MINNEAPOLIS – Nissan North America Inc. took the path less traveled during the design and development of the new '08 Altima coupe.

Rather than just replacing the Altima sedan's rear doors with fixed sheet metal, Nissan went the extra step and designed the car as a true coupe. In fact, the only major body panel the Altima coupe shares with its sedan counterpart is its hood.

“So many coupes in the segment are just sedans that have been shortened by taking two of the doors off,” says John Curl, regional product manager-Altima/Maxima. “We wanted to build a coupe that would really stand out in the segment with true coupe proportions and true coupe performance, and of course, value.”

The gamble pays off for Nissan, as the Altima coupe is an absolute stunner, more reminiscent of the Nissan 350Z sports car or the uplevel Infiniti G35 than the somewhat stodgy but well regarded Altima sedan.

The smooth, flowing lines and aggressive stance of the Altima coupe prove Nissan is one of the few Japanese auto makers not lacking design flair.

During our test drive here, passersby rightfully take notice. The Altima coupe will catch the eye of any buyer looking for a stylish ride with a relatively low starting price of $20,990 (not including destination charge).

The design changes aren't just for aesthetics, either, as the coupe's wheelbase is 4 ins. (10.2 cm) shorter than the sedan's. It also has a shortened rear overhang and a lowered roofline.

Nissan says the coupe's smaller size and lighter overall weight contribute to its sportier driving feel and will attract younger buyers – ideally empty-nesters in their 20s and 30s.

Beneath the sheet metal, the similarities between coupe and sedan are more evident. The coupe shares the same platform as the fourth-generation sedan, which boasts increased body rigidity and a redesigned suspension.

The coupe also shares powertrains with the sedan. Both are available with a 3.5L V-6 or a 2.5L inline 4-cyl. and either a 6-speed manual or continuously variable transmission.

For our test drive through Minneapolis into Wisconsin dairy country, we selected the V-6 and 6-speed manual. It turned out to be a wise choice.

The coupe handled the more challenging bends in the road with aplomb. However, on straight roads, the suspension transmitted every bump, no matter how minute, directly into the cabin.

The touchy suspension forced constant steering corrections, as the slightest flaw in the road pushed the car off course. This may be tolerable during short commutes but is a nuisance on long road trips.

The wayward on-road characteristics aren't a knock against the Altima's power rack-and-pinion steering, which is surprisingly nimble and precise.

Likewise, the powertrain more than compensates for the dodgy suspension.

The 3.5L 24-valve DOHC V-6, the latest generation of Nissan's VQ-series engine and a Ward's 10 Best Engines winner for 13 straight years, pulls the coupe along nicely.

Rated at 270 hp and 258 lb.-ft. (350 Nm) of torque, the mill is no slouch and is quieter than its predecessors. It features a silent chain drive and a balancer system that dampens vibrations.

’08 Nissan Altima Coupe
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger coupe
Engine 3.5L (3,500 cc) DOHC V-6, aluminum block/heads
Power (SAE net) 270 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 258 lb.-ft. (350 Nm) @ 4,400 rpm
Compression ratio 10.3:1
Bore and stroke 95.5 x 81.4 (mm)
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase 105.3 ins. (268 cm)
Overall length 182.5 ins. (464 cm)
Overall width 70.7 ins. (180 cm)
Overall height 55.3 ins. (141 cm)
Curb weight 3,205 lbs. (1,454 kg)
Base price $24,890
EPA Fuel economy (mpg) 19/27 (12.4/8.7 L/100 km)
Market competition Honda Accord coupe, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Toyota Solara

The 6-speed manual is a good match, as plenty of power is readily available in each gear. Nissan engineers appear to have solved the excessive clutch pedal vibration that has hampered the G35 in recent years, as shifting in the Altima coupe is effortless and smooth. Throws are short and precise, making it a breeze (and a lot of fun) to cycle through the gears.

Standard at all four corners are 4-wheel, 4-channel, 4-sensor antilock disc brakes with electronic brake force distribution to adjust for shifting weight within the vehicle. That's a lot of stopping technology for a car in this price range, and it comes in handy.

The interior is well crafted but a bit bland in our pre-production model, with wide expanses of black plastic across the dashboard.

Controls are within easy reach and, for the most part, intuitive to operate.

Being targeted toward a younger, tech-savvy crowd, the coupe gets the usual array of gadgets, including standard push-button ignition and an optional Bluetooth hands-free phone system, satellite radio, dual-zone automatic climate control and a 9-speaker Bose audio system.

As with most coupes, getting in and out of the rear seats is a pain. However, Nissan made it easier for rear passengers to slide the seat forward themselves with cleverly mounted inboard release levers.

“You might take a friend along on your trip, but you probably don't want to take a whole lot of friends,” Curl says, adding that the coupe segment is “almost selfish transportation.”

The rear seats split 60/40 and fold flat, providing enough storage space for a quick trip to your local home improvement store. It's features like this that make buying a coupe tempting.

Nissan officials won't disclose how many units they plan to sell annually.

With the Altima coupe, Nissan set forth to redefine the segment. Aside from a few persnickety complaints, the auto maker may have succeeded.

bpope@wardsauto.com