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REVIEW

Can-do coupe operates in close quarters

June 20, 2007|Jim Mateja | Chicago Tribune

Call it the monkey-see, monkey-do approach.

If Chrysler brings out a minivan and it sells, everyone in the auto industry rushes to bring out a minivan, hoping to grab a piece of the market.

Another monkey-see, monkey-do strategy finds automakers adding a coupe to their mid-size lineups. Enter the two-door 2008 Nissan Altima.

Nissan redesigned the mid-size Altima sedan last October and added its first Altima Coupe in May. The obvious reason was that Toyota and Honda have one.

"Toyota and Honda have had some success with coupes, and we decided to see if we could as well," said Nissan spokesman Scott Vazin.

The coupe is geared to twenty- to thirtysomething professionals without a family who want a car with above-average performance rather than a mileage-conscious appliance. It shares the same basic platform and powertrains with the Altima sedan, but the only similar body panel is the hood.

The coupe is 7 inches shorter and 2 inches lower than the sedan -- smaller and lighter so it's easier to maneuver. It has good manners when tossed into and out of corners and turns. The 17-inch radials and stability control help keep it stuck to the pavement.

Altima focused on new suspension geometry to reduce road harshness, minimize lean in corners and limit torque steer -- that sharp lunge to one side on a power takeoff -- in the front-wheel-drive coupe. But it forgot the larger side bolsters or at least cloth seats to help keep your body better planted along twisting roads at speed.

Open the trunk or slip into the back seat, and you wish all those inches hadn't been sacrificed.

The trunk isn't very spacious. The wheel wells eat into the sides and speakers in the parcel shelf behind the back seat dip into it from above.

Rear seat backs fold so you can slip golf clubs into the cabin through the trunk, but the opening isn't very big thanks to those wells and speakers. The seat backs fold flat only if front-seat occupants aren't very tall and don't push their seats far back.

Lift the levers on the front seat backs and the seats fold and slide forward to create a small aisle to the back seat. Holders along the cabin walls keep seat belts from acting like a fence to scale to get in back. But don't expect lavish room in back -- especially head room. Cup holders built into both cabin walls will hold the water to wash down the aspirin after you clunk your melon on the ride.

A noteworthy plus, however, is the small fixed rear window along both sides in back that provides just enough visibility to see other vehicles when backing out of a parking space.

Altima S comes with a 2.5-liter, 175-horsepower four-cylinder for the mileage-minded (23 miles per gallon city, 31 mpg highway). The SE comes with a 3.5-liter, 270-hp V-6 for those who spend more time in the passing lane -- when mopes aren't sleeping there. Both engines have a six-speed manual or a continuously variable automatic with infinite gear ratios.

We drove the SE. Plenty of life and off-the-line punch but not so much quiet. The muffled rumble was intentional, however, as the sound of performance.

The V-6 comes with keyless push-button start. As that feature becomes more popular, automakers need to provide a secure spot for the key fob needed to work the magic -- other than a cup holder or ashtray

The V-6 is rated at only 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway. A gas/electric borrowing Toyota technology mates a four-cylinder gas engine with nickel-metal-hydride batteries for 42 mpg city and 36 mpg highway. But besides being available only on the sedan, it's also limited to states whose emissions laws are tougher than national mandates: California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Nissan spokesman Darryll Harrison said there are no plans to expand the hybrid into other states or other Nissan offerings.

Other pressing questions revolve around a convertible version of this coupe -- when will a retractable hardtop become available, like Chrysler has with Sebring and Pontiac with G-6?

"We always look at ways to expand our line," said Harrison, noting that was one reason a coupe was added. "We haven't ruled one [convertible] out, but we've made no determinations."

A couple other gripes: When rear seat backs are folded to carry cargo, the metal shoulder belt fasteners rattle against the cabin walls. And if cup holders in the center console had rubber liners, items placed inside like the key fob wouldn't rattle.

Nice touch: Coin holder and power plug under the center armrest and so-called kangaroo pouches along the bottoms of the front seats to place the fob.

Base price of an SE with automatic is $25,390 (manual $500 less) and includes air-conditioning, power moon roof/locks/windows/seats/mirrors, AM/FM/CD player with six speakers, anti-lock brakes with traction control and side-curtain air bags.

Options included dynamic stability control at $600, far less costly than body work, and a $2,000 technology package with navi system and rear-view monitor.

A $3,200 premium package adds little other than heated seats, XM satellite radio, MP3-capable audio, dual-zone climate control and Bluetooth hands-free phone, but none of those can be purchased separately, a convenient way to boost price by packaging needless options.

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