners undoubtedly won’t be trading in their keys, the Altima Hybrid can stand up to many of its conventional competitors in performance and handling.

2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid
2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Of course, if you drive it that way, you’ve pretty much negated the benefits of the system.

The Altima Hybrid’s electric motor provides a boost to the gasoline engine under hard acceleration; under the right conditions, it will run on its battery alone, for up to 25 km, according to Nissan’s representatives. (I was able to move solely on battery power for the better part of an hour’s drive in downtown Toronto; low-speed, stop-and-go traffic situations produce maximum benefits from the hybrid system.) It also has an “auto stop” that turns off the engine at idle, such as when you’re stopped at a light; the lights, stereo, and climate control continue to run, although the car may idle on gasoline if the air conditioner is on high, or if the outside temperature is too cold. The electric motor restarts it, so there’s no fear of burning out a conventional starter.

(Speaking of replacing parts, the first question most people asked me was the price of replacing the hybrid battery pack. The system is covered by warranty for eight years or 160,000 km, and the company could only give an estimate since, obviously, no one has purchased one yet, but expect to pay about $3,900 if the unit is beyond factory coverage. Most manufacturers say the battery pack is priced similarly to a conventional transmission.)

2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid
2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid
2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

For my week with it, I drove the Altima by the hybrid rules, which means I pretty much ticked off every other motorist on the road. I took off from stoplights as if I had eggs under the pedal, I set the cruise at exactly 100 km/h and not a klick above, and I gauged traffic jams and lights so as to do as little braking and acceleration as possible. All of that netted me a combined average of 6.8 L/100 km (42 mpg Imp), which fell shy of the published 5.8 (49 mpg Imp), but which was still very good for a midsize sedan – I averaged 10.7 (26 mpg Imp) when I drove the conventional Altima.

The key to any hybrid, no matter who makes it, is that you’re going to have to adjust your driving habits to the car. It’s the only way you’re going to get back the car’s price-tag premium in your fuel savings: the Hybrid is $2,800 more than the priciest conventional Altima, and even at a buck-plus a litre, that’s a lot of gas. If you expect the car to just save you fuel by its nature, without putting any effort of your own into it, you’re going to be disappointed.

(And if you do put the effort into it, you’ll very quickly notice that the vast majority of people drive as if gasoline still costs 40 cents a litre. While I can be just as guilty at the best of times, I wonder how many hybrid/E85/hydrogen cars we’d really need if people simply drove their current vehicles more fuel-efficiently.)

2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid
2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

I’ve driven almost all of the hybrid offerings, and right now, the Altima is my favourite. The electrical system is unobtrusive and almost seamless; handling is crisp, unlike the vague electrical feeling that some hybrids exhibit; and the handsome exterior styling is matched with a comfortable interior that has been dramatically improved since the last-generation Altima. The only fault I found was in its wide turning circle, which sometimes necessitated a couple of tries to nose it into a tight parking spot.

The hybrid gauges, located in the cluster, are fairly simple, and because the car runs quietly, they’re sometimes the only way to tell if the system is solely on battery. The result was that I often had to remind myself to look at the road, not at the dash; no doubt the novelty would wear off, but I was determined to get the most out of my time with it, and it became an obsession to watch the readouts.

2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid
2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid
2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Thanks to the size of the tank – a 76-litre reservoir also used in the conventional Altima – Nissan says that this car has the longest range of any vehicle sold in Canada. I hit 620 km halfway through my fuel tank, and the trip computer said that I was good for a total of about 1,000 km before I’d need a fill-up.

Standard features on the Hybrid include automatic climate control, 16-inch alloy wheels, heated power-adjustable cloth seats, four-wheel vented disc brakes with ABS, stability control, side and curtain airbags, automatic headlamps, CD with six speakers and auxiliary jack, cruise control, power locks and windows, tilt and telescopic wheel, and speed-sensitive variable intermittent wipers.

It also comes standard with a proximity key, and uses an engine start/stop button – an unnecessary feature on any car, but downright dumb on a hybrid that stops running as you’re pulling into your parking space. It simply isn’t second nature to remember to hit an “engine stop” button when the engine isn’t running. Just before going to bed one night, I happened to glance out the window and noticed headlights; the Altima was sitting in my driveway running.

2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid
2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid
2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

I’d forgotten to hit the stop button, which shuts off not only the engine, but all of the car’s electrical systems. When it got dark, the automatic headlights came on, and when they’d sufficiently weakened the battery, the engine started up to recharge it. If I hadn’t noticed it, it might have run all night.

The interior dimensions are unchanged from the standard sedan, and so it’s roomy and comfortable for both front and rear seat passengers. Because of the battery pack, though, the trunk is only 61 cm long, and the rear seats don’t fold.

Overall, if you want a hybrid that’ll carry a load of full-size adults in comfort, this Altima is a fine choice.

But saving the planet is more than just picking the alternative-vehicle flavour of the month, and to get its maximum benefit, you’ll need to adjust to it; it just doesn’t happen the other way around.

Pricing: 2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid


Specifications

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