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Motoring: Altima far from ultimate driving experience

Nauman Farooq | Interrobang | Sports | January 23rd, 2012

If you are in the market for a stylish, comfortable, spacious coupe that can seat four adults, and have less than $40,000 to spend, your choices limited, to be honest, especially if you prefer a frontwheel drive layout.

Ford has nothing to offer, neither does Chevrolet or Dodge, plus Mitsubishi has stopped producing the Eclipse, so that choice is out. Mazda also doesn't offer anything like this at the moment, but Honda does. The Accord coupe has been in steady production since the mid- '80s, but for the last few years, it has been forced to compete with another Japanese car company in this coupe segment, and that company is Nissan.

Though Nissan launched the Altima coupe back in 2008, I did not get the opportunity to try one until very recently. I guess it's better late than never, so let's get on to see if it's any good.

From a styling point of view, the car is a stunner. It looks very much like its cousin, the Infiniti G37 coupe, which is not a bad thing at all. From just about any angle, the car looks good, although I do think the rear-lights are a tad too big.

My tester, which was painted bright red, looked particularly alluring. If you want a coupe that looks good, this won't disappoint.

Open the door and the news is not as good. While the Altima coupe can be had with lots of gadgets, including a decent navigation system, Bluetooth system and all other convenience items one expects from such cars these days, the bad news is that the quality of the plastics used to make its interior don't look or feel very good. It reminded me of the old Chevrolet Monte Carlo, which, trust me, is not a compliment.

While there is plenty of room for four adults and even their luggage in its commodious trunk, I just wish the driver had a telescopic steering wheel, as the one in the Altima only tilts.

The news gets better when you open its hood. While you can have the base 2.5-litre, four-cylinder engine that produces 175 hp, the one I had in my tester was the bigger, 3.5-litre V6 engine which produces a much more pleasing 270 hp. This engine is a delight, as it has plenty of low-end torque and yet also pulls strong at higher speeds. However, whatever you do, don't buy it with the CVT gearbox. I don't generally like CVT gearboxes, but the one in the Altima coupe seemed much worse than any I have ever come across. Under acceleration it would whine like a bad electric blender — not the kind of sound that is considered pleasing in a car. You can, however, save yourself some money and have one with a six-speed manual gearbox. I know as a journalist I'm not supposed to assume anything, but I am positively sure that any manual gearbox has got to be better than the CVT option.

What about the handling? Is it any good on a twisty strip of road? In all honesty, no. While the chassis seems somewhat decent, the suspension set-up is a bit too soft, and the steering lacks any feel whatsoever. This lack of communication between the front wheels and the driver means it becomes tricky to place this car into bends, especially if you're carrying a bit of speed.

What this car is good at is being a long-distance cruiser. It is quiet and it is comfortable, and on the highway, it's very economical, too. You can average 7.3 litres/100 km on the highway. During my week, I averaged 11.3 litres/100 km in a mix of city and highway driving. That is not bad for a big coupe with a big engine.

So how do I sum up this Altima coupe? It looks good and offers lots of space, comfort and gadgets. On the downside, it has an awful CVT gearbox (I cannot say this enough, buy the six-speed manual instead), the interior plastics are not the greatest and the handling is bad enough to ensure you pick the most straight-line route you can find to get home.

Prices start at $27,698 for the four-cylinder model, while a 3.5SR CVT is yours from $36,598. Me, I'd rather buy a used Infiniti G37 coupe, or keep saving until I can afford a new one of those.
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