In the crowded U.S. automotive market, nowhere is competition more fierce than the mid-size sedan segment, where nameplates like the dominant Toyota Camry and Honda Accord square off against a score of import and domestic competitors.

It's another matter entirely when we're talking mid-size coupes. Sure, you've got some options, like Toyota 's Solara, but there's nowhere near the range of choice you find in the four-door market. Why? Well, the folks who make their money prognosticating the automotive market will tell you it's because there's too little demand.

But what if they've got things upside down? What if the problem is the lack of exciting offerings? That's what Nissan is betting, as it brings to market its first-ever Altima Coupe.

"The market is shrinking because…the coupes out there are not very interesting or very good," contends Nissan's U.S. product manager, John Curl.

So, is the Japanese maker's sporty two-door, designed in Japan, and produced in the U.S. , what buyers are looking for?

While we're not completely convinced by Nissan's argument, we were clearly impressed with the attributes of the 2008 Altima Coupe, after spending a day roaming along the northern reaches of the mighty Mississippi River. The two-door version of Nissan's mainstay mid-size sedan could, indeed, pump some new life into the coupe market.

In the crowded U.S. automotive market, nowhere is competition more fierce than the mid-size sedan segment, where nameplates like the dominant Toyota Camry and Honda Accord square off against a score of import and domestic competitors.

It's another matter entirely when we're talking mid-size coupes. Sure, you've got some options, like Toyota 's Solara, but there's nowhere near the range of choice you find in the four-door market. Why? Well, the folks who make their money prognosticating the automotive market will tell you it's because there's too little demand.

But what if they've got things upside down? What if the problem is the lack of exciting offerings? That's what Nissan is betting, as it brings to market its first-ever Altima Coupe.

"The market is shrinking because…the coupes out there are not very interesting or very good," contends Nissan's U.S. product manager, John Curl.

So, is the Japanese maker's sporty two-door, designed in Japan, and produced in the U.S. , what buyers are looking for?

While we're not completely convinced by Nissan's argument, we were clearly impressed with the attributes of the 2008 Altima Coupe, after spending a day roaming along the northern reaches of the mighty Mississippi River. The two-door version of Nissan's mainstay mid-size sedan could, indeed, pump some new life into the coupe market.

 

Base to luxe

With prices starting at $20,490 (plus another $625 for destination charges), you can get into a four-cylinder Altima Coupe for reasonable monthly payments. A V-6, fully loaded, with navigation, high-end audio and everything else you might crave, will top out around $31,000, again plus destination charges.

While you can invest a whopping $6400 to get the 3.5 SE's Technology Package, even the base 2.5S is well-equipped, with features like power windows, doors and mirrors, keyless entry, cruise control, dual-zone climate control, and a six-speaker AM/FM/CD sound system.

Safety has also been addressed with standard features including dual front airbags, side-impact airbags for the front seat passengers, and side curtain airbags for both rows. Anti-lock brakes are standard on the base model, but you'll have to upgrade to the 3.5 for traction and stability control.

That base model is driven by a 2.5-liter, DOHC four-cylinder making 175 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque. That's mated to a six-speed stick (which is standard-issue on all versions but the top-line V-6). Performance is solid, but for a real sporty feel, we'll go with the 3.5 SE, in which we spent most of our time. Nissan has built a benchmark, 3.5-liter V-6 here, one that is similar, though not quite identical, to the 350Z's powertrain. It turns out 270 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, which is pushed through Nissan's workhorse continuously variable transmission (CVT). (The Xtronic CVT is optional on other models.)

Nissan has done a remarkable job of eliminating that rubberband effect that most other CVTs suffer through - where you hear the engine rev up while waiting for the car to catch up, much like a stretched rubberband. And there's a manual mode that creates a series of artificial, gear-like steps, for more sporty driving.

 

Spirited ride

With its lighter weight, the Coupe feels a bit more spirited, with 0-60 times in the mid-six-second range. To its credit, Nissan has also largely eliminated any torque steer, that annoying lurch often experienced when aggressively launching a front-wheel-drive car. But this is still a front-driver, unlike the similarly styled Infiniti G37. And you feel it under more aggressive maneuvers. That said, the combination of front struts and a rear, multilink suspension has been well tuned and proved both quick and responsive.

Driving refinement has become a critical differentiator in the mid-size segment, and Nissan has responded well. The Altima Coupe is pleasantly devoid of wind and road noise, even pushing 80 mph.

Fuel economy is reasonable, the 2.5 S getting 23 mpg in the EPA's revised 2008 city cycle and 31 on the highway. With the CVT, you'll expect 19/27 mpg.

The 2008 Altima Coupe is handsome, sporty and fun to drive, features all too rare among today's mid-size coupes. The two-door is certain to generate some buzz and that could translate into solid sales numbers in a segment that had been steadily shrinking.

The coupe market could get another bump, however, when Honda launches an all-new version of its own Accord. That better-known model will automatically draw attention to itself. But, from Nissan's point of view, that's not all bad, if Honda gets potential customers thinking once again about coupes. While we've not yet driven the upcoming Accord, we think Nissan's 2008 Altima Coupe will offer it good competition.

 
2008 Nissan Altima Coupe

Base price: $21,115 (base 2.5S) - $31,000 (loaded 3.5SE)
Engines: 2.5-liter in-line four, 175 hp/180 lb-ft; 3.5-liter V-6, 270 hp/258 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual or CVT, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 182.5 x 70.7 x 55.3 in
Wheelbase: 105.3 in
Curb weight: 3026 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 23/31 mpg (four-cylinder manual); 19/27 mpg (V-6 CVT)
Major standard features:Power windows/locks/mirrors; air conditioning; dual-zone climate control; 60/40 split-fold rear seat; AM/FM/CD; keyless remote with Start button
Safety features: Dual front, side and curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

 

©2007 by The Car Connection™ All Rights Reserved - The Car Connection is a Trademark of DA Acquisition

Paul A. Eisenstein

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