I've always considered the Nissan Altima to be the choice family sedan for performance enthusiasts, and now Nissan has upped the ante with the 2005 Altima SE-R: More power, better handling, and a unique look. The SE-R is capable of some serious on-road mischief, but it also illustrates why front-wheel-drive isn't the best choice for a performance car. Limitations aside, it's excellent. $29,760 as tested, 3 year/36,000 mile warranty plus 5 yrs/60,000 miles on the powertrain.
It wouldn't be entirely accurate to call the new Altima SE-R the hot-rod Altima, because the Altima itself -- the six-cylinder version, at least -- is already a hot rod. With 250 horsepower and 249 lb-ft of torque from a big 3.5 V6 liter engine, the Altima is a speeding ticket waiting to happen. So it's no wonder that the power gains for the SE-R are modest: just 10 extra hp and 2 lb-ft of torque. There's more to the SE-R than power, though -- you also get a stiffer suspension, jazzed-up interior complete with leather seats, 18" wheels and performance tires, some extra body cladding, and a 6-speed manual transmission (a 5-speed automatic is a no-cost option). The SE-R costs $2,250 more than the otherwise top-of-the-line Altima 3.5 SL (which isn't available with a stick-shift). As with most package deals it's a bargain for all you get, provided you want it all. For the performance enthusiast the SE-R is worth it for the excellent performance suspension and the six-speed manual trans. Drawbacks: the SE-R can't be had with a navigation system and the body kit is prone to curb scrapes. Even in lesser SE trim, the Altima offers far more excitement than the Accord or Camry -- and did I mention that it's roomy and practical, too?
In the Driver's Seat
2005 Nissan Altima SE-R: Center "Z-style" gauges distinguish the SE-R© Nissan North America
The Altima boasts an excellent interior layout, so Nissan left well enough alone. The comfortable seats and deep-set gauges are standard Altima fare; the SE-R gets specially trimmed leather seats and three center pod-mounted gauges (fuel consumption, oil pressure, battery voltage) reminiscent of Nissan's 350Z sportster. They're a nice touch, but they take up the space that would otherwise be occupied by the navigation system, which isn't offered (heaven forbid a passenger mistakes the SE-R for a lesser SE or SL!). This is silly -- I'm as much of a gearhead as the next guy, but I'd much rather know where the freeway onramp is than what the battery voltage is. And what's a fuel-consumption gauge doing in a sports car? Every time I glanced over, the needle was in the "Thank You For Supporting Saudi Arabia" range, yet I still managed 21.8 MPG during test week -- impressive for a car as fast as the SE-R, let alone one with an automatic tranny. The gauges can go. Trust me, just because the Altima SE-R has a limousine-like backseat and family-vacation-size trunk, no one's going to mistake this for anything but a performance car, what with those beautiful 18" rims and the two big chrome coffee-can-sized exhaust tips.
On the Road
Did I mention that the Altima SE-R is fast? I didn't time the acceleration, but the seat-of-the-pants stopwatch tells me that the automatic SE-R should get to 60 MPH in around 6 seconds, maybe a bit more. I imagine the 6-speed manual would be faster. But the torque steer -- the tendency of a high-power front-wheel-drive car to pull to one side or the other under hard acceleration -- is a nightmare. Both Robin and I were surprised at how strongly the steering wheel jerked in our hands under hard acceleration. And the traction control system was just about useless. It rained on and off during test week, and I found that even a moderate stab at the throttle was enough to induce wheelspin, yet I can recall only one occasion where the traction control took prompt action. By contrast, the suspension is a gem; the car is smooth and well-composed in fast corners, and the ride, while firm, doesn't beat up the backside. The tires (Bridgestone Potenza "summer" performance tires -- take note, if you live where it snows, you'll need an extra set of snow or all-season tires) grip the road firmly, though they produce a bit more road noise than average. All in all, torque steer aside, it's a masterful combination.
2005 Nissan Altima SE-R: Body kit is prone to curb scrapes© Aaron Gold
The Altima is an excellent car, and the SE-R is yet another delicious flavor. If you enjoy driving, you'll find more excitement here than you will behind the wheel of the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord or Ford 500, and frankly I prefer it to Nissan's own Maxima; the Altima is better looking and more functional. Torque steer is a major problem, though it's virtually unavoidable in such a powerful front-wheel-drive car. And then there's the fact that you'll need for an extra set of tires to handle snow. (If you ask me, the safety and fun of summer tires are well worth the expense. "All-weather" tires are too much of a compromise.) Being a guy and physically unable to ask for directions, I'd like to see the option of a navigation system. Perhaps Nissan will add that next year. While they're at it, maybe they could lower the suspension an inch or two -- the SE-R sure would look cool hunched down on those beautiful 18" wheels. OK, enough nit picking. The Altima SE-R is an excellent car that bridges the gap between sensible family hauler and high-dollar sports sedan. It handles beautifully and behaves about as well as a high-horsepower front-wheel-drive car can, plus it's practical, spacious and built to last forever. Well done, Nissan!