by Tim Wong
I just drove a rental Mazda 6 during my family trip to California at March break. My business trip last month, I wanted to take out a hybrid car for a week to try.
I know the best known hybrid out there is the Toyota Prius. I still perceive the Toyota Prius is a small car (which I also know, it is actually not). When I rent a car, I normally ask for full size or even bigger. That’s why I chose not to rent a Prius. I got a Nissan Altima for this trip.
The Nissan Altima uses hybrid technology from Toyota (similar to what Toyota puts into the Camry hybrid). Nissan marries the Toyota hybrid drive train to its 2.5 liter gas engine. According to spec, the electric motor is equivalent to 40hp. The 2.5 liter DOHC four-cyclinder engine and the electric motor combined to make 198 bhp.
My rental car came well equipped. It had leather interior. Everything power. It just did not come with the ‘fancy’ computer package that offers sophisticated hybrid system monitoring. What remained was a rather simple text only display integrated into the dash board.
In terms of interior space, the Altima is comparable to its competitors in the range. It has a shorter rear leg room and a significantly smaller trunk. The latter is due to the hybrid system’s battery used up some of the trunk space. I am travelling on business on this trip. I did not have much luggage. I know if I was travelling with my whole family, the trunk would likely not be big enough to swallow all our luggage pieces. The small trunk is definitely a drawback for an all purpose family car.
For this trip, I took out the rental Altima from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). I spent a few days in the suburbs of LA. The suburbs of LA still mean traffic jam because there is almost no escape in this part of LA county. The second half of my trip, I drove from LA to Scottsdale, AZ. This was a 600km drive for me on mostly uncongested highway. There are minimum winding roads or up hill down hill roads for me to test the Altima on this trip.
The first impression I got from this Altima was it was almost ‘spooky’. It was late night when I got into this Altima in the rental car facility. I pushed and held down the ‘start’ button to start the car. The dash board lighted up and that was it. It had no tachometer. Instead, it had something similar looking showing power ratings? Yes, it showed the car was on and that was it, no sound. I recalled I was still looking at this very silent ‘ON’ mode, suddenly, the car’s engine auto started itself. The auto start meant the starter motor cranked itself and two seconds later, the gas engine fired up. On the dash board, the lights looked normal, there were no special indicator lights that said the gas engine was ON. (Later, I found out the ‘display’ on the dash had two small ‘EV’ letters showing the car’s current mode of propulsion).
I proceeded to drive the car off the rental car lot. Inside the lot, I drove at very slow speed. The car drove quite normal. I could not recall whether it was the gas engine powering me or the electric motor. I did recall once I got out of the rental facility, I got up to speed and got on the highway quickly. The car was driven all by the gas engine, no electric power until I got to my hotel. On the highway, the drive was again normal. The gas engine was clearly powering the car. The power meter, which looks like the tachometer was not showing rpm, it was showing power in kW. I was not used to it but nevertheless, it looked like a tachometer and responded the same way when I ‘blimped’ the throttle. The ‘creepy-ness’ came back when I drove the Altima Hybrid into the hotel parking lot, suddenly, you knew the gas engine shut off itself automatically. The car continued to drive, it was just oddly silent. It was like driving a golf cart. I parked the car and it was still oddly silent. When the car was standing still and in electric mode, it made no sound.
I drove the Altima Hybrid for a few days around the LA suburbs. Every time when I started the car, it lighted up the dash and made no sound. The gas engine usually ‘auto start’ a minute or two into driving (or for that matter, whether you drive or not). I knew that because I had to start the car to give power to the GPS. So, for the first two minutes, I could still be sitting in the driver seat, setting the GPS. The feeling was rather strange when suddenly, the engine started without you touching anything. If the Altima Hybrid is on your shopping list for your next car, please try for yourself whether you like this ‘auto start’ feature because it is a very notice-able start. There is an obvious starting motor cranking sound and the car shudders during cranking (normal). Like it or not, you have to get use to it. Why this stands out? In a gas powered car, you only need to start the car once for the trip. In the Altima Hybrid, the gas engine can start and shut off itself multiple times during a trip.
Starting off from the traffic lights, the Altima Hybrid was not sluggish at all. Sometimes, it started pulling using the electric motor. Sometimes, it started pulling with the gas engine. Either way, I got good throttle response and speedy pick up of speed. I just have to ignore who is doing what (gas or electric) and let the sophisticated built in electronics to make the choice for me.
Once the Altima got going on the open road, I noticed it used mostly the gas engine for moving. It was hard for me to try to ‘trick’ it into electric motor mode. The car has a brain for itself. On the open road, the acceleration was there when I needed it. Throttle response was good overall. It was still no Saab 9-5 Aero but it was good. I had no problems passing slow moving trucks and other traffic at 70mph+. When I was fully on the highway doing 60mph+, it was gas powered all the way.
The Altima Hybrid has a CVT (auto). I heard some people said it took time for them to get used to the shifting of the CVT or to be technically precise, the lack of. I was actually very comfortable with the CVT. I did not feel it in any way disturbing my driving nor its lack of shifting bother me at all. I know CVT can be quite economical, definitely more economical than the conventional auto gear box. However, I think for optimizing fuel economy, the manual gearbox is still the best. The hybrid propulsion system requires a lot of computer control over the driving components. Therefore, the Altima has an auto CVT transmission and no manual option.
During the long drive from LA to Scottsdale, AZ, I had plenty of chances to use the radio inside the Altima. In the radio department, I had my complaints. First of all, the Altima radio controls were a little further away than my 9-5. So, changing the radio channel was always a little bit more stretched out than I wanted it to be. Same as the 9-5, the Altima steer wheel has some audio control buttons. However, I found the lay out to be quite crowded. I located the audio control buttons but it did not have a button to scan to the next radio channel. The up/down button was for selecting the next programmed channel, not to scan to the next available one. I was a visitor to the LA area, I did not have radio channels pre-programmed into the radio. Therefore, the up/down button was useless. Also, I was driving from LA, CA into AZ, even if I pre-programmed my favorite radio channels, it would be rather useless because I was going from one state to another, covering a very large area. All the radio stations changed many times along the route. Pre-set stations would not work for the whole trip. Worse still, I did not bring a music CD with me on this trip. Therefore, I could not just use the CD player and listen to it. I had to manually scan the radio waves by pressing the up/down scan button on the center console quite frequently.
The other complaint I had was the button to operate the display on the dash. This display on the dash has some useful information but falls far short of what the Saab SID gives you. For me, I used this display frequently to show either mpg or the time. This button is positioned on the lower left hand corner of the dash, hidden behind the indicator stalk. It is not a convenient place to reach, nor safe to operate when actively engage in driving because your left hand has to slip behind the indicator stalk to reach it.
The exterior styling of the Altima Hybrid is really no different from the gas powered Altimas. The only way to tell is the Hybrid badge on the front doors and on the truck lid. There is no special color scheme, green badges or other features to distinguish between the two.
After driving the car for a week and 2000km later, I know the Altima Hybrid is a fairly economical car. It averaged 30mpg (as shown on the small display built into the dash). The bulk of these 2000kms were clocked up on the highways, there were not sufficient kms done in the city to say whether this car would be more economical overall if I have more city traffic included in the mix. I recalled my 9-5 aero manual can also touch 30mpg if I drove all highway at less than 110kmph. However, everything combined, I would say my Saab 9-5 will return 25mpg trip after trip, highway or city.
The trip was over and I returned the Altima Hybrid. I liked the experience. If I am travelling alone on business without a lot of luggage, I will definitely rent it again. Will it be on my next car dream list? Probably not. The Altima is a standard family sedan, arguably a little bit sportier styled than the benchmark Toyota Camry, but it is not a Saab 9-5 Aero. To bring price into perspective, the Saab 9-5 Aero is a much more expensive car than a Nissan Altima Hybrid. I think the 9-5 may cost $20,000 more. If I am keen to save some gas, the Altima will definitely do a better job that my current 9-5 and even the new 2011 9-5. However, I would rather pay for the extra few mpg for now and wait for the Saab EV or diesel offerings to come.
(This article was originally published in the February 2012 Gryphon.)