Nissan fans have long regarded the Maxima as the company's "four-door sports car.” But the Altima is no weak sister in that department by any stretch. It can be fitted with basically the same powerful and smooth 3.5-liter V-6, albeit detuned slightly (250 hp vs. 265) to let the Maxima retain its bragging rights.
If anything, as the Maxima has edged ever closer to the luxury cruiser end of the continuum over the past couple of years, the Altima has arguably become the better choice for enthusiast drivers. Especially now that you can order one with the SE-R package—Nissan-speak for factory-built street racer/autocrosser. This option group adds a lowered, firmer suspension, wheel and tire upgrades, the Maxima's six-speed close-ratio manual transmission (formerly unavailable in the Altima) and a few tweaks to the 3.5-liter V-6 to bump its output by 10 hp over other V-6 Altimas. In the SE-R, the V-6 hits 260 hp—just 5 hp shy of the Maxima's version of the 3.5 liter V-6.
Buyers can select a no-cost automatic transmission in lieu of the six-speed stick. Either way, the price is the same: $29,350.
The happy hooligan
Traction control isn't even offered as an option—a clue, if you needed one, to the happy hooligan nature of the SE-R. Too, it's a credit to Nissan engineering that there's next to no torque steer, which can be an issue for a powerful front-drive car such as this. It'll skitter a little if you wind up the V-6 to 4000 rpm and sidestep the clutch—but do that in a rear-drive car and you'll get a little tail-out, too. When I tried a couple dragstrip-style launches, my Altima SE-R tester planted itself nicely after a few smoky turns of the tire, just what you want with a car of this type. (It'll bark second, too, if you get off a really quick 1-2 upshift.)