The Voyage of… the Altima?

This past weekend I traveled far away from the Northeast, down to Alabama. One of my friends lives in the south, and I decided to pay a visit. To maximize time, I left the Accord at home and boarded an airplane to head down South.

The upside of flying is that it gets me down to Alabama quickly. The downside is that, given that I fly into Birmingham and am forced to rent a car, DH is usually left at home.. Hertz… Enterprise… Budget… Avis… I’ve tried them all. This trip saw me throw in my lot with Hertz. I have rented from them so many times that while I had reserved a Toyota Corolla (or similar), I was informed at the rental car counter at the airport that I qualified for a free upgrade. Hearing the words “free upgrade” put a smile on my face, so I grabbed the keys and bounded out to the lot to see what car would be in my future.

A 2016 Nissan Altima.

I was given a 2016 Nissan Altima. I was excited. My Dad had owned two Nissans in the past, a 1997 Maxima and a 2002 Maxima, and both were hot rods masquerading as family cars. Powerful engines, tight handling, and responsive steering, they were a blast to drive. While this was only the four-cylinder Altima, I was still optimistic, as my last few rental cars had been from Hyundai and Kia. Sadly, I soon realized that the sporty heritage of those old Maximas seems to have been lost somewhere along the way. I headed out on the highway and discovered that automotively, it was not going to be a fun time.

The Nissan QR25 engine. A decent motor in search of a transmission. And a suspension. And steering.

While the engine was responsive, the steering treated drive input more as a suggestion than as a command to be followed (“Oh, what’s that? Change lanes quickly? Well… let’s see.. I’m in the union and I’m supposed to be on break right now” I could hear the car muttering back to me). Far from sporty, the suspension soaked up bumps too well, communicating exactly zero information from the road to the driver. Hard turns caused the car to lean over like a sailboat about to capsize.

Special attention should be given to the Altima’s continuously variable transmission (CVT). Rather than using gears like in a traditional automatic, a CVT uses a series of belts or chains to transmit power from the engine to the wheels. The upside is increased fuel economy and efficiency. If a CVT is made correctly, it can mimic the feel of an automatic. The CVT in my old Subaru Impreza was very well engineered, and had none of the lag associated with this unit. Indeed, the Subaru CVT felt like a proper automatic. The CVT in this Altima was more akin to a series of rubber bands that were not always connected to anything. Flooring the gas produced lag, and then a spurt of acceleration, and then a loss of power, as the belts, gears, and computer worked together to rob the car of any responsiveness. Putting the shifter into “sport” mode accomplished exactly nothing, as the car felt the same as in regular drive. “People actually pay good money for these cars?” I muttered to myself as I made my way to my destination.

Still, automotive purgatory aside, it was a fun weekend. I spent some time exploring the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa. Founded in 1820, the architecture of the University of Alabama was inspired by the University of Virginia, and the center of campus was The Rotunda, which on the eve of the Civil War housed one of the largest libraries in the United States, at over 7,000 volumes. It also became a military academy shortly before the Civil War, with many of its graduates joining the Confederate Army (Wikipedia).

1859 photo of the University of Alabama, with the Rotunda in the center. Via Wikipedia.

The Civil War came to Tuscaloosa April 4, 1865 during Sherman’s March to the Sea, as the campus was burned to the ground almost entirely, with only four buildings being spared. Walking around campus, reading numerous signs that described the devastation of the campus, I was surprised that none of them mentioned either the secession of southern states that precipitated the conflict, or the largely pro-slavery sentiments that pervaded institutions throughout the south. Growing up in the North, I was taught a very different version of the Civil War. The differences are stark and noticeable.

Signs like these are found all across the UA campus
Panoramic view of the UA quad from the top of the Gorgas Library steps. The campus is one of the prettiest colleges I have ever seen.
Denny Chimes, located on the quad. The chimes play every 15 minutes, and present surprisingly complicated music.
The stone inlays in front of the Gorgas library are the foundation stones of the Rotunda, which before the Civil War was the center of the UA campus.

My historical curiosity satisfied, we headed over to Northport, Alabama for dinner at one of my must-visit restaurants: Dreamland Bar-b-que. Founded by John “Big Daddy” Bishop in 1958 (the same year that Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant became coach of the University of Alabama), Dreamland is a veritable institution in Alabama. You begin your meal with white bread and Dreamland’s famous barbecue sauce (dip the bread into the sauce and eat until your mouth begins to tingle). We ordered, and devoured, a smoked sausage appetizer, and then a half stack of ribs, baked beans, and coleslaw. Dessert was banana pudding, which we consider mandatory.

Dreamland. Ribs, baked beans, coleslaw. Best barbecue I’ve ever had. Period.

Sunday, desperately needing to burn off the calories from our meal the night before, we headed out to Lake Lurleen in Coker, Alabama. A 1,625 acre park with camping, boating, and hiking opportunities, Lake Lurleen was practically deserted when we arrived. We had the beach to ourselves, and then did a little light hiking, although neither of us were prepared to tackle the more rigorous trails. Next time, we will return with proper gear and supplies.

Lake Lurleen, deserted on a Sunday morning.
Ah… the Altima. I was literally counting the hours until I returned it.
Many miles of hiking trails can be followed through the park.
A beautiful drive to and from the park would have been fun, I imagine, if I had a vehicle that could perform. Switching into “sport” mode on this twisty road produced no difference. At all.

By the time dinner rolled around, we were starved, and stopped at Steamers on the Strip, a bar and grill that specializes in seafood in Tuscaloosa. I had a bacon cheeseburger (boring, perhaps, but it hit the spot). My friend ordered fettuccine with crawfish tails and a side of fried okra. It was my first time ever tasting fried okra, and I’m now a big fan.

It was a fun, if all too brief, weekend together. On Monday morning, I headed back to Birmingham, returned the Altima (no tears were shed, I assure you), and boarded my flight back to Philadelphia. Once home, I darted straight to my Accord and took an evening drive, to remind myself that yes, mass-produced cars can still be fun, dynamic, and engaging. DH fired up immediately and we had a spirited drive for the better part of an hour.

Ah…. that’s better.
Engine, transmission, steering, suspension all working together. As it should be.

It was bit of a whirlwind weekend, but I had a wonderful time. Thanks for coming along for the trip. I have some good trips planned for the future, and I will be eager to share them with you in the coming weeks.

‘Til next time.


2 thoughts on “The Voyage of… the Altima?

  1. This looked like a fun adventure (automotive purgatory aside). I would like to hear what those “Denny Chimes” sound like. Maybe I can find a video. And it’s always fun when a road trip turns into a history lesson, like you found with these Civil War sites. Thanks for sharing!


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