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Hybrid, organic, sustainable, renewable, etc… ever since Al Gore asserted that perhaps the truth was, indeed inconvenient, it has become popular, hip, trendy (to a fault?), and downright obligatory to reduce our footprint of carbon and, with your powers combined, save this planet. Go, planet.

Don’t read my glib sarcasm as anything more than a commentary on the current state of affairs. I’m a firm believer that we should have had started this seeming mess, or rather, cleaning up the mess, a little sooner. Maybe then my lungs wouldn’t hurt after a long run in Los Angeles. Alas, we are where we are.

With federal emissions standards tightening, an offering of tax breaks, and growing number of available options, the hybrid car has moved from the popularity and coolness of the neighborhood cat lady (Prius?) to that of movie-star proportions (Fiskar?).

Recently, I planned a road trip from LA to San Francisco and a quick stop in Napa Valley with the significant other. What better opportunity to use the Gear Patrol credentials and get my hands on a hybrid (one that you or I would be comfortable buying from both the dollar and style sense). Beyond doing a small part to reduce those pesky carbon emissions, I figured I’d also mix it in with a video review – enter business, with pleasure. A good thing – says my therapist.

The Red Brick 2009 Nissan Altima Hybrid came spit-shined and dropped off in front of my apartment early one foggy Hollywood morning. I got in the car and started it. Actually, it was already started, but since I didn’t know that the engine was designed by ninjas, I assumed it was off. Several more button-presses later, I was greeted by a “welcome” screen on the optional (and necessary) navigation system. I plugged my iPod into the external audio port, fired up my “melancholy but doing good” playlist, and took off.

Read the manual first? Um. No. This is Gear Patrol. We don’t need no stinking manuals.

nissan-hybrid-logoIn the time it took for my travel producer to procure a mocha and a non-fat vanilla latte (eerily similar to the leather interior’s color), I had mastered the navigation system (sat nav), XM, and steering wheel controls. Right out of the gate I was impressed. I am partial to the current body style of the Altima, which has donned the Altima Hybrid since it’s inception ins 2007. The rear wheel well haunches are sleek, giving an aggressive stance (this carries over from somof the leaping tiger design language introduced on the Infiniti vehicles). A subtle spoiler on the trunk and dual exhausts make for a stout and symmetrical back-end. All this, on a hybrid.

The Altima’s front-end has a clean and simple (recognizable) facade that conjures up memory of that guy from calculus class who also played basketball but probably not first string. It’s passive, but has enough of a bite to do more than pick up the kids at soccer. The interior is where your the available options explode, taking my tester from $26K to $35K. Nearly $10,000 in interior options, that is. The Altima Hybrid Gear Patrol requested was outfitted with the convenience package: wood finish, one-touch windows, leather steering wheel with audio controls, and the Connection Package: blonde leather (does it have more fun?), heated and powered seats with driver lumbar, Bose sound system, CD player, Bluetooth, XM, mirror blinkers, rear A/C vents, and a sunroof. It was also equipped with the Technology Package: SatNav with XM traffic (handy) and a rear-view camera.

Instead of reinventing the wheel (or the battery in this case), Nissan decided to simply ask Toyota if they could utilize Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system made popular in the Prius. Then, (and here’s the non-hybrid part) Nissan paired it with their 2.5L in-line 4 cylinder engine. Thank you.

Hybrid Drivetrain + Nissan Engine = 198 earth-friendly, tree-saving, carbon foot print reducing horsepower

On the Pacific Coast Highway I was able to test the acceleration after we’d stop for numerous pictures at gorgeous overlooks (read: an excuse to hammer the accelerator “to safely merge”). The Nissan managed to have some push to it and the push was as smooth as sautéed sea scallops. You can thank this to the Nissan’s CVVTCS (continuously variable valve timing control system) which engages only the exact energy from the engine needed to attain the desired speed. Dreams of eco-friendly tire spin should be set aside. Like many front-wheel drive vehicles, there’s a touch of torque-steer.

Germanic autobahn handling, this is not. The Nissan Altima does have a touch of grab to it, which we discovered on the winding rocky coastline and pine covered forests of Northern California. Comfort, something you want during a 7.5 hour road trip, came in abundance. The Altima’s seats provided a nice balance of firmness. The seat heaters and dual climate control zones allowed for a perfect temperature blend when the temps dropped near San Francisco. Rear seat passengers of my height (6’1”) will feel a touch cramped, and the trunk space is smaller due to the fact that it also stores the massive battery system necessary for the hybrid drivetrain.

Safety (and acronym) junkies will be elated at the bumped scrabble board: TPMS, LATCH, ALR/ELR, VDC, TCS, AABS, EBD, and BA. Without diving into each option, just know that they all add up to mean the same thing: new stuff that makes it safer to drive.

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Fuel economy. This is a hybrid, so fuel economy is what one looks for. Even with my lead-foot, I managed to churn out an impressive 37 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highways.

The 2009 Nissan Altima Hybrid is not an M3, but manages to still be an engaging car to drive. An absolute rarity in the hybrid class (let alone in this vehicle segment). Yes, it’s a touch pricey and according to one statistic – would take approximately six years of ownership to make up the overall cost difference between the hybrid model versus the gas only version. But… if saving the world and looking sharp while doing it is your thing, than may I present you with the 2009 Nissan Altima Hybrid.

Cost: $26,650

Sidenote: Also the hybrid is only avail in California, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Oregon, Rhode Island, Maine and New Jersey.