While many carmakers spent the better part of the last decade playing catch-up in the hybrid market, Nissan was content with the limited release of just one hybrid—which was itself nothing more than the marriage of the company’s best selling model and the Toyota Camry’s hybrid system. Why the ambivalence about hybrids? Nissan had bigger fish to fry, namely the introduction of the Leaf all-electric vehicle that began arriving to customers in December.
If you’re thinking about buying a Nissan Altima Hybrid, you might also consider a Toyota Camry Hybrid or Ford Fusion Hybrid. Compare these vehicles.
The neglected “middle child” in Nissan’s push toward fuel efficiency is the Altima Hybrid. First introduced in 2007, the Altima Hybrid has only ever been available in nine states: California, Oregon, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island or Vermont. (This helps Nissan meet stricter emissions standards in these states, all of which follow California tailpipe regulations.)
The limited release is a bit of a shame because the Altima is actually one of the better looking, better performing hybrids in its price range—there is an attractiveness to this car that might appeal to buyers who are intrigued by fuel savings but wouldn’t be caught dead in a Prius or Insight.
After a slight exterior makeover and interior refresh for 2010, the 2011 Nissan Altima Hybrid is unchanged.
Under the hood, the Altima Hybrid is essentially a Toyota hybrid wrapped in Nissan’s attractive packaging. The carmaker licensed Toyota’s hybrid technology, made a few key adjustments, and transplanted the hybrid system and drivability into its own product. Those adjustments are actually pretty noticeable in the computer control system. Where Toyota opts for calm and comfort, the signature qualities of the Camry, Nissan allows a little more noise and rumble in exchange for more power in passing.
The Altima carries a 2.5-liter engine that provides 158 horsepower and an electric motor capable of providing an extra 40 horses, for a total of 198 horsepower—that’s 23 more ponies than a standard four cylinder non-hybrid Altima and 11 more than the Camry Hybrid. The Altima Hybrid’s fuel tank, at 20 gallons, is three gallons larger than the Camry’s, boosting the driving range another 100 miles or so.
When it comes to performance, most auto critics give thumbs up to the Altima Hybrid’s satisfying power delivery. Car and Driver had high praise for the car: “Whether we’re comparing conventionally powered versions or hybrids in this class of family four-doors, the Altima always anchors the zesty end of the range, eager, quick, and rowdy. This hybrid really specializes in test-track numbers.”
The Altima Hybrid is also noticeably more responsive than the Camry Hybrid, though its taut suspension is not as smooth. “Although the suspension is decidedly sporty for this class, it also crashes over potholes, expansion joints, and broken surfaces in general,” says Automobile Magazine. Some drivers will cherish a little extra pep and are more than willing to forgo the ultra-quiet (some may call it “numb”) ride of the Camry.
The overall effect is a greater sense of power and luxury when compared with the staid and sedate Camry Hybrid. If you want a little edge to your hybrid but don’t live in one of the nine states where the Altima is sold, you might want to check out the 2011 Ford Fusion Hybrid—many reviewers prefer it’s styling to the Altima’s.
When it comes to fuel economy, the Altima Hybrid is on par with the Camry. It has an EPA-estimated 33/33 mpg city/highway versus the Camry’s 31/35 mpg. However, both pale in comparison to the Ford Fusion’s 41/36 mpg city/highway and the Toyota Prius’s 51/48 mpg city/highway.
In the world of practical family sedans, the Nissan Altima is set apart by a sportier and more stylish edge. The finer points of the design are its body creases, wide hips, tapered roofline, T-shaped front grille, and indented wheel-well arches.
Just a few small changes to the new Altima Hybrid’s styling have paid big dividends in terms of the overall attractiveness of the car. “Although the visual changes to the  Altima Sedan focus on minor revisions to the hood, headlights and front fascia, the new car looks especially sharp,” says Road and Track, “particularly when parked next to a 2009 model, which now looks almost plain.” And US News commented, “Nissan has added flair to the Altima’s sheetmetal, with a new, more dramatic look. A prominent “power bulge” and deep ridges carved into the sides of the hood give it a bolder look.”
Ultimately, Nissan has produced a nice mid-size hybrid that compares pretty favorably with many of its competitors but was never actually intended to compete.
Earlier Altima models were widely criticized for an interior that seemed cheap and thrown together. Nissan made significant improvements for 2010 though, deploying a better selection of materials that are softer and more befitting a car in the Altima Hybrid’s price range. The gauges have also been updated slightly, quelling complaints that the old ones were somewhat difficult to read. Road and Track was favorably impressed with the inside of the Altima, saying, “The biggest improvements are inside, where revised fabrics and materials give the look and feel of quality.”
The car’s onboard technology also received an upgrade but you won’t really notice it unless you spring for the optional music and navigation systems. These systems feature a 6.5-inch VGA color display and a 9.6GB hard drive for music storage, borrowing heavily from a similar configuration used by Infiniti, Nissan’s upmarket label.
Nissan has never had much interest in being a major player in the hybrid market and as a result never developed a hybrid instrumentation system that is as fun and easy to use as Toyota or Ford’s. Their attempt at this feature is only offered when adding the navigation system, and it is only available in a pricey add-on package. And even then, there are no green leaves to reward drivers who excel when it comes to fuel economy.
Perhaps the biggest drawback of the Altima’s hybrid version is the diminished cargo space, which is shrunk from 15.3-cubic feet of trunk space to 10.1 cubic-feet—with no pass-through or 60/40 rear-seat split—all to make room for the hybrid batteries.
The 2011 Altima Hybrid sedan is available in just one trim level starting at $26,800. That’s just a couple hundred dollars more than the Camry Hybrid and a significant $2,000 more than the Fusion Hybrid. But the way Nissan bundles its option packages—Convenience, Premium and Technology—with each package requiring the purchase of the preceding one, the Altima approaches $35,000.
Buyers who live in the nines states where the Altima Hybrid is sold are lucky to have an additional choice. It’s a roomy mid-size car with comfortable seats that has some moxie yet, delivers the fuel economy of a Camry Hybrid.
Prices are Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) at time of publication and do not include destination charges, taxes or licensing.