- The Washington Times - Friday, June 15, 2007

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.

Prices start at $21,115 for the stick-shift 2.5 S and top out at $26,015 for the CVT-equipped 3.5 SE. The test car was the 3.5 SE with the six-speed manual, which had a base sticker price of $25,515.

Standard equipment on the test car included traction control, anti-lock brakes, tire-pressure monitoring, active front-seat headrests, side air bags and side-curtain air bags, air conditioning, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, push-button ignition, remote locking, a motorized sunroof, power driver’s seat, cruise control and 17-inch alloy wheels. However, it also had a load of options, including a navigation system, XM satellite radio, leather upholstery, automatic climate control, Bluetooth hands-free telephone system, garage-door opener, upgraded audio system with MP3 capability and has high-intensity Xenon headlights. The options brought the suggested delivered price to $31,575.

Nissan expects about six out of 10 buyers will choose a four-cylinder model, mostly with the automatic CVT. The four-banger is certainly adequate for most people, with decent acceleration and easy highway cruising. Of course, enthusiasts likely will be smitten by the tested 3.5 SE, which has 270 horsepower and can accelerate to 60 miles an hour in less than seven seconds. The six-speed manual shifts smoothly, with only a hint of resistance, depending on the engine revs when the driver decides to shift.

Clutch action is progressive and light. Unlike its four-cylinder sibling, however, the 3.5 SE requires premium fuel.

Both the six and four-cylinder models share the same independent suspension system. However, the 3.5 SE has quicker steering and a larger turning circle, which gives it a somewhat more precise handling feel.