Making the Grade

By Hannah Wallace November 30, 2007

Friday, late afternoon: Waiting in my driveway was a 2008 Nissan Altima that I’d be taking on an 11-hour test drive to a vacation cabin in North Carolina.

Yes, auto writers take test cars on vacations. With gas prices in the mildly absurd range, I had requested a mid-size, fuel-efficient passenger car with enough oomph to climb seven-degree mountain roads and enough trunk space to haul a week's worth of flea market treasures.

I told my vehicle supplier, in a friendly way, of course, that I hoped our travel car would be decked out with numerous safety, convenience and comfort features. It was. It even had a GPS navigation system that, when reverse gear is selected, displays the view behind the car on the color nav screen. It also had satellite radio, a blessing for the hours spent driving through Georgia.

Our test Nissan was an Altima 3.5 SE model that begins at $24,580. The features I’d requested were part of the $6,200 "Technology Package," making the final sticker price $32,615. We got under way.

My first impressions were favorable. There is no key for the Altima. There’s only a remote control fob that contains a radio transmitter. The signal it produces is recognized as correct and the car is started by pressing a “start-stop” button on the dash.

The eight-way driver's seat easily adjusted to my preferred position, but my wife complained that the front passenger seat lacked a height adjustment. I rather enjoyed looking down at her as I drove.

The V6 engine produces a stout 270 horsepower and puts all that power through a continuously variable transmission that is as smooth as any I've encountered. Beneath us was a sport-tuned suspension that didn't punish with a brutal ride but promised to keep the car stable in mountain turns yet to be made. The car had traction control and dynamic stability control as well; in case a turn got out of hand, the car would help correct my error.

The early part of the trip was the most frustrating. Due to our late departure, we found ourselves in high-volume commuting traffic on I-75 east of Tampa. For miles, we inched forward, only to stop again. I was wrung out with irritation, so I let a cooler head drive. The Altima didn't care one way or the other about our situation. Its temperature gauge didn't move as we crept along or idled beside a 70 mph sign.

We drove to Valdosta for the overnight stay. Gas prices in Georgia are at least 20 cents a gallon cheaper than in Florida because Georgia has a state income tax and Florida doesn't. We filled the tank that evening and did the math to determine we had averaged exactly what the EPA had estimated for highway use: 26 mpg.

Saturday: We took our time, enjoying back roads into western Carolina before arriving in Franklin in mid-afternoon. We rent a different place every year, so we hadn't seen our cabin. The navigation map didn't even have our turn-off road on it. Rural roads don't always make it to maps.

The Altima bottomed out once when I left a paved road for a dirt one. I began to understand why eight out of 10 vehicles in North Carolina seem to be trucks. Our hosts met us and introduced their dog, Sam. They told us if we heard some undue mooing, it would be their cow giving birth in the nearby pasture. And they gave us a carton of freshly laid eggs plucked from their henhouse. The Altima climbed a back road and I parked beside the yellow cabin. "You did good," I told the car.

Sunday-Friday: We made day trips to surrounding towns, including driving a steep road that runs from Franklin to Waynesville so the wife could shop a few hours in Mast General Store. I took my laptop computer, and no matter how small the town, I could find a coffee shop where I could sip my beloved cappuccino while answering e-mail over a wireless Internet connection. "My dream is coming true," I told my wife. "I can now work from virtually anywhere, even a mountaintop.”

Thursday we ate barbecue at Fat Buddies with some of her family members who spend half of each year in the western Carolina mountains near Franklin. Every other vehicle in the parking lot seemed to have a Florida license tag. The big conversation topic throughout the South is drought. Lakes are running dry. Brooks don't babble. Kayakers have no rapids to run. It rained one day of our vacation and the ground sucked up the moisture before it could run off.

No matter the terrain, the Altima took it in stride. Cruise control worked on even steep grades. A second check of fuel efficiency as we departed Franklin read 25 mpg. Not bad.

Monday: I'm back at work writing this, catching up. The Nissan Altima will be picked up tomorrow. There's some dust on it, but not much. The car looks showroom new. And the South still needs abundant rain, so Altimas returning to Florida look like they’ve been taken on vacation in clay country.

Robert C. Bowden produces The Car Place, a Forbes Best of the Web selection, and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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