How can this be?
Officials at Nissan, Japan's third-largest automaker, are licensing Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system and installing it in the new-for-2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid.
The result is the most fuel-efficient Altima ever, with federal government ratings of 42 miles a gallon in city driving and 36 mpg on the highway. The five-passenger Altima Hybrid is the most fuel-efficient Nissan, surpassing even the smaller Nissan Versa car in judiciously sipping gasoline.
But with all safety equipment standard, including six air bags, front-seat active head restraints to reduce whiplash injuries, as well as stability control and traction control, the Altima Hybrid is offered only at Nissan dealerships in California and seven other states that have adopted California's strict vehicle-emissions rules. These states are Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.
Distribution is limited because Nissan needs to meet these states' zero-emission vehicle mandates, said Larry Dominique, vice president of product and advanced planning for Nissan North America.
With a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $25,025 — or $4,100 more than a gasoline-only, four-cylinder Altima with automatic transmission — the Altima Hybrid has some standard features not normally found in mainstream sedans.
These include dual-zone climate control and electronic, no-key entry system with push-button ignition, both in the base Altima Hybrid.
Still, Toyota's own mid-size, hatchback car, the 2007 Toyota Prius with starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $22,795, undercuts the Altima Hybrid in price and is sold nationwide.
But the Altima Hybrid has a lower starting price than Toyota's other mid-size hybrid — the Camry Hybrid sedan, which also is sold nationwide and starts at $26,820.
All three cars — the Altima Hybrid, Prius and Camry Hybrid — match an electric motor to a four-cylinder gasoline engine and electronically control the sophisticated mixing and matching of gas engine and electric power to propel the vehicles.
The combination reduces fuel usage and emissions while providing decent get up and go and, in short spurts at times, all-electric power.
None of the cars has to be plugged in to an electrical outlet. Electric power is generated on an ongoing basis and stored in a Nickel Metal Hydride battery as the vehicle travels. But this sizable battery reduces trunk space to 9.1 cubic feet.
It's not surprising that Nissan chose Toyota's hybrid system for the Altima, matching it to Nissan's own 2.5-liter, double overhead cam four cylinder and Xtronic continuously variable transmission (CVT).
As the leader in hybrid development and the first automaker to sell a mass-produced hybrid to consumers — first, in Japan — Toyota has dozens of patents on its technology and has sold more hybrid vehicles than any other carmaker.
The decision to link with Toyota also gave Nissan a hybrid auto on the market sooner than if it had worked to create its own hybrid from scratch.
The test Altima Hybrid was, indeed, impressive in its fuel mileage for a car with such a roomy interior. Both front-seat legroom and headroom are more than what are in the already comfortable Camry, for example.
Without trying, and driving the test car like a regular auto, I got 35 miles a gallon in combined city/highway travel, which means one fillup of the Altima Hybrid's 20-gallon tank could be good for up to 700 miles of travel.
And yes, the recommended fuel is regular unleaded.
The gas tank in the Altima Hybrid is larger than the 17.2-gallon tank of the Camry Hybrid and the 11.9-gallon tank of the Prius.
Nissan engineers didn't just copy Toyota's hybrid cars.
The Altima Hybrid has more horsepower than Toyota-branded cars, thanks to Nissan's larger and more powerful four cylinder, and the easy acceleration and power made the test car feel like an Altima with a V-6 under the hood.
Specifically, the Altima Hybrid's combined gas-electric peak horsepower is 198 compared with the Camry Hybrid's 187 horses and the Prius' 110 horsepower.
At 3,448 pounds, the Altima Hybrid doesn't feel sluggish or heavy.
I just wish the ride wasn't so stiff. In the test car, passengers felt many bumps, especially on patched pavement, and sometimes were jostled on rough road. It reminded me a bit of the no-frills ride of the early Honda Insight hybrid car of 1999.
I also grew tired of the noticeable whir sound that emanated when the car was in what was supposed to be the quiet electric-only mode and when it was coasting without much engine noise. I could cover up the whir with radio sounds, but Toyota officials have worked to counter this sound in their hybrids for a less-fatiguing ride.
Fit and finish in the test car was exceptional, and I consider Nissan's optional navigation system to be the easiest to use. Too bad, though, the nav system isn't a stand-alone option. Instead, it's part of an option package priced at a lofty $7,250.