Conventional prejudice says you can't put a transverse V6 in a big front-drive car and call it a sport coupe. But after 600 miles with the 2008 Nissan Altima 3.5 SE Coupe, we're going to rise above our car-geek heritage and do just that.
Of course we're speaking of passion, not precision. This is still a 183-inch-long, 71-inch-wide, 3,290-pound car with 67 percent of its weight riding over the front wheels. Said wheels are wrapped in unassuming 215/55R17 Bridgestone Turanza tires.
But there's a vitality to the Nissan Altima 3.5 SE Coupe that defies clinical assessment. It likes going around corners. Its VQ-Series V6 likes being matched up with a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Even if the Altima coupe isn't dynamically perfect, we like driving it.
Minus Two Doors, Plus One Mustache
Nissan's starting point here has been the Altima sedan, already an athlete among family-friendly sedans. Instead of dropping a coupe body onto a sedan chassis and installing a set of really long doors, Nissan lopped 4 inches off the sedan's wheelbase (now 105.3 inches) and designed a fresh set of body panels.
With its 3-inch drop in stature and fastback roof line, the Altima coupe draws immediate comparisons to Infiniti's G37 coupe. From the back, it looks a bit too much like the innocuous Pontiac G6, but wheel around front and there's a wisp of a chrome mustache to reassure you this car has the evil, funhouse flavor of the Altima.
We Choose Torque
As usual, there are degrees of evil. Not so threatening is the 2.5 S Coupe, which is motivated by a 175-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and priced around $21,000. Nissan says this car will account for 60 percent of Altima coupe sales.
We're speaking here to the other 40 percent, however; the fiends who will spend upward of $26,000 on the Altima 3.5 SE Coupe. It has a 3.5-liter V6 rated for 270 hp at 6,000 rpm and 258 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm.
Although a six-speed manual is available, most 3.5 SE Coupes will be sold with a continuously variable transmission (CVT), with which our test car has been equipped. Most will also have the $3,200 Premium Package — good for xenon headlights, leather upholstery, Bose sound and automatic climate control.
Our test car did without the premium luxuries. Antilock disc brakes and all the expected airbags were on board, but stability control costs $600 extra.
Quick by Numbers, Quicker by Feel
The lack of amenities went largely unnoticed, as the Nissan Altima coupe has other ways of making its driver feel energized.
It's not with overpowering speed, though. A 0-60-mph time in the 6.0-second range and a quarter-mile time just under 15.0 seconds no longer make anyone feel entirely special, not even in the sensible coupe class. Our CVT-equipped coupe ran to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds, then laid down a quarter-mile in 14.8 seconds, a couple tenths quicker than the Altima sedan.
Nevertheless, it hasn't any edge over the Pontiac G6 GTP coupe, which gets to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds and does the quarter-mile in 14.8 seconds. Of course, the Altima CVT coupe is a smidge faster than the Mitsubishi Eclipse GT with a manual transmission, which takes 6.6 seconds to get to 60 mph and then does the quarter-mile in 14.9 seconds.
But away from the test track, you'll be convinced this is a fast car. Partly it's the sweet power delivery of the VQ V6, which offers just the right balance of smoothness and personality in this grand-touring application.
Get With the CVT Program
Mostly, though, the Altima coupe's lively performance comes from the CVT, which makes good on the promise that a CVT is better than a regular automatic transmission. Instead of playing telephone with your right foot, sending a message to the engine through hydraulic fluid whirling around a torque convertor, the CVT responds immediately to changes in throttle input. So when the engine rpm soar, it's because you will it.
During instrumented testing, it made no difference in the numbers whether we left the CVT in Drive or used the manual mode. But on your favorite back road, there's good reason to call up a manual "downshift." Pull the central gearlever back as you're coming into a tight turn and you gain access to a usefully lower range of available gear ratios.
So enjoyable is the CVT that even hard-core drivers will prefer it to this car's manual gearbox. You see, apart from the pleasures of post-redline upshifts and heel-and-toe downshifts, the six-speed is a weak effort. The clutch engagement is abrupt and the shift lever feels limp through the gates.
The CVT also delivered pretty good fuel economy. The CVT coupe achieved 34 mpg on a pure highway run, although only half that during a workout on the two-lane — averaging out to 20 mpg. During the brief 200-miles time we had our hands on the coupe with a manual transmission, it returned 18 mpg.
Coupe in the Balance
Handling is another area in which the 2008 Nissan Altima 3.5 SE Coupe reaches out to its driver. Its 66.8-mph slalom performance and 0.81g grip on the skid pad are no better than the sedan's, but there's a psychological component to the coupe's compressed dimensions and slightly lower curb weight. Maybe it's just us, but the two-door feels hungrier on a curvy road.
And compared to the understeer-prone Eclipse and unresponsive G6, Nissan's new coupe borders on the ravenous when it comes to eating up the road. It's also much quicker through the cones on its skimpy 55-series 17-inch tires than either rival is on low-profile 18-inchers. The Altima has the edge in steering feel as well.
The Altima's braking capability is only average, though. A 127-foot stop from 60 mph brings it to a halt 10 feet shorter than the Pontiac, but still not up to the Mitsu's 124-foot performance. The Altima's brake pedal travel is short and there's lots of initial bite from the brake pads, but the tires just aren't up to it.
Because of the Altima coupe's shorter wheelbase, you feel the impact from highway expansion joints more sharply than in the sedan, so you'd better have a tighter grip on hot, splashy beverages. Overall, though, the coupe's ride quality is agreeable.
Functional Cockpit, Funky Seats
Just as in the sedan, the cabin of the 2008 Nissan Altima Coupe has a vaguely industrial ambience, although it features simple, well-organized controls. The soft-touch plastic that trims the dash feels rubbery to the touch, and the action of the various dials feels grainy and unpleasant.
The coupe has less headroom than the sedan, of course, and the front seats now have considerable lateral bolsters to hold you around corners. Rush-hour comfort is debatable, though, as the driver seat combines a slightly odd overall shape with firm cushions.
The coupe's trunk space is minimal at just 7.4 cubic feet, but it's a useful space with a wide opening and the 60/40-split rear seats fold completely flat, providing a cargo area large enough to bring home an awful lot of dry-cleaning plus some groceries, too.
Best of the Front-Drive Coupes
When you set out to buy a midsize front-wheel-drive coupe, you have to be willing to make some tough choices. If you've got a specific craving for a more decadent rear-drive car like the Ford Mustang GT or Mazda RX-8, you shouldn't ask an Altima coupe to satisfy it.
But if you're willing to admit that ride comfort, fuel economy and interior spaciousness are important, then the 2008 Nissan Altima Coupe is one of the best options out there. Among the current population of V6 front-drive coupes, the 3.5 SE is by far the best drive.
Executive Editor Michael Jordan says:
This car looks pretty good, doesn't it? It seemed kind of spindly at the introduction during the 2006 L.A. Auto Show last fall, but now this seems to be a surprisingly grown-up shape, muscular and expressive.
Yet the curse of Nissan lives on in this car's interior, as it's relentlessly crummy. Bad color values, ugly plastic, weak architecture. Of course the irony here is that the coupe configuration always seats you pretty low in the car, and as a consequence you're looking all that bad plastic right in the face every second. Do yourself a favor and order leather upholstery.
You'd think manufacturers would have learned from the Scion tC. Although the tC is pretty wispy as a car, a piece so poor in specification that it might as well be from Malaysia, it makes you feel good because the exterior paint shimmers with a mirror finish, while the interior furnishings seem both durable and fashionable. The Altima coupe needs some interior style to accompany its sophisticated sheet metal.
Although I've always liked the way the Altima drives (the new sedan with CVT is one of the best cars in America), the coupe didn't offer much pleasure on the road. As you'd expect in a coupe, the driving position is low and set to the rear, but the placement of the controls is designed for an upright sedan with a high seating position. Also, the Altima coupe just doesn't have its feet underneath it when you try to go quickly, as torque reaction from drivetrain and imbalances caused by shifting/throttle/braking inputs are accentuated by a squishy suspension, so everything feels as if it's working at cross-purposes.
What this car likes is cruising along the highway at about 80 mph, where V6's broad power band and the CVT makes it a terrific piece for slicing through traffic.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.