Overview

Honda has the Accord Coupe. Toyota has a coupe, the Camry Solara. Nissan? Well, now it has one, too, the 2008 Altima Coupe.

Not a two-door knock off of the Altima sedan, the Coupe shares but one body panel with its four-door sibling. More important, the Coupe departs significantly from the sedan's dimensions. And with positive results.

It's a tauter set up, focused more on responsive handling than plush ride. Interior space is cozier, as it should be to fit the coupe mold. As such, though, it's more of a two-person transporter than a family vacation vehicle or a carpool commuter.

Power-wise, the Altima Coupe tops both the current Accord and Solara, although the 2008 models of those two have yet to appear in dealerships and we're expecting an overhaul of the Toyota. But in the meantime, the Altima Coupe, which borrows its engines and transmissions from the Altima sedan, holds the crown. And that crown's jewels are a 175-horsepower four-cylinder and a 270-horsepower V6. Each comes with either a truly delightful, six-speed manual or an optional Continuously Variable Transmission, a decidedly less delightful, although nominally more efficient, gearless CVT automatic that optimizes engine power, fuel economy and emissions levels. Nissan is very good at CVTs, but we find shifting the manual more fun.

Much of the Coupe interior is borrowed from the Altima sedan, so the dash has been well de-bugged. The layout is comfortable, with gauges, audio and climate control heads and storage facilities where they should be and in the expected quantities. Front bucket seats are unique to the Coupe, however, with more aggressive bolsters than their counterparts in the sedan. The CVT has a foot-operated parking brake, while the manual gearbox comes with handbrake that obstructs access to the cup holders in the center console.

Assembly quality and most interior materials are above par, as is fitment of exterior body panels. The look isn't terribly original, enlisting cues borrowed in large part from the sedan and from sportier coupes Nissan sells in Japan but currently not in the U.S. Perhaps its strongest point is that it's clearly a Nissan, a goal the car maker has been striving to achieve with its recent products.

Depending on trim level, the tires are either 60-aspect on 16-inch wheels or a marginally wider 55-aspect on 17-inch wheels, neither of which put enough rubber on the pavement to make the most of the Altima Coupe's suspension capabilities. Brake performance, while in no way troubling, would likely benefit from more expansive footprints, too.

The 2008 Altima Coupe is not a great car nor is it a standout in the segment. So it's not likely to light some internal, unquenchable fire in a buyer to drive the wheels off of it. But it is a well-built, good-looking, nicely packaged and competitively featured and priced two-door coupe.

Model Lineup

The 2008 Nissan Altima Coupe comes in two models, the S with a 175-hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder and the SE with a 270-hp 3.5-liter V6.

The S ($20,490) comes with cloth upholstery, air conditioning, cruise control with steering wheel-mounted controls, power windows, power mirrors, power locks, manually operated six-way driver seat and four-way front passenger seat, AM/FM/CD stereo with six speakers, trip computer, outside temperature gauge, folding split 60/40 rear seat, P215/60R16 tires on steel wheels, Intelligent Key.

The base transmission is a six-speed manual; optional is a continuously variable automatic, or CVT ($500).

Option packages for the S model include the Convenience Package ($1300) with eight-way, power driver seat with manual lumbar; automatic headlights; extendable visors with illuminated mirrors; leather-wrapped steering wheel with spoke-mounted, secondary audio controls; several auto-windows functions; a wood trim interior finish; trunk cargo net; and alloy wheels. The Premium Package ($5100) builds on the contents of the Convenience Package with leather-trimmed seats, door panels and shift knob; heated front seats; automatic dual-zone climate control; nine-speaker, Bose audio system with MP3/WMA capability, three-month trial subscription to XM Satellite Radio, speed-sensitive volume and RDS; auto-dimming inside rearview mirror; universal, programmable garage/gate remote; tilt-and-slide, power moonroof with sun shade; upgraded interior finishes; Bluetooth phone system; and illuminated center console lighting. The Technology Package ($2000) adds a navigation system, XM traffic information (includes three-month trial subscription), steering wheel-mounted controls and rearview backup camera. Moonroof ($850) and fog lamps ($310) are available.

The SE ($24,890) has the V6 and adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, eight-way power driver seat with manual lumbar, moonroof, power-window functions, automatic headlights, fog lamps, and P215/55R17 tires on alloy wheels.

Option packages for the SE include the Technology Package listed above and a Premium Package ($3200) that adds xenon high-intensity headlights to the Premium Package features above.

Dealer-installed accessories for both models include a moonroof wind deflector ($100), five-piece floor and trunk carpet mats ($175), and aluminum door kick plates ($85).

Safety features that come standard include the mandatory dual-stage frontal airbags for the front seats, front seat-mounted side airbags (to reduce injury to the upper body in side impacts), front- and rear-seat coverage side curtain airbags (to reduce injury to occupant's heads in side impacts), active front-seat head restraints (to reduce whiplash-type injuries in rear impacts), and LATCH rear-seat child safety seat tethers and anchors. Antilock brakes (which allow the driver to steer the car during panic stops) come standard, along with electronic brake-force distribution (which apportions brake force front to rear to maximize stopping power in emergencies). Traction control is standard only on the SE. Optional exclusively on the SE is Vehicle Dynamic Control (which helps the driver maintain control) with a limited-slip front differential ($600).

Walkaround

In styling the 2008 Altima Coupe, Nissan steered clear of any radical departures from the brand's established design cues while drawing heavily from what's already passed the eye test in Japan. Thus, what the U.S. market sees looks remarkably like the front half of the '07 Altima sedan grafted onto the back half of the brand's Japan-only sport coupe, the Skyline.

Front view, then, and despite the company's protestations that the only body panel the coupe shares with the sedan is the hood, presents a familiar face, which isn't particularly inspired or inspiring. A grille filled with an elongated egg-crate mesh bearing an oversize Nissan logo affixed smack in the middle is surrounded by a chrome strip interrupted only by a small gap at the bottom center. A squared-off air intake fills the lower valance, with spaces for the optional fog lamps at the outer ends. Multi-element, angular headlamp assemblies are recessed flush with the leading curves of the fenders. The best part is the sleek, unadorned hood sweeping back to a slippery looking windshield.

Side look is pure sport coupe. There's good balance between the longish hood, greenhouse and short boot, or trunk lid, with just the right amount of sheet metal between the cleanly outlined wheel arches. Credit for these proportions goes to a wheelbase (distance between the tires front to rear) shortened by four inches from the sedan, which enabled a shortened overall length (from bumper to bumper). Side mirrors that are neither too big nor too small and house thin secondary turn indicator lights snuggle into the forward lower angles of the windows. Tight seams and smooth lines add a quality look.

The back end shows a bit of a pinched bustle shape, fed by the arc of the roof flowing down and in toward the center point of the boot. It no doubt makes for reassuring stability at socially irresponsible speeds, but at rest it looks almost plump. The backlight, or rear window, swells at the sides, reducing the impression of mass while promising improved rear visibility from the driver's seat. The trunk opening dips in the middle, offering a welcome lift-over height for heavy objects of a couple inches more than two feet. Sporty, twin exhaust tips sit at the extremes of a blackened cutout in the bottom edge of the rear bumper. The widely spaced tires complement the car's sporty character, but a wider tread would contribute a more substantial and planted stance.

Interior Features

While the exterior shares almost nothing with the sedan, the interior is imported largely from the four-door sedan. This is far from a negative, as many elements of that interior fit quite comfortably into the coupe's sporty motif. Still, there are compromises that a clean-screen start might have avoided.

The dash, the major piece imported from the sedan, is functional, without being boring, stylish, without being frilly. Round registers that would be better if they could be shut like the rectangular ones at each end of the dash can be sit atop the center stack. The control heads for base and up-level audio systems fill the middle of the stack with buttons, knobs and display that are friendly to the eye and fingers. These give way to a 6.5-inch screen when the optional navigation system incorporating the audio controls is ordered. Below this is the panel for setting and directing the air conditioner.

At the base of the stack is a hinged cover on a storage bin, tucked away deep inside of which is the only power point even close to being accessible for plugging in a radar detector, and it'll be a stretch for all but the longest coiled cord.

In front of the driver, a perfectly decent triplet of circles shows engine speed, vehicle speed and fuel level and coolant status. LCDs inset in the bases of the speedometer and conditional gauge display trip and various safety-related data and personalized settings. At the lower right corner is the big red button the so-called Intelligent Key system forces the driver to push to start and stop the engine. That same button, by the way, becomes nothing more than a colorful decoration when somebody drives away leaving the key fob behind.

The shift lever occupies the forward portion of the center console separating the front bucket seats. The CVT version has a foot-operated parking brake. Next to the shift lever for the manual gearbox is the handbrake, which even when unengaged sits up at just about the right height to trip the bottom of a coffee cup or soda as it's lifted out of or placed in one of the cup holders situated between the shift boot and the bi-level center storage bin. There are two more cup holders in the rear seat. The fixed pockets in each door are too small for maps but do have molds that fit half-liter water bottles, which, by contrast, are too small for the center console holders, readily flopping this way and that through the mildest maneuvers.

Seats are unique to the Coupe, with more aggressive bolsters better befitting the Coupe's sporty aspirations. There's adequate thigh support, and the front-passenger seatback gets a release lever on the inboard side for the driver to use for easing access to the rear seat. That access isn't particularly awkward, as in addition to the seatback folding, the front seat slides forward in its track. Only problem is, the front seat forgets its settings, returning to some pre-set, default position in its track and seatback angle. Seeing as how there are coupes costing the same and even less than the Altima with seats that manage to remember their settings, this is inexcusable.

Materials and finish are good quality, nothing special, but a step or two above mid-grade. Tactile feel isn't cheap, but neither does it suggest anybody stretched the budget. This is one of the few cars where the leather treatment is more inviting than the cloth, as the latter looked and felt as if it were picked by accountants rather than stylists. Still, seams and gaps were tight, and everything looked solidly assembled.

Against the 2007 Honda Accord Coupe and the 2007 Toyota Camry Solara, the '08 Altima Coupe takes a middle of the road approach. Front-seat head room trails the Accord by the merest fraction of an inch but tops the Solara by almost two inches; rear-seat head room trails both, although by less than an inch. Leg room, front and rear, splits the difference. As does rear-seat hip room, while front-seat hip room matches the Accord but falls short of the Solara.

In trunk room, the Altima isn't even in the game with 7.4 cubic feet of trunk space. The Accord offers 12.8 cubic feet and the Solara has 13.8 cubic feet.

Driving Impressions

The Nissan Altima Coupe drives like a well-tuned front-wheel-drive car. There's a major front-end weight bias, ranging from 60/40 front/rear in the four-cylinder manual to 63/37 front/rear in the V6 CVT, but the relatively short wheelbase and uniquely tuned suspensions for each of the trim levels do a decent job of compensating. Buyers shouldn't expect sports car handling, though, as quick, left-right-left transitions set the relatively light back end to wallowing as it tries to keep up.

Steering is respectably responsive, not especially crisp, but with competent turn-in and feedback through the steering wheel. When pushed, understeer (where the car wants to go straight instead of turning) is the dominant characteristic, as expected. Power steering assist levels seem to differ between the S and SE, with the SE's steering feeling significantly lighter and the S the more comfortable on both straight-as-an-arrow interstates and squiggly two-lanes.

Of the two transmissions, the six-speed manual is the clear choice for fun driving. Six speeds seem to be overkill, as everyday driving requires but three or four, and the car isn't meant for race track duty. But the manual is more relaxed and manageable, and, quite frankly, a better manual transmission in terms of sharp, precise gear selection and tight shift patterns than even the six-speed manual in the vaunted BMW 3 Series.

The CVT, on the other hand, seems lazy and ill at ease, leaving the engines wandering about their power curves and often sounding as if they're straining even if they aren't. Which, in truth, most of the time they aren't, as the electronics managing the CVT attempt to keep the engines at their optimum efficiency levels vis-a-vis power output, fuel economy and emissions. It's just that they sound so uncomfortable, like over-worked, under-powered engines, that it's difficult to believe otherwise.

Yes, the V6 is the preferred choice of drivers for whom the most important measure of a car's desirability is being the first across the intersection from a stop light or attracting the attention of cars with flashing red lights. Given the reality check of today's gas prices, though, and the quite competent performance of the Altima's four cylinder, which in basic power ratings easily tops the class, there's little reason to pay more either now to the dealer or later at the gas pump.

Like the rest of the hardware, the brakes are competent, if not notably impressive either in pedal feel or stopping performance. Brake and accelerator pedal juxtaposition accommodates heel-and-toe downshifts, but it's a stretch, or a twist of the ankle, actually.

Powertrain sounds aren't significantly intrusive, save of course for the roaming whine and groans of the engine as it wanders seemingly aimlessly through the CVT's infinite ratios. There's little wind noise, but the tires will keep the occupants well informed of pavement quality.

As for how it fares versus the Accord Coupe and Solara, the former is better balanced, with a good blend of handling and ride, while the latter tends to emphasize ride over handling, making it the more comfortable vehicle over long distances.

Summary

The 2008 Nissan Altima Coupe is a nice two-door coupe. Elements of its styling hint at what Nissan hopes it will do to brighten up the Altima brand. But it lacks the spark, in looks and performance, that's essential to give a coupe the personality to be an image leader.

NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Minneapolis, Minnesota.

 

Copyright © 1994-2007 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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