Nissan’s crystal ball predicts coupe success

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The most vexing task in the automobile business is predicting the future.

It’s necessary because new cars take years to develop. But the buying public can be fickle, so when a car hits the market it can confound everybody’s informed predictions.

There are many examples of vehicles with high hopes that were dashed on the shoals of buyer apathy: Toyota Echo, Pontiac Aztek, Cadillac Cimarron, Nissan Axxess, Buick Rainier, Isuzu Axiom, BMW 318ti coupe, Mercedes-Benz C230 coupe and Suzuki Aerio, to name a few.

Then there are vehicles with modest aspirations that capture the imagination and become far more successful than anticipated. The original Honda Accord was one, as was the Mazda MX-5 Miata and the Chrysler PT Cruiser. The most prominent current example is the Toyota Prius hybrid.

So despite the car companies’ best efforts at prognostication, bringing out a new model is sometimes little more than a crap shoot.

That’s the risk facing the 2008 Altima coupe as Nissan maneuvers into sparsely populated terrain. Coupes have been falling from favor in recent years. Broadly speaking, the competitors are the Honda Accord, Toyota Solara, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Scion tC, Pontiac G6, Hyundai Tiburon and Chevrolet Cobalt. The Ford Mustang is a special case.

The good news is there’s not much competition in the category, but the question remains whether customers will flock to this new Altima model.

The idea of the new coupe, of course, is to raise the Altima’s stature in the minds of buyers. Though it has been a consistent good seller, the Altima has run far behind in sales to the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Chevrolet Impala.

Like a convertible, a cool coupe adds a certain amount of luster to a traditional sedan lineup. With that in mind, the Nissan designers made the new model from the get-go as a coupe instead of merely a two-door version of the existing Altima sedan.

The designers chopped more than seven inches from the overall length and dropped the roof line by more than two inches. It gives the Altima coupe an aggressive and sporting stance, with broad rear shoulders. The overall effect resembles the Nissan 350Z sports car and the Infiniti G35 coupe from Nissan’s luxury division.

But there were consequences. You have to duck to get into the front seats, and the rear seats are impossible for average-sized adults. Better to reserve them for children, little people or the occasional pumpkin. However, people who buy coupes rarely transport back-seat passengers, and the front seats have plenty of space and comfort once you fold yourself inside.

The rear seatbacks fold down for additional cargo, which is a good thing because the trunk has only about seven cubic feet of space.

Unlike the Z-car and the Infiniti, which have rear-wheel drive, the new Altima coupe is a front-driver, just like its sedan sibling. It also comes with the same power trains.

The base car is the 2.5 S, which is powered by a 175-horsepower four-cylinder engine with either a six-speed manual transmission or Nissan’s continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). Nissan is a leader in CVTs, which use belts and pulleys to multiply the engine’s power. From a driver standpoint, the main characteristic is that there are no shift points — simply a smooth transition from a standing start to highway speeds.

A step up from the 2.5 S is the 3.5 SE, which features a 270-horsepower V6 engine, again linked to either a six-speed manual or the CVT.

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