Altima With Attitude

Nissan's new Altima Coupethe first everis a road-carver for budget-minded buyers

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Price, handling, upscale interior

The Bad: Small trunk, cramped rear seat

The Bottom Line: A fun, fast car at a good price

Up Front

Ever since Nissan's (NSANY) redesigned Altima sedan (BusinessWeek, 3/6/07) first hit the market a year ago, it has been selling like Fenway Franks at the World Series. So why bother to come out with a coupe version of the same car, the first two-door Altima ever, at a time when coupes aren't especially popular?

Having test-driven the new 2008 Altima Coupe for a week, my answer would be: just for fun.

Coupes are generally aimed at the youth market, so it's little surprise the new Altima Coupe has more attitude than the sedan. At 182.5 in., it's 7 in. shorter than its sister model and has a 4-in.-shorter wheelbase. It's also slightly lighter, isn't as tall, and looks more rakish. In fact, the only sheet metal the coupe shares with its sister model is its aluminum hood; its side panels, headlights, taillights, and grille are all different. The coupe's rear deck is also shorter, and the car's rear profile has an almost fastback look.

Inside the car, the cabin has a snugger, more cockpit-like feel than the sedan's. The coupe comes standard with well-bolstered sport seats that hold you in place during hard cornering. There's also a hand brake in all versions of the coupe, rather than the foot pedal that's found in all the sedans with automatic transmissions.

There are two versions of the coupe. The entry-level 2.5 S is powered by a peppy 2.5-liter, 175-hp, four-cylinder engine, while the 3.5 SE comes with a muscular 3.5-liter, 270-hp, V6 that's similar to the engine in the 350Z sports car. In both cases, you have the choice of a six-speed manual transmission or a continuously variable (CVT) automatic with a manual shifting function.

The base-model Altima Coupe starts at $21,195 with a stick shift and $21,995 with a CVT. The 3.5 SE starts at $25,315 with a stick and $26,095 with a CVT. That's not bad considering even the base model comes loaded with standard equipment, including power windows, doors, and locks; keyless entry; a six-speaker sound system; antilock brakes; and cabin-length side curtain air bags.

Early indications are that customers are willing to spend more on the coupe than the sedan. According to the Power Information Network (PIN), the '08 coupe's average selling price is $26,279, nearly three grand more than for the Altima sedan. The average age of coupe buyers so far is 40, vs. 43 for the sedan, PIN figures.

The higher selling price is an indication that many coupe buyers are going with the V6 or taking the premium options package, which costs $5,100 in the 2.5 S and only $3,200 in the 3.5 SE. It really upgrades the car, adding leather upholstery, XM satellite radio, a nine-speaker Bose sound system, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, heated front seats, and wood or "metallic look" interior trim. The package costs more on the base model because it includes some features, such as a moonroof, that already come standard on the 3.5 SE.

With an automatic transmission, the 2.5 S is rated to get 23 mpg in the city and 31 on the highway. For the 3.5 SE, the figures drop to 19 city and 26 highway; in 298 miles of mixed driving in my 3.5 SE test car, I averaged 20.1. Another disadvantage of the 3.5 SE is that it takes premium gasoline, vs. regular for the 2.5 S.

If early trends hold, the new coupe is destined to be popular. Including the hybrid version of the Altima sedan (BusinessWeek, 8/3/07), total U.S. Altima sales set records in both September (up 46.7% to 27,871) and October (up 41.9% to 21,778). The coupe's sales were well over 3,000 in each month, which the company termed a "strong performance."

Behind the Wheel

The Altima Coupe is a sweet little car if you're into fast, hard driving but don't want to spend an additional $10,000 or so for a BMW 328i. The fact that it's shorter and lighter helps it handle better than the sedan, and it feels as if its frame is more rigid.

The coupe's front strut and rear multilink suspension system is also tuned to feel sportier.

Nissan has done a nice job of reducing torque steer—which occurs when a front-wheel-drive car's steering pulls to one side or the other during acceleration—in the coupe. But the steering still feels heavy and pulls a little off center when you punch the gas. On the other hand, the V6-powered 3.5 SE is quick from a standing stop. I timed it at 6.5 seconds in accelerating from 0 to 60, which is what the company says it will do.

The continuously variable automatic transmission seems odd at first. In automatic mode, the car accelerates in an undifferentiated skein: You can run it out from 30 mph to 130 with no hesitation for the gears to shift.

You can get the semblance of shifting gears by using the six-speed manual mode and doing the shifting yourself. The engine has a sports-car-like whine when you push it hard in manual mode. But as the engine approaches redline, the transmission blips, like an old-fashioned tube TV when you turn it off, then hesitates a tad before shifting into a higher gear. It feels artificial to me.

Fit and finish aren't quite what you'd get in a more expensive coupe, such as from BMW (BMWG) or the Altima's upscale cousin, the Infiniti G37. There was an annoying rattle in the interior of my test car when I took it out on bumpy back roads. But if you go with the premium options package, the interior looks upscale and attractive. The black leather upholstery in my test car was soft and expensive-looking, and none of the inexpensive plastic materials (such as the "metallic look" trim) look cheap.

The downside of the coupe is that its interior space is tighter than in the sedan. I'm only 5 ft. 10 in. tall and I could quite comfortably reach the car's pedals with the driver's seat set back as far as possible. If you're much over 6 ft., legroom may be tight. The lower roofline makes for less headroom, too, and the coupe's rear seats are too cramped for most adults to be comfortable during long rides.

Trunk space is only 7.4 cu. ft., less than half the 15.3 cu. ft. in the sedan. However, the small trunk is offset by the fact that the coupe's rear seats fold down in a 60/40 pattern, turning the trunk and rear seat area into a large hauling space.

Buy It or Bag It?

You probably won't be disappointed if you rush out and buy an Altima Coupe, but I would test-drive the new Honda (HMC) Accord Coupe first. It's selling for about $1,000 more than the Altima's $26,279 average, PIN figures. Alternatives from domestic manufacturers include the Ford (F) Mustang, which sells for an average of $28,658, and General Motors' (GM) Pontiac G6 (BusinessWeek, 8/15/06), which is cheaper ($23,367 on average, according to PIN) but doesn't handle as well as the Altima. (PIN, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).)

If you're really into performance, keep in mind Nissan is expected to bring out a souped-up SE-R version of the Altima Coupe next year. If you're flush with cash and want a Nissan-built coupe with rear-wheel drive, check out the new Infiniti G37. It promises to be a great-driving car (and is selling for an average of $41,539).

But if you're in the market for a sporty, relatively inexpensive coupe, the new Altima is a good value, and great fun, for the money.

Click here to see more of the 2008 Nissan Altima Coupe.

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