Generally speaking, when an automaker builds a sports coupe that’s based on a front-wheel drive mid-size sedan chassis, the outcome tends to be pretty uninspiring. Softly sprung and almost always equipped with an automatic transmission, these so-called sports coupes are usually little more than pretty commuter cars with very little real performance bred into them. And that’s pretty much what I was expecting out of the Altima Coupe 3.5 SR, especially when I noticed the CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) badge on the trunk lid. But much to my surprise, the engineers at Nissan have injected some real sportiness into the 3.5 SR Coupe.
|1. The Altima Coupe 3.5 SR gets a 3.5-liter V6 delivering 270-hp and can hit 60 mph in just 5.5 seconds.
2. The Xtronic CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) is standard equipment on the 3.5 SR model. A six-speed manual transmission is a $2,330 option.
3. A 2010 mid-cycle refresh includes a restyled front end, increased standard equipment levels and a renamed top-end model.
The 270-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 engine beneath the Altima Coupe’s swollen hood provides more than enough oomph to light up the meaty 235/45/18 front tires. In fact, the 3.5 SR will sprint to 60 mph from a stop in just 5.5-seconds and passes slower traffic on single lane highways with ease. The first time I made one of these passing maneuvers I was caught off guard by how strongly the V6 pushed me back in the firm and supportive leather-wrapped driver’s seat. If you’re not the sort of driver who values this kind of powerful acceleration, then the 2.5 S model with its 175-hp 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine should be more than adequate, not to mention significantly more fuel efficient.
CVT: FRIEND OR FOE?
With my only prior CVT experience being the horrendous version Dodge equipped the Caliber with, I expected the continuously variable transmission in the Altima Coupe (standard equipment on the 3.5 SR model) to spoil the fun, if not downright annoy and frustrate me. Initially I noticed a bit of a delayed response to the throttle when accelerating from a stop, but once rolling the responsiveness of Nissan’s Xtronic CVT was quite impressive. It’s strange to hear the engine being held at 6000 rpm when accelerating aggressively at wide-open throttle, but as soon as you let off the gas the engine speed seamlessly falls to the appropriate level. I also found that with a little more throttle input from a stop I was able to achieve smooth and rapid off-the-line acceleration. Perhaps most impressively of all, the Xtronic CVT keeps engine speed optimized for fuel economy when cruising, translating to a very respectable 27 mpg on the highway (and 20 mpg in the city).
SURPRISINGLY FIRM SUSPENSION
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Altima 3.5 SR Coupe is its suspension tuning. Through a combination of stiffer springs, revised shock damping, and larger diameter anti-sway bars, the Coupe’s suspension feels like it has been tuned to resemble a G37 or 370Z rather than the much softer Altima Sedan. This means crisp turn-in response and an overall sense of agility that I did not expect in a FWD coupe, but it also meant a harsher ride quality over seams and other sharp bumps in the road. If Nissan’s target market with the 3.5 SR Coupe is true driving enthusiasts then the suspension tuning is spot on, but if they expect to sell more of these to secretaries than racing drivers, then they may have erred too far towards the stiff and sporty end of the spectrum.
A STYLISH PACKAGE, BUT WITH A FEW FLAWS
Styling is always a matter of personal taste, but to my eye the lines of the Altima Coupe mimic the Infiniti G Coupe in a pleasing way. However, the 2010 mid-cycle styling revisions have weakened this visual link, with more of the Maxima’s design showing through on the Coupe’s new front fascia, grille and hood. This is no doubt an intentional move on the part of Nissan, likely wanting the Altima Coupe to look more a part of the Nissan family than the Infiniti family.
Inside the Altima Coupe it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The leather-wrapped steering wheel and surprisingly well-bolstered front seats are both handsome and well designed for spirited driving, but the sea of black surfaces throughout the interior does make for a rather monotone visual experience. There are some nice soft-touch materials used on the dash and along top of the door panels (I also liked the textured surface on the air vent controls), but the plastic covers that house the steering wheel audio/cruise control buttons and dash storage enclosure look and feel far less luxurious. The chrome bezels around the vents and Start button are a nice detail, and in general the interior does have a high quality look and feel to it.
I found it easy to achieve a comfortable seating position in the power heated front seats, but my 5’3’’ tall wife found the lack of adjustable pedals or telescoping steering wheel meant she had to sit far too close to the steering wheel. As a result she felt the rearview mirror was too close to her face and created an unusually large forward-looking blind spot. Because she was sitting so far forward she did not have any issues with a blind spot over her left shoulder, but found it difficult to reach back for the seat belt.
In my 6-foot tall seating position the 3.5 SR was far more comfortable, but due to the sloping roofline and beefy b-pillars there is a large blind spot when shoulder-checking. The rear seats are also a bit difficult to access and really only suitable for children.
One standout item on our 3.5 SR test vehicle was the Technology Package. It’s not an inexpensive option at $1,780, but the 6.5-inch color touch-screen was a pleasure to use when inputting a navigation point and the reverse camera came in very handy given the limited rear visibility created by the large b- and c-pillars. There’s also onboard voice recognition for hands-free control, which when paired with the onboard Bluetooth system meant I could make phone calls while driving without having to take my eyes off the road or hands off the steering wheel.
The most obvious competition to Nissan’s Altima 3.5 SR Coupe is Honda’s front-wheel drive Accord Coupe with the 271-hp V6 engine option. The Accord Coupe is a slightly larger and heavier vehicle, yet somehow its V6 is able to achieve slightly faster 0-60 mph and ¼-mile times (5.3 seconds and 14.2 seconds respectively, compared to the Altima Coupe 3.5 SR at 5.5 seconds and 14.6 seconds). These statistics will really only matter to the most diehard speed freak, and the virtual dead-heat on fuel economy does little to differentiate the two (20 city/27 hwy for the Altima and 19 city/28 hwy for the Accord). Ultimately it’s the styling differences and the softer suspension tuning of the Accord that are likely to separate the two in most buyers’ minds.
Hyundai’s attractively styled Genesis Coupe or BMW’s nimble little 128i also come in at about the same price as the Altima 3.5 SR coupe and both have six-cylinder engines under their hoods (the Genesis’ making an impressive 300-hp while the BMW’s makes only 230-hp). However, their rear-wheel drive configuration is likely to scare off some drivers who are accustomed to the perceived safety of a FWD method of power delivery.
THE VERDICT: A SURPRISINGLY SPORTY SPORTS COUPE
With 2010 mid-cycle refreshes including a restyled front end, increased standard equipment levels and the renaming of the top-of-the-line 3.5 SE to the 3.5 SR, the Altima Coupe is certainly a leader in the front-wheel drive Sports Coupe category. Its primary rival is the Honda Accord Coupe, but these two vehicles are surprisingly different given the similarities in size, shape, price-point and fuel economy. The Altima Coupe 3.5 SR feels firmly suspended and ready to attack the corners with its small diameter steering wheel and nicely bolstered front seats. The Accord Coupe feels soft and luxurious in comparison, its front seats being much wider and softer and lacking any meaningful bolstering. The Altima Coupe 3.5 SR is, therefore, the real sports coupe of the two, but I do have to wonder if car buyers interested in a front-wheel drive sports coupe are really looking for this much sportiness. I suspect many of these buyers would give up some cornering power for a more compliant and quieter ride quality, but perhaps I’m underestimating the sporting appetite of the FWD sports coupe crowd.