- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 7, 2007

While rival Japanese manufacturer Toyota has been splashing around in the hybrid pool for about a decade, Nissan’s spent most of that time curiously watching the action from a dry vantage point.

Finally, it has stuck at least its big toe in the water and come to market with a hybrid version of the redesigned 2007 Altima, a sedan that combines Nissan’s four-cylinder gasoline engine with an electric motor.

Nissan bills it as a performance hybrid that is “bringing more muscle to the gallon.” A week in the driver’s 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.

But, the Nissan hybrid is not actually of its own making. Under a licensing agreement, it is using Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive.

And, not just anybody can run right out and buy one. Still very cautious, Nissan is offering the car in only the eight states that have the most stringent anti-pollution regulations. If you want one right now, you’d better be living in California, Connecticut, Maine Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island or Vermont.

That could change, Nissan officials say, but only if the company sees “successful market acceptance” in those areas. 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 about two years.

Importantly, the hybrid is rated as an advanced technology/partial zero emissions vehicle, which means its exhaust is a lot less toxic than its conventional counterparts.

In any case, don’t count the latecomer out of the hybrid race. Company officials have announced Nissan is developing a hybrid vehicle of its own that will be on the road by 2010. The possibility exists that there will be more than one.

Nissan also 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 vehicle’s performance and fuel efficiency, while eliminating a lot of the space and weight required by today’s cumbersome nickel-metal hydride batteries.

It also could lead to a plug-in hybrid that owners could charge at home overnight and drive up to an estimated 40 miles without ever having to fire up the internal combustion engine.

That’s what the future might look like, but what about now? What about the Nissan hybrid that at least some people can purchase?

Not surprisingly, it 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 any time 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 Altima’s standard 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 for a week in varying traffic conditions, covered 330 miles, and averaged 33 mpg.

In most circumstances, the Altima Hybrid performed pretty much like its conventional counterpart, but 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. I’m not sure why, but it was more noticeable in the Nissan than it was in a 2007 Toyota Camry that I have driven.

The front-wheel-drive Altima’s crisp responses can be attributed to its rigid body structure, independent four-wheel suspension, rack-and-pinion steering and anti-lock front-disc/rear-drum brakes with automatic brake force distribution and brake assist for panic stops.

Although the battery pack’s intrusion into the trunk reduces cargo space from 15 to 9 cubic feet, the room inside the hybrid’s cabin is identical to that of the gasoline powered sedans.

Motorists who can get one may find that the Nissan Altima Hybrid is an attractive alternative to the other hybrids on the road. Everyone else will just have to wait and see if Nissan willing to get more than a toe wet prior to 2010.

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