October 31, 2010

Driving the Nissan Altima Hybrid

There is no way to hide the fact that our Daily Driver is a gas guzzler. Even my Corvette gets better highway mileage. I love my Passat W8 but when I bought it many years ago, my commute was short and I rarely sat in traffic for any length of time. The 15 - 17 MPG I get in around town and the 20 - 22 MPG we get driving back and forth to work leave a lot to be desired. It is still a great highway cruiser and fantastic for long weekend journeys but with it's expensive maintenance and high fuel costs, It is not what I would like to drive to work on a daily basis so I am beginning to to explore other alternatives.

This past week I went to Maryland and took the opportunity to rent a Hybrid from Hertz's Green Collection. The luck of the draw placed me behind the wheel of a Nissan Altima Hybrid. A standard-looking four dour sedan that I think is very comparable with my Passat. Although the quality of the interior and sound deadening does not feel as well engineered as a B5.5 Passat, it is very comfortable and nicely appointed. Best of all, it is a bit more sporty looking than the other option. The bland-looking Toyota Camry.

My first "observation" came when I opened the trunk to store my luggage. Space is really at a premium, courtesy of the battery pack. A testament to what happens when you try to modify an existing platform to accommodate a Hybrid drive train. It is still pretty usable as based on the size of my roll-on suit case, I guess you could store at least three 23 inch long bags back there. I was a bit worried that I may not be able to fit the folding wheel chair I needed to carry but in the end, it fit perfectly. However, you may have to rely on the rear seat for your monthly Costco binge...

  The driving experience is a bit different as you may imagine. I pressed the "Start" button and the gas engine started momentarily (to warm up the engine perhaps?). Then it went silent as I placed it in Reverse and moved away on EV Mode. I was immediately drawn to the Power Consumption gauge on the left of the instrument cluster and the Battery Charge status on the right next to the Fuel Gauge. With these two, you can tell more or less what is going on as this car was not equipped with the more comprehensive display included in cars that have the Navigation system. I rolled to a stop in complete silence, something that I experienced last year when I rented a Diesel-powered Mini Cooper (in Spain) equipped with a Start-Stop system. I kept asking myself - Will it start when the light turns green? This is something that takes some time getting used to.

Spending a week with the car in the greater Baltimore and Washington D.C. metro areas gave me plenty of opportunities to experience what makes a Hybrid car appealing. This car is definitively a star on city streets as you get to maximize the potential of the Hybrid drive train. Get in heavy traffic however and you will get to hear the Gas engine quite often as the traffic behind you lose their patience with your interest in saving the planet. Where are they going in such a hurry anyway... The Altima also does quite well in Stop-and-Go traffic jams on the Beltway  (I-495) as long as these events are short. Get stuck in one of these for a number of miles like I did a few times and you will soon find yourself running that gas engine after you deplete the battery pack.

I stayed in a place quite a distance from metro areas which meant that I also put a lot of Freeway miles in order to get "anywhere". This gave me an opportunity to drive the car a highway speeds for long periods of time. I do have to say that I am quite impressed by the Altima's ability to keep up with traffic. At no time did I feel that I did not have enough power to pass when necessary. It was pretty cool to see the Power Consumption gauge jump up past 50 Kw as the electric motor assisted the gas engine while going up steep hills or when passing and the Battery gauge going up as batteries got charged while going down long steep grades. The experience however seems "a bit different" than a traditional Automatic transmission. Driving a CVT (continuously variable transmission) makes me feel that I am driving a locomotive as the engine noise rarely matches the other sensory inputs that you are accustomed to when driving.

I often comment about Prius owners driving "too fast" for a device whose purpose is saving fuel so I tried my best to drive efficiently (most of the time anyway). These measures included maximizing the use of the electric drive (EV mode), maintaining the speed limit, minimizing braking whenever possible, etc. All in all, I put around 694 miles in 7 days. This amounts to around one tank of Gas. I refueled the car twice to get gas consumption numbers. The verdict? I was "only" able to coax between 31 - 32 MPG with my mixed City/Highway driving. This beats the 17 - 20 MPG average of my Passat W8 hands down. Great mileage for a "normal looking" four-dour sedan although this is well outside Prius territory. We definitively need to get to the levels enjoyed by the Europeans before the looming Oil Crisis or we will are going to find ourselves walking a lot more often...

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