Altima Coupe is a Performance Sleeper

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2010 Nissan Altima Coupe 3.5 SR

When it comes to mid-size sedans, Nissan’s Altima has always kind of lived in the shadows of its two very strong rivals, the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry. In recent years, it’s faced even more competition from cars like the Ford Fusion and Hyundai Sonata.

The Altima sedan is a fine car, though it doesn’t really stand out too much when cross-shopped with the others. But when it comes to two-door coupes, the Nissan really picks up its game. Compared to the Accord coupe and Toyota Solara (in essence, it’s the coupe version of the Camry), the Altima Coupe can be somewhat of a performance car, wrapped in a sleek body.

As with the sedan, there are two engine choices for the Altima Coupe. The 2.5 model comes with a quite capable 2.5 liter four cylinder under its hood. But the one that’ll likely put a smile on your face when driving is the 3.5 liter V6 in the Altima Coupe 3.5 SR. And the best news is that if you like, you can shift your own gears.

The V6 is one of the jewels of Nissan’s engineering department. Used in cars like the 370Z sports car and various Infiniti models (all with a slightly higher displacement), it turns the otherwise ho-hum Altima into a bit of a screamer, with 270 willing horsepower at your disposal, backed up by a slightly raspy growl that makes itself known when the throttle is mashed hard.

Think of the Altima Coupe as a Nissan 370Z with a big dose of practicality, and as a well equipped car for the money. The fun-loving 6-speed manual model comes in at a pretty reasonable $30,100. If you’re willing to give up some driving fun for the CVT automatic, the car is even less money at $27,770, though you do lose some standard features that Nissan decided to include with the manual transmission.

Kudos to Nissan for even offering the manual gearbox with the V6 engine. You won’t find that combination from Honda or Toyota, who’ve decided that their V6 models are only worthy of automatic transmissions. The stigma of living in the shadows of the others? This may be Nissan’s way of crawling out and appealing to the performance crowd.

Even with the smaller engine and/or automatic transmission, the Altima Coupe is a really nice car to live with. Slightly refreshed for 2010 (new hood, grill, headlights, etc.) the car is still a pretty striking design in its third year on the road. Nicely sculpted rear fenders give a look of an animal on its haunches, and the raking roofline makes for a sleek profile. The car is dimensionally smaller than the Altima sedan and nicely proportioned overall.

Inside, this coupe is both roomy and snug at the same time. Roomy as far as leg and shoulder room, but snug for taller drivers. The sunroof is standard with the 3.5 SR, so getting the extra performance means a lean-back driving position if you’re more than an inch or so taller than six feet.

The back seat? Well, as with most coupes, it really wasn’t designed for two adults to ride in for any kind of long trip. The car industry likes to refer to this as “occasional seating,” meaning that two people are ideal for this car, but two more can tag along for a short jaunt. Smaller kids would fit just fine in back.

I suppose the target demographic for this car is a young single person, perhaps a guy, who doesn’t want to go whole hog into sports car territory. Still, he’d like a car that performs and wants something with a reasonable price tag, reasonable insurance rates and reasonable fuel economy. In a way, the Altima Coupe is an alternative to something like a Ford Mustang or Chevy Camaro. Sporty…but still conservative.

Purists will argue that those other cars — along with Nissan’s own 370Z – are rear wheel drive designs that provide better handling compared to the Altima’s front wheel drive layout. That’s true to a degree, but I’d venture to guess that many people who buy performance cars like the Z aren’t even aware which wheels put the power to the ground. Only at the limits of cornering do the differences become apparent.

The Altima Coupe is a fine handler in normal driving, even when some curving roads are thrown into the mix. Standard on the 3.5 SR are 18” wheels and tires, though the rubber is the all-season variety instead of something more high-performance. The suspension is fully independent, and big disc brakes get the stopping done.

For just over thirty grand, the 3.5 SR with manual transmission is pretty much fully loaded. Gorgeous leather bucket seats, keyless entry and start, dual zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth hands-free connection, a Bose audio system with seven speakers, and a rear-view camera are all standard. Curiously, you can’t get Nissan’s navigation system with the 6-speed transmission on either the 2.5 or 3.5 models. For some reason, if you want navigation you have to opt for the automatic.

So although the Altima sedan still tends to live in the shadows of its more popular competitors, the Altima Coupe shines brightly in its own automotive limelight.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He can also be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. You can reach Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net

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