2009 Nissan Altima Coupe front view
 2009 Nissan Altima Coupe front view
 2009 Nissan Altima Coupe interior
 2009 Nissan Altima Coupe GPS
 2009 Nissan Altima Coupe rear shot

There is a lot to love about most of the cars in Nissan's lineup. Besides being practical, fuel-efficient and attractive, they are fun to drive. That's especially true of the 2009 Nissan Altima Coupe.

It handles like a sports car, with its dynamic, responsive power steering and ability to accelerate like nobody's business. But the interesting thing is that with those qualities, the Altima Coupe also delivers everyday-driving capability that would make it decent family car.

I have been hungering to get Nissan's new 370Z sports car for a test drive, after hearing wonderful things about it from colleagues who have been behind the wheel.

But now, having driven the Altima Coupe, I feel like I've at least gotten a nice sample of what the Z might be like. (Nissan, if you're reading this, I'd still like a little quality time with the Z). Nissan's designers probably had the Z in mind when they drew up the Altima Coupe, as you'll notice some striking similarities in appearance.

Also noticeable is the family resemblance to the G37 Coupe from Infiniti, Nissan's luxury brand. Fortunately, though, the Altima Coupe comes with a much lower sticker price than both of its relatives - sort of like getting lobster for the price of a tuna sandwich.

The Altima Coupe starts at less than $22,000. Our tester, which came plied with options such as the technology package and premium package (leather, sunroof), stickered at $30,030. Compare that with the 370Z, which starts at $29,930, or the G37 Coupe, which is $35,900 on the low end.

Mind you, while those two rear-wheel-drive cars would rate better by almost any standard when it comes to performance, the Altima Coupe's performance and value, as a front-wheel-drive car, are admirable. Nissan rolled out the coupe last year, and gave it a substantially different exterior style from its Altima sedan sibling. The company was also smart enough to retain the qualities that make the Altima one of the more popular sedans on the market.

For example, the coupe shares the sedan's roomy and fashionable interior. And while some buyers may shy away from coupes because they have two doors and not four, once you access the back seat, it is pretty comfortable. It is designed to hold three people, but it would get kind of snug - it's a better fit for two.

But the contrast with the sedan is most notable on the exterior, where the design is more dramatic. The coupe's rear end shows more sweeping lines and smaller side windows. Nissan says the coupe and sedan are the same width, but that the coupe is about seven inches shorter and three inches lower than the sedan.

Also, the wheelbase of the coupe is three inches shorter than that of the sedan, which Nissan says was done to give it sportier handling. The coupe's engines are the same as those in the sedan, with a base 2.5-liter, four cylinder that makes 175 horsepower and 180 pounds-feet of torque. That version, the 2.5 S, is what we tested, and it had a six-speed manual transmission. The 3.5 SE model has a 3.5-liter V-6, which posts 270 horsepower and 258 pounds-feet.

If you don't want the manual tranny, you can get Nissan's continuously variable automatic transmission. The four-cylinder engine is rated at 23 mpg city, 32 highway. With the automatic transmission, it's 23 and 31. The V-6 models with manual get 19 and 27, or 19 and 26 with automatic.

Nissan and Inifiniti might now be seen as the coupe market leaders, with the Altima, 370Z and G37. Honda's Accord coupe is a strong competitor, now that it has been redesigned to look more aggressive and less bland. Toyota is giving up on its low-volume Camry Solara coupe, but will continue to make the convertible. The Altima Coupe's strengths are its roomy interior, reasonable price, and nimble handling.

Faster, roomier, and more sophisticated than many compacts on the market, the Altima Coupe has offered a real, between-floors alternative that some people might find just right. That's why we now are wondering why it took Nissan this long to bring out this Altima sedan sibling. But we're sure glad it did, because it holds onto the Altima's unique charm.

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