Nissan Altima (Hybrid), 2009: The Weekly Driver Car Review

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Far too few new American cars average more than 30 mpg. But the 2009 Nissan Altima hybrid is in the small fraternity and that means it warrants extended consideration.

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A midsize sedan with strong competition among hybrid and non-hybrid family vehicles, the Altima hybrid offers surprising versatility and holds its own in many areas against non-hybrid leaders Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.

There is one problem. Hybrid buyers throughout most of the country are out of lucky since the Altima hybrid is available in only eight states.

My weekly test drive (in California) included a 500-mile round-trip from Sacramento to the Monterey Peninsula. As I’ve referenced many times in reviews, I make the same drive at least a half-dozen times per year and there’s no better testing conditions. High speed, wide-open freeway segments to the tight-cornered ascents and descents on and near Pacheco Pass and the San Luis Reservoir, the 3 1/2-hour trek offers myriad driving conditions.

The hybrid is one three Altima options and it features a 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder engine with a continuously variable transmission and a battery-powered electric motor for a total of 198 horsepower.

Like all hybrids, driving the Altima hybrid requires adjustment, and it’s not a bad thing. Hybrids are quiet and even after driving different manufacturers’ hybrids in recent years, I still sometimes mistakenly think the engine is off when the car is running on its electric power source.

The Atima has a clean, straightforward interior with spacious front seats and better-than-average headroom and legroom. Although the interior material isn’t the same quality as the Honda Accord, the Altima’s materials are still quality. Gauges are large and easy to read and controls are simple to operate.

Nissan prides itself on its substantial list of standard equipment and that’s certainly the case for the Altima hybrid. Consider: 16-inch wheels, a tilt/telescoping steering column, keyless ignition/entry, dual-zone automatic climate control, three center console cupholders, Halogen headlights, velour seats and a six-speaker audio system with a CD player and auxiliary audio jack.

It’s a lot for the base price of $25,070. But that’s where the Altima’s one drawback begins. My weekly driver included as options: a power moonroof ($850), moonroof wind detector ($100), floormats ($100) and aluminum kick plates ($170). And then there’s the potential deal-breaker, the more than 20-item Technology Package and its whopping $6,400 price tag. The features are varied, heated exterior side mirrors to an upgraded, multi-faceted sound system and leather-appointed trim and accessories to a Bluetooth system.

Add the various options and destination charge ($625) and my test vehicle’s total price exceeded the base price by more than $8,000.

As a hybrid, the Altima is quicker than some competitors and slower than others, and the hybrid engine worked more than adequately when steady and quick-passing acceleration were required. The only exception occurred on some of the abovementioned abrupt steep ascents to Pacheco Pass. But the Altima isn’t alone — many vehicles strain at least momentarily on the same steepest segments.

One consumer car magazine’s testers averaged 29.2 mpg in mostly city driving in the Altima hybrid. I averaged 34 mpg during my week with the vehicle in primarily freeway driving.

Combine the hybrid’s general overall appeal, its gas thriftiness and to status as an Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (the cleanest designation for a gas-burning car) and it’s hard not to like the Altima — even with its expensive option package.

Safety Features — Driver and front passenger side impact supplemental airbags, Roof-mounted curtain side-impact supplemental airbags, tire pressure-monitoring system, vehicle security system

Warranty — Bumper-to-bumper, 3 years/36,000 miles; Drivetrain, 5 years/60,000 miles; Hybrid component, 8 years/100,000 miles; Roadside assistance, 3 years/36,000 miles; Corrosion, 5 years/unlimited mileage.

Gas Mileage Averages — 35 mpg (city), 33 mpg (hwy).

Base Price — $25,070; Price As Driven — $33,325.

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