When the 2010 Nissan Altima Coupe showed up in our garage, we registered some disappointment as we first looked around the car. The cool coupe style suggested days spent straightening the curves along winding mountain roads, but the continuously variable automatic transmission and four-cylinder engine meant we would be testing the Altima Coupe more as simple transportation. In this estimation, we were somewhat wrong.
Nissan squeezes adequate power from the engine, but the real magic comes from the continuously variable transmission (CVT). This CVT does an excellent job of imitating a fixed-gear transmission, and at the same time wringing out very good fuel economy. Although not many people would shop for a car based on its CVT, this one is the best on the market today.
Nissan also doesn't limit the cabin tech available in the Altima Coupe, making available its full hard-drive-based system with traffic reporting and onboard music storage. But our test car didn't come with that $1,780 option. Instead, the premium stereo system optioned up in our car brought in a new 4.3-inch color display, useful for showing iPod libraries, and the backup camera view.
CVT versus manual
The 2010 Altima Coupe 2.5 S we tested was far from the fastest or sportiest of the line. For that, we would want the Altima Coupe 3.5 SR equipped with the six-speed manual transmission option and, you guessed it, a 3.5-liter V-6. Our 2.5 S model would have even been more fun with the six-speed manual option, but it was still a satisfying driver. In a bit of typical configuration quirkiness, choosing the manual transmission with the 2.5-liter engine eliminates just about all of the options, including navigation, iPod integration, and even fog lights.
The 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine in the Altima Coupe only makes 170 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque, low numbers considering the displacement. On the plus side, the car earns a Partial Zero Emission Vehicle rating, meaning very few smog-causing pollutants. Another bonus is the mileage, rated at 23 mpg city and 32 mpg highway by the EPA. We achieved 26.8 mpg, with a bias towards freeway speeds of around 75 mph.
The engine doesn't seem powerful from the specifications, but the CVT manages to make use of it well. A CVT doesn't have fixed gears, instead relying on bands, tensioners, and pulleys to produce an almost infinite number of ratios. But Nissan's real secret is its programming, which tells the CVT which range of ratios to use depending on engine speed, throttle input, and other data.
In all driving conditions, we found the throttle responsive, delivering a satisfying push from the engine when we used the gas pedal. Driving around urban areas, the Altima Coupe stepped easily off the line without requiring pedal mashing. When we did floor the gas from a stop, the car responded adequately, not peel-your-eyelids-back fast, but with reasonable quickness. On the freeway, the CVT dug up power when we wanted to pass another car easily enough.
As there are no fixed gears, acceleration is a very smooth affair, without any dramatic engine speed changes. The only time you really feel it is when putting the pedal down for a passing maneuver, when the CVT ups the engine speed for needed power. There is a manual mode on this transmission, and it will fool you into believing you are shifting among six gears. But remember, these are virtual gears, ratios programmed into the CVT's software that somehow manage to feel like the real thing.
Handling in the Altima Coupe is similar to the power train, in that it's not at the top of the sporting class, but can still deliver some thrills. When pushed around a hard corner, the car stays composed up to a point, helped by stabilizer bars in the suspension, standard equipment in all Altimas. Its capabilities are mostly in line with a car in its class; get too crazy with it and the front-wheel-drive front end will head in the wrong direction.