The Altima Sedan and Coupe share a similar front end, but there are big differences in the roofline, wheelbase, and at the rear. The Sedan's roofline extends far back to create a large passenger space. As a result the rear deck is distinctively short. The Sedan's fender flares are pronounced, allowing the rest of the body to be narrower and slip through the wind with less frontal area. The gap between the tires and flares looks tight, just as we like it.
The headlight and taillight clusters are elaborate, almost exotic. The halogen headlamps are irregular, vertical trapezoids with soft edges, with four bulbs inside for the high beam, low beam, turn signal and parking lights. Nissan calls the headlamp arrangement a multi-parabola, which means its coverage is all over the place. As for the taillights, Nissan says they cost nearly as much as the headlamps, so don't back into anything. They're covered with clear plastic like the headlamps, and contain a silver ray-gun looking cylinder with the red lamp, plus a round white beam for the backup light, and a big orange piece for the parking lamp and turn signal.
The Altima Coupe has the look of a pure sport two-door. There's good balance between the longish hood, greenhouse and short trunk lid, with just the right amount of sheet metal between the cleanly outlined wheel arches. Credit for these proportions goes to a wheelbase (distance between the tires front to rear) shortened by four inches from the sedan, which enabled a shortened overall length.
The Coupe's back end shows a bustle shape that's fed by the arc of the roof flowing toward the trunk lid. This design probably increases stability at socially irresponsible speeds, but at rest it can look almost plump. The rear glass offers decent rearward visibility from the driver's seat.
The Altima Sedan's cabin is roomy and comfortable front and rear. The Coupe is just as roomy up front, but the rear seat is best left to kids or packages. Equipment ranges from sparse to fully loaded. The base model lacks a radio, but you can get an Altima with such features as Bluetooth, navigation, and a backup camera at the top of the line.
The overall level of fit, finish and refinement inside the Altima is very good and highly competitive in the class. The available leather upholstery feels rich, and soft materials are used for touches like padded armrests.
Nissan's available Intelligent Key allows the car to be started with the key in your purse or pocket. When the key is close enough to the car, the driver starts it by pressing a red button to the right of the steering wheel. Many owners find these systems convenient, but you can wind up with a dead battery if you inadvertently press the start button two times instead of once to shut down the car. That leaves the system in the accessories mode, and it can eventually drain the juice. We prefer traditional keys.
The front seats in the Altima sedan are relatively large. They feel firm and supportive. They also have optional power lumbar support and elevate substantially, allowing a better view between all the SUVs on the road. The seats in the Coupe are unique, with more aggressive bolsters befitting this model's sporty aspirations.
Beyond the seats, the dashboard is functional without being boring, and stylish without being frilly. We like the layout. The steering wheel has an original, artistic design. The gauges are arranged in a practical shape, with speedometer in the center, tachometer on the left, and fuel gauge and water temperature on the right. The lettering is sharp and easy to read. LCD insets display trip information, outside temperature, safety-related data and personalized settings. A premium audio upgrade includes a 4.3-inch color display, Bluetooth Hands-free Phone System, USB port with iPod connectivity, XM Satellite Radio, a Rearview Monitor, and other features. While the base audio system is satisfactory, the nine-speaker Bose upgrade sounds particularly rich.
The center stack is neatly designed, with three big HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) knobs at the bottom. They're easy to understand and operate. Controls for the base and up-level audio systems sit just above the heater knobs, and they're friendly to the eye and fingers.
The shift lever occupies the forward portion of the center console separating the front bucket seats. Two upholders sit behind it and in front of a bi-level storage bin. Altimas with the continuously variable transmission have a foot-operated parking brake, but the gear selector is slightly awkward for using the manual shift feature. Cars with a manual transmission have a handbrake next to the shifter, where it belongs.
The primary storage space inside the Altima is the glovebox. It's huge, and it locks, so you can store a laptop computer in there. There's also a storage bin with a hinged cover at the bottom of the center stack. The problem is that the only power point accessible for plugging in a radar detector is tucked deep inside this bin. The fixed pockets in each front door are too small for maps, but they have molds that fit half-liter water bottles. That's nice, because tall, thin bottles are too small for the center console holders, where they flop this way and that through the mildest maneuvers. There are two more upholders in the rear seat.
The Altima Sedan's rear seat is roomy enough for two good-sized adults traveling to dinner or the movies, though they may not have enough contour for a cross-country trek. The center seat is best left to age 12 or less. Access to the rear seat is easy, in the Sedan.
As would be expected, the Coupe is a slightly different story. Its front-passenger seatback has a release lever on the inboard side that allows the driver to ease passenger access to the rear seat. That access isn't particularly awkward, because the lever folds the seatback and slides the entire front-passenger seat forward in its track. The only problem is that the front seat forgets its settings, returning to a pre-set, default position in its track and seatback angle.
Once a passenger is settled in the Coupe's back seat, the change in exterior dimensions is obvious. Most of the Coupe's four-inch reduction in wheelbase translates to a decrease in rear-seat legroom, and this isn't a place most adults will want to spend more than 20 or 30 minutes. The Altima Coupe is a coupe, to be sure, and tighter rear-seat space is to be expected. Still, it seems tighter in the Altima than in the Honda Accord Coupe.
In trunk room, the Altima Sedan is competitive in its class, with 15.3 cubic feet of space. Thanks to a relatively short trunk lid, though, a lot of that space stretches forward under the rear parcel shelf. The Altima Coupe isn't really in the game, with only 8.2 cubic feet of truck space.