Slowly, and very quietly, Japanese manufacturer Nissan has begun to market hybrid cars in the United States.
The Altima Hybrid, featuring technology acquired in a licensing agreement with Toyota, went on sale a couple of months ago, but chances are good that not too many people have heard about it.
The company is selling the sedan only in the eight states with the strictest emissions regulations - California, Connecticut, Maine Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont. It has done little, if any, advertising and is relying on dealers and word-of-mouth to let people know about the car.
Nevertheless, the Altima Hybrid is available to buyers willing to travel to those eight states and Nissan dealers nationwide will be able to service the car.
The manufacturer bills the Altima, which teams its base four-cylinder gasoline engine with an electric motor, as a performance hybrid that is bringing more muscle to the gallon. A week in the drivers seat showed me the car is peppy and agile, with responsive steering and a good set of brakes. However, nobody will confuse it with a sports sedan.
Not surprisingly, the Altima works pretty much like a Toyota. It will run on battery power alone for short distances until the gasoline engine fires up automatically. The gasoline engine shuts down at stop lights. The battery gets a charge anytime the car is coasting or braking and the gasoline engine will cut in to help with the charging chores whenever the electronic brain determines battery power is running low.
For hybrid use, the Altimas four-cylinder gasoline engine has been scaled back from 175 horsepower to 158. But, with an assist from the 40-horsepower electric motor it develops the equivalent of 198 horsepower and can power the Altima from a stop to 60 mph in less than eight seconds.
An electronically controlled continuously variable transmission, designed to maximize fuel efficiency, is the only one available.
The EPA has rated the Altima Hybrid at 42 miles per gallon around town and 36 mpg on the open road. I drove the car in varying traffic conditions, covered 330 miles, and averaged 33 mpg.
Considering all of the hybrid hype, that may not seem like a lot. But my experience in most of the available hybrids has shown that actual mileage never meets the EPAs lab results. Whats more important is that it probably will average 20 to 25 percent better mileage than a gasoline-powered Altima.
In most circumstances, the Altima Hybrid performed pretty much like its conventional counterpart. There was one exception. When the gasoline engine kicked in to take over for the electric motor after a stop, the transition was slightly rough. Im not sure why, but it was more noticeable in the Nissan than it was in a 2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid that I have driven.
The front-wheel-drive Altimas crisp responses can be attributed to its rigid body structure, independent four-wheel suspension, rack-and-pinion steering and antilock 4-wheel disc brakes with automatic brake force distribution and brake assist for panic stops.
Although the battery packs intrusion into the trunk reduces cargo space from 15 to 9 cubic feet, the room inside the hybrids cabin is identical to that of the gasoline-powered sedans. That means comfortable space for four adults and enough for five on short jaunts.
In addition to its handsome new exterior, the 2007 Altima gets an upgraded interior with higher quality fabrics and trim. Standard features include dual-zone climate control, a six-speaker am/fm/cd audio system with auxiliary audio input jack, halogen headlights and a key which allows the driver to lock and unlock doors and start the car without ever taking the key out of purse or pocket.
It also comes with the full complement of safety features available in the conventional car.
Base price of the Altima Hybrid is $24,400, a premium of about $3,500 over the gasoline-powered, four-cylinder sedan. However, the hybrid qualifies for a $2,350 federal tax credit so a motorist traveling 15,000 miles a year can make up the rest of the difference through fuel savings in approximately two years.
Beyond its base price, Nissan offers three option packages to hybrid buyers.
The Convenience Package ($1,300) includes an eight-way power drivers seat, automatic on/off headlights, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, rear spoiler and an upgraded interior.
The Connection Package ($5,250) has everything in the Convenience Package and also includes leather upholstery, drivers power lumbar support, upgraded, nine-speaker sound system, power moon roof, rear-passenger air conditioning vents and even fancier interior trim.
The Technology Package ($7,250) adds a navigation system, an advanced hybrid system display and XM satellite radio with real-time traffic information in selected locations.
The car I drove had the Connections Package and its price came to $30,535, including a $615 delivery charge.
Meanwhile, Steve Oldham, Nissan public relations representative in New York, assures that Nissan is planning a bigger presence in the fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly segment of the market.
He said the manufacturer is developing its own hybrid technology and is hoping to bring a plug-in hybrid to market.
Nissan is in a joint venture with Japanese electronics maker NEC in the hopes of perfecting a next-generation lithium-ion battery pack for automotive use.
That could significantly improve a hybrid vehicles performance and fuel efficiency, while eliminating a lot of the space and weight required by todays cumbersome nickel-metal hydride batteries.
It also could lead to the plug-in hybrid, which owners could charge at home overnight and drive up to an estimated 40 miles without ever having to fire up the internal combustion engine. Target date for Nissans next foray into the hybrid market is 2010.
Any chance that Nissan will expand sales of the Altima hybrid? That could happen, company officials say, but only if there is successful market acceptance in the states where I is now being sold.
Expansion is not likely to happen with the present low-key approach, but with gasoline prices continuing to spill over the $3-a-gallon mark, Nissan just might find that some unexpected buyers will find their way to the new car.
Standard Equipment (partial list)
2.5 liter 4 cylinder hybrid power train
Continuously variable automatic transmission
Front wheel drive
16 inch alloy wheels with all-season tires
Dual front side mounted air bags
Front and rear head air bags
Tire pressure monitoring
6-way power seat
Remote power door locks
Tilt and telescopic steering column
Dual zone automatic climate control air conditioning
AM/FM in-dash single CD player stereo with 6 speakers
Major Available Options (Partial List, depends on model, some options are only available as part of a package, see your Nissan dealer for details)
Technology Package, Includes: 8-way power driver's seat, automatic on/off headlights, illuminated vanity mirrors, sun visor extenders, leather-wrapped steering wheel, steering wheel mounted audio controls, rear spoiler, front passenger power window with one touch auto up/down and auto reverse, key operated front windows up/down, key fob operated front windows down, Bluetooth hands-free phone system, XM satellite radio with XM NavTraffic (with 3 months free service), Bose AM/FM stereo, 6-disc CD changer, 9 speakers, MP3/WMA CD-ROM playback compatibility, diversity antenna, radio data system, speed-sensitive volume, leather appointed seats, leather door trim, driver's power lumbar support, front heated seats, HomeLink universal transceiver, auto-dimming rearview mirror with integrated compass, leather wrapped shift knob, manual folding outside mirrors with integrated side turn lamp, illuminated console lighting, rear passenger air conditioning vents, Nissan DVD navigation system, rearview monitor and hybrid energy flow display and energy/fuel history display, Available with or without power sliding moonroof with sunshade and tilt feature
Connection Package, Includes: 8-way power driver's seat, automatic on/off headlights, illuminated vanity mirrors, sun visor extenders, leather-wrapped steering wheel, steering wheel mounted audio controls, rear spoiler, front passenger power window with one touch auto up/down and auto reverse, key operated front windows up/down, key fob operated front windows down, Bluetooth hands-free phone system, Choice of Sirius or XM satellite radio with 3 months free service, Bose AM/FM stereo, 6-disc CD changer, 9 speakers, MP3/WMA CD-ROM playback compatibility, diversity antenna, radio data system, speed-sensitive volume, leather appointed seats, leather door trim, driver's power lumbar support, front heated seats, HomeLink universal transceiver, auto-dimming rearview mirror with integrated compass, leather wrapped shift knob, manual folding outside mirrors with integrated side turn lamp, illuminated console lighting and rear passenger air conditioning vents. This package is available with or without a Moonroof.
Convenience Package, Includes: Includes 8-way power driver's seat, automatic on/off headlights, illuminated vanity mirrors, sun visor extenders, leather-wrapped steering wheel, steering wheel mounted audio controls, rear spoiler, front passenger power window with one touch auto up/down and auto reverse, key operated front windows up/down, and key fob operated front windows down.