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The beast with two brands

YOU know that horror movie where the mad scientist straps two victims to tilted gurneys, lowers the metal skull caps on them and, by dint of some Ray Harryhausen special effects -- the sparking dynamo, the climbing plasma of a Jacob’s ladder -- the victims’ personalities are switched?

The 2007 Nissan Altima hybrid is like that, except without the smoking hair. The company’s first effort at a gas-electric, using parts and technology licensed from Toyota, drives like a Nissan with a Prius soul transplant: The same ninja-in-the-night silence as the car trundles along at low speeds; the same faint tremble when the gas engine lights up; the same bubbly, torque-infused acceleration as the gas and electric motors pull on the oars, only quite a bit more so.

Anybody who has driven a hybridized Toyota Camry will recognize the company’s power-management graphics displayed on the Altima’s center-dash LCD screen. In fact, the Altima hybrid -- nearly a numerical dead ringer for the Camry hybrid (wheelbase, height, weight, horsepower, acceleration) -- might be thought of as a Camry hybrid with sex appeal. Let us not underestimate the magnitude of that achievement.

This is not a car that Nissan wanted to build, particularly. Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn has long argued that hybrid cars were a money-losing proposition with little consumer demand -- of course, this was before Toyota started selling more than 100,000 Priuses annually.

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Earlier this month, Nissan exec Dominique Thormann admitted the company was building the Altima hybrid at a loss only to comply with California’s partial zero emission vehicle mandate, which has been adopted by seven Northeastern states as well.

And yet, collectively, Nissan -- like GM -- seems to have had a come-to-Jesus moment on hybrids. Recently Nissan announced its “Green Program 2010,” which -- in addition to looking for across-the-board cuts in carbon emissions from its factories -- will develop a hybrid vehicle using in-house technology, as well as pursue plug-in hybrid and all-electric technology. Nissan also announced it would create its own company to produce and market advanced lithium-ion batteries, which are the critical component to make hybrids, plug-ins and electric vehicles work.

Let’s bookmark this moment in the history of cars, because what is emerging is something like consensus. Hybrid doubters -- who once railed that the batteries were sketchy, the costs of the so-called hybrid premium unrecoverable, the mileage gains overstated, and so on -- are beginning to look like the Flat Earth Society. As underscored last month when GM announced it would build a plug-in hybrid version of its Saturn Vue, the logic of electric propulsion is compelling. Electric motors are clean, lightweight, maintenance-free and powerful. The latest lithium-ion batteries are energy-dense, durable, compact and recyclable. Putting these components together opens a world of oil- and carbon-saving possibilities.

Run this through your wetware: What about a car that uses a powerful electric motor to drive the wheels, that you would charge overnight like a cordless phone, that would deliver per-mile costs at a fraction of gasoline? And if the car should need to exceed its all-electric range, a small, hyper-clean gas-powered generator would be aboard to charge the battery. Such a widget, known as a serial hybrid, could get over 100 miles per gallon. Fantasy? Let’s talk after next month’s Detroit auto show.

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In the meantime, we have the Altima hybrid, which is the result of a deal Nissan signed with Toyota way back in 2002. Toyota supplies the 244V nickel metal hydride battery, the electric motor/transaxle, the inverter and controller, while Nissan uses its 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and continuously variable transmission (CVT). The DOHC, 16-valve gas engine serves up 158 hp at 5,200 rpm, while the permanent magnet AC synchronous motor imparts another 40 hp, for a nominal net of 198 hp. This thrust is pitted against 3,448 pounds of mass, which is 264 pounds heavier than the regular four-cylinder, 175-hp Altima.

The Altima hybrid also surrenders some trunk space to the hybrid batteries and controllers: The regular Altima has a 15.3-cubic-foot trunk while the Altima’s bootie makes do with 9.1 cubic feet.

Functionally, the Altima hybrid powertrain feels very familiar. From idle to about 10 mph, the car moves in all-electric mode, pulled along by the electric motor’s husky 199 pound-feet of torque (between 0-1,500 rpm). Above stop-and-go speeds and depending on throttle demand, the gas engine kicks in with a slight low-frequency flutter. In keeping with the brand’s sportier vibe, Nissan’s engineers gave the Altima hybrid a slightly huskier exhaust note -- though the effect is just slightly like having someone in the trunk making motorboat sounds (BBBBBRRRR!!!!).

In straight-line acceleration, the Altima pours out a nice, syrupy torque below 60 mph, where the gas and electric power plants are most effective. Zero-to-60 mph is about 9 seconds. At interstate highway speeds, the Altima starts to feel a little starved for electrons, and floor-to-the-mat requests for acceleration are met with a major kick-down whine from the CVT.

Overall, though, the hybrid’s performance should be roughly on par with the Altima four-banger. Though who desire more boot-scoot may be interested in the 3.5-liter, 270-hp Altima SE.

As for fuel economy, the hybrid’s official numbers are 41 city, 36 highway -- or about 25% better than the four-cylinder Altima (26/34 mpg). While pricing won’t be announced until late January, close to the time the vehicle goes on sale, the base Altima hybrid should come in at around $25,500. (Because it’s a loss-leader proposition anyway, it’s only a matter of how much the company wants to eat on each unit.) A car like our all-in tester -- with navigation, rearview camera, leather and wood, satellite radio with Bose sound system and a slew of other conveniences and amenities -- would likely run to about $32,000. Currently, the federal tax credit on the Altima hybrid is $2,350, according to Nissan.

It’s worth noting, incidentally, that the recent downturn in Toyota hybrid sales is probably due to the shrinking tax credit on them, because Toyota was the first manufacturer to hit the 60,000-unit mark, after which by rule the tax credit decreases. The Altima hybrid seems like a good way to get a Camry hybrid-esque car and still get the full credit.

Except, of course, that it’s not a Camry, with all the bourgeois burden the nameplate implies. The Altima has been restyled for the 2007 model year, an effort that has merely refined the car’s well loved, cleanly architectural styling: the perfect-arch roofline, the raked windshield, the close-fitting wheel openings and glassine details at the corners. The Altima also shares Nissan’s affection for crisper ride and handling and more vivid steering. The Camry hybrid drives a little bit like the world’s most sophisticated hearse.

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If this is what it takes to put Toyota efficiency in a sleek, stylish sedan, then I say, Doctor, throw the switch.

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dan.neil@latimes.com

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2007 Nissan Altima hybrid

Base price: $25,500 (est.)

Price, as tested: $32,000 (est.)

Powertrain: Gas-electric, with 2.5-liter, DOHC, 16-valve four cylinder with variable valve timing; permanent magnet AC synchronous electric motor; continuously variable transmission

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Horsepower: 198 hp (net)

Curb weight: 3,448 pounds

0-60 mph: 9-plus seconds

Wheelbase: 109.3 inches

Overall length: 189.8 inches

EPA fuel economy: 41 miles per gallon city, 36 mpg highway

Final thoughts: Camry hybrid in tight jeans


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