2009 Nissan Altima Coupe 3.5 SE Review
By Chris Haak
Front wheel drive, midsize coupes are a nearly dying breed. Among domestic brands, only the Pontiac G6 coupe still plies its wares in the segment. The days of two-door Pontiac Grand Prix and 6000, Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera and Cutlass Supreme, Buick Regal and Century, Chevrolet Lumina, Monte Carlo, and Celebrity have come and gone. The story is a little different for Japan, Inc., however – Honda sells an Accord Coupe and Nissan now sells an Altima Coupe. Toyota’s aging Camry Solara is still listed on their website, but is no longer in production.
Just as the volume-selling sedan versions of these cars go head-to-head and toe-to-toe in the marketplace and on the spec sheet, the coupe versions seem to add style and performance while subtracting a good deal of practicality. So was the Altima Coupe just another pretty face, or is there a good car somewhere in there?
Nissan actually had to perform pretty extensive surgery to create a coupe from the Altima sedan (I’m sure that coupe development occurred concurrently). The wheelbase was trimmed by four inches compared to the sedan (105.3 inches rather than 109.3 inches) and the car’s overall length was trimmed 7.3 inches (189.8 inches rather than 182.5 inches). The coupe is also a few inches shorter than the sedan, at 55.3 inches rather than the sedan’s 57.9 inches. The result is a car that looks like it was designed as a coupe, rather than a sedan with two doors removed and the other two lengthened. That’s still not to say it’s a great-looking coupe; something about its proportions bother me. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I believe it’s a combination of the shorter wheelbase, fairly long front and rear overhangs, and small rear side window. When looking at profile photos of the Accord Coupe and Altima Coupe side-by-side, the Accord actually appears to be better-proportioned, which is surprising, since I feel that the Altima Sedan has a better design than does the Accord Sedan. The Altima Coupe’s design shares some cues with the Infiniti G37 and Nissan 370Z, but doesn’t manage to pull of the overall design as successfully as those two cars do.
All of the dimensional changes make the coupe’s interior feel significantly more snug than the sedan’s does. Again, whipping out the tape measure (or the spec sheet for those of us who don’t feel like measuring the interior quantitatively), front legroom is almost identical to the sedan’s, but rear legroom is suitable for preteens only (and not those who need car seats because it’s so difficult to put small children into the back seat). Materials are pretty much identical to the sedan’s. The dash is nicely padded with soft materials everywhere that you’d be inclined to touch on a regular basis, and hard plastic to be found on the lower dash, center console, and lower door panels. I noticed that the coupe’s doors sounded and felt much more substantial than the (obviously) smaller ones in the sedan did, and they closed much more solidly than did the sedan’s, while having impressively tight panel gaps on either end.
With an inch less headroom, I found my head disturbingly close to the car’s ceiling, even with the seat back reclined somewhat (I’m 6’4″). Still, as long as I stayed away from bumpy roads, my head stayed away from with the ceiling, and I was happy. There was enough room for me otherwise in the driver’s seat, and the seats felt like they were a good mix of comfort and support. The Bose stereo had decent power, but lacked an iPod interface (just a standard line-in jack was included) and didn’t have the clarity of some other buy-up stereo options in competitors’ products. I’d always considered Nissan’s navigation systems to be among the better ones on the market, but on two occasions, I missed a turn because the car’s marker on the map didn’t smoothly update as the car moved – instead, it appeared to “hop” from one spot to the next on the map, catching me off guard.
In terms of the on-road experience, this car was the first car that I can remember in an extremely long time that made me think its suspension was too firm. At one point, I was on I-95 – admittedly not the smoothest road in the world, but also not an ill-maintained back road – and felt every joint in the road with a crash. The shorter wheelbase and 18 inch wheels compared to the sedan that I tested earlier probably didn’t help (my sedan tester had 16 inch wheels), but as someone who prefers firmer suspension, I surprised myself by having those doubts about the Altima’s suspension tuning. Steering was accurate and had good feel. Unfortunately, the brakes seemed a bit more grabby than I would have preferred in the initial part of pedal travel. It took a period of time to get used to that, but eventually it didn’t bother me.
I’ve never been a huge fan of CVTs, and my test vehicle had the CVT. Though I would have preferred a six-speed manual (which is available in the Altima coupe, and with the V6 no less) and probably even a conventional six-speed automatic over the CVT, at least Nissan makes pretty good ones. Furthermore, the CVT does allow the engine to stay in its peak operating range during the vehicle’s entire acceleration and also lets it lope along once cruising speed has been reached. A CVT/V6 combination is fairly unusual in the marketplace outside of the Nissan family, but it seemed to work pretty well. I observed fuel economy of over 21 miles per gallon in mixed driving, which is between the car’s EPA ratings of 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway. Even more impressive is that it basically matches the fuel economy that I observed in the four cylinder Altima sedan a few months ago, driven similarly. Perhaps the sedan had to be flogged a bit more to get the desired performance from it, while getting the same performance from the coupe was a more effortless venture. The CVT has a “manual shift” feature that mimics six forward ratios that can be actuated by moving the gear selector to the far left and tapping it up or down. These fake shifts remove the CVT’s largest performance/economy advantages of always being in the right ratio at the right time, but to its credit, the car changes ratios extremely quickly.
The Altima Coupe 3.5 SE starts at $27,585 including destination. Included in that price is the V6, XTronic CVT, 18″ wheels, cloth seats, Nissan Intelligent Key, six-speaker AM/FM/CD audio system, power sliding moonroof, and a power driver’s seat. As with many Nissans, the base prices are reasonable, but the options are just killers. Floor mats added $175, the 3.5 SE Premium Package (leather seats and shift knob, Bose stereo, XM Satellite Radio, HID Headlamps, dual-zone automatic temperature conrtrol, Bluetooth, and auto-dimming rearview mirror added a hefty $3,200). The Technology Package (navigation system, XM NavTraffic, and rearview monitor) added $2,000 to the tab, and VDC (stability control) added another $600 for a final MSRP of $33,560 including destination. TrueDelta shows the Nissan’s feature-adjusted pricing being within a couple hundred dollars of the Accord Coupe, but that’s only because Nissan has a $1,500 rebate right now. Without the rebate, the car is too expensive for what it is, unless you value some of the features not available on the Honda but which are available on the Nissan, including HID headlamps, keyless start, rearview monitor, XM NavTraffic, the CVT, and sport suspension.
It’s a true credit to Nissan that they have built a fourth-generation Altima model that puts up such a strong fight against its segment’s established players. My styling concerns are mostly subjective, and I also believe that the Infiniti G37 that the Altima tries to mimic styling-wise is also one of the most beautiful cars that Nissan builds, so perhaps the comparison isn’t fair. The Altima Coupe is a quick car and is fun to drive, but sacrifices practicality in the name of styling and a two-door body. I’m more of a four-door guy these days, so for me, the hot combination would be the six-speed manual and V6 in an Altima Sedan – a car that I almost bought in 2003 when I was car shopping. That’s also a combination that’s almost more rare than a dodo bird in the midsize segment these days.
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