Altima Hybrid: Nissan's ICE-Breaker
By Bill Moore
It's no secret that Carlos Ghosn, until recently the head of Nissan, has his doubts about the viability of hybrid-electric cars. But he's also savvy enough to realize that the company can't long stand on the sidelines while its chief competitor -- Toyota -- continues to sell tens of thousands of Priuses every year.
So, being a clear-thinking pragmatist who isn't locked into the "not-invented-here" mindset that often stymies development in the car industry, Ghosn accepted Toyota's offer to license its Synergy Hybrid Drive system and charged his engineers to develop a hybrid version of the company's popular Altima. It is that car that Nissan gave me the opportunity to drive for several days while in Los Angeles for the Alternative Fuels and Vehicle Industry (AFVI) conference and expo.
Nissan is no stranger to electric drive vehicles, having built the eminently practical HyperMini and the Altra electric cars, the first electric vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries. They also have been developing fuel cell vehicles, though with less enthusiasm, it seems, than the GMs, Fords, Toyotas, Hondas and DaimlerChryslers of the world.
Still, the company's shaky financial position during the late 90's, which enabled Renault to acquire it and Ghosn to take charge, meant it didn't have the cash to invest in new-fangled hybrid engines of its own design -- that process is now going on, but years behind Toyota and Honda. Hence the licensing deal.
Instead of designing a unique platform like the Prius in which to transplant the Hybrid Synergy Drive system, they chose the Altima, whose closest competing model is the Camry. At least that's the opinion of the folks at Toyota to whom I showed the car after taking a tour of the company car museum -- a non-descript building on Artesia Blvd. that formerly housed a glass company. It might also be argued that a better head-to-head comparison would be the Honda Accord Hybrid in terms of size and passenger room, though certainly not in power: by that metric, the V-6 Accord Hybrid is without peer.
The Altima Hybrid is Nissan's hesitant first step. Its internal combustion engine-hybrid (ICE) breaker, if you will. It harbors no surprises and from its keyless "fob" to its push button start, it's a Nissan with a Toyota heart transplant. What Nissan didn't adapt, however, was the dash mounted shifter. They retained the center console shifter, which I found a lot easier to use: call it habit or old-fashioned of me.
My test vehicle was a gorgeous ruby red with tan leather interior, the warm aroma of which stimulated my nostrils the moment I opened the door at the Airport Auto Park at LAX where Nissan's contractor had left the vehicle for me to pick up. Since I had a dinner engagement in Anaheim at 6:30 with the Plug-In American crew, I immediately found my way onto the 105 and headed towards the home of Disney Land, following the directions I had printed out from MapQuest, an unnecessary waste of paper it turned out, because the car came with a built-in GPS navigation system.
Unfortunately, what the car didn't come equipped with was an owner's manual, but I didn't discover this until later. My plan was to take an hour or so and familiarize myself with all the car's features, including the information center that blends the radio, GPS, and vehicle performance system into a nice, neat package. So, with my plan in tatters, I simply just started pushing buttons getting the radio to operate -- I left it on the FM station that someone had already programmed in -- and used the map to help identify approaching intersections, though I didn't use it to get from A-to-B; here I relied on my MapQuest directions. Finally, I discovered the vehicle "history" display that uses the now common bar graph, marked in 5 minute increments, to depict my fuel economy. During one 5-minute interval, I saw 40 mpg, but most of the time I seemed to be showing performance in the 30 mpg range, which isn't bad for a combination of highway and city street driving.
On the subject of fuel economy, when I picked up the car it showed 30.2 mpg. In the absence of the owner's manual, I assume is the average for the car, which had just 540 miles on the odometer when I got in it. Between driving 70 mph on the freeways and 35-45 on the main streets around Anaheim, Cerritos, Torrance, Manhattan Beach and Inglewood, I managed to edge this to 30.8. I assume that there is a way to reset this on a trip-by-trip basis, but I didn't find it.
As for responsiveness and handling, when asked, it gets out and moves in something akin to a V-6 version. The IC engine in the Altima Hybrid is rated at 158 hp and when combined with the 40 hp electric motor, gives a combined rating of 198 hp (148kW). The standard 4 cylinder model is rated at 175 hp, while the V-6 is a whopping, fuel swigging 270 hp. EPA rates the former at 26 mpg city and 34 mpg highway; the latter is 22/28. The hybrid is said to get 42/36, numbers that might be a bit high, but the computer did show that 40 mpg I mentioned above.
As you might expect, the hybrid is heavier than both the 2.4L model (3184 lbs) and the 3.5L (3360 lbs), weighing in at 3482. But this is still lighter than the Camry Hybrid at 3680 lbs, whose engine churns out 187 hp while getting an EPA-rated 40/38 fuel economy.
Because of its Toyota DNA, the car does operate in "EV-Mode", which is how it is displayed on the analog instrument panel. Unlike other HEVs I've driven, the Altima Hybrid doesn't seem to stay in electric-only mode very long. I could drive in "stealth mode" inside the Anaheim Hilton's parking garage, but the minute I asked for even the slightest bit more power, even down around 20 mph, the IC engine would kick in. However, while driving around Manhattan Beach, I noticed that the car seemed to quickly drop back into EV-Mode as I let up on the accelerator. So, while this is hardly scientific and based on very limited driving experience, it seems that the Altima Hybrid has been configured to turn the engine on at an earlier point than say a Ford Escape Hybrid, which has similar architecture, but compensates by shutting down the ICE as soon as load reduction allows.
What's my overall impression of the car? I like it, but what's not to like about such a handsomely sculpted machine with a streak of green. Nissan has done a credible job on its "ICE-breaker", though I am anxious to see what their own internally-developed hybrid drive will do. I think that loyal Nissan owners looking for something a bit greener will find it an excellent choice and it offers yet another option for hybrid buyers wanting to compare brands. It's not a Prius, but based on MSRP, it's less than the Camry: $24,400 vs. $25,900.
Initially, sales of the car will be limited to the East and West Coasts of America... where we can use all the help we can get. But that means we won't be seeing them in the Heartland anytime soon, and that's more disappointing than having to turn the car back in at the airport.
blog comments powered by Disqus