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.)
Acceleration-wise, the SE-R feels noticeably crisper than other V-6 Altimas, and this sensation is reflected in slightly quicker 0-60 times of about 6.5 seconds. But the extra pull is apparent throughout the power range.
Handling responsiveness (especially turn-in) is also much sharper, probably because of the autocross-aggressive, 18-inch Bridgestone Potenza high-performance tires. It'll stop quicker, too, thanks to upgraded front brakes (12.6-inch discs vs. the standard Altima's 11.7-inchers).
But the biggest immediately apparent difference between a regular V-6 Altima and an SE-R is not seat-of-the-pants acceleration. It's the SE-R's nicely vicious-sounding, deep-breathing exhaust note, which you notice as soon as you key the engine to life. Most of the horsepower difference between the SE-R's 260-hp V-6 and the 250-hp engine used in the SE and SL is in the pipes, which in the SE-R are freer-flowing and plugged into mufflers designed to make power more than muffle sound. The resultant exhaust note has a nice aftermarket "tuner" quality.
Cool to go
If you buy an Altima SE-R, you won't have to search out a cool-sounding exhaust system; the car's already good to go. Ditto the 18-inch wheels and tires, which look great and provide excellent lateral grip and road feel, street or track. Appearance upgrades include racy-looking leather-trimmed sport buckets, a unique gauge package and Xenon High Intensity Discharge (HID) headlights. The Altima (SE-R or not) even looks better than the current Maxima, and I also think the Altima (SE-R or not) has the nicer interior—especially this year's model, which gets a revised layout with three secondary "bullets" housings for the temp, volts and oil pressure gauges. The only small complaint I had was the close-shave headroom, but I'm more than 6’ 3”. If you're under that, you'll have no problems. My test car had the sunroof, an SE-R standard, which probably takes away at least an inch of otherwise available head room.
What I liked most about the SE-R, though, is its rock and roll attitude —exemplified by the absence of such things as electronic traction aids and relentlessly dinging bells demanding you "buckle up for safety." If that kind of freewheeling personality sounds appealing, this car might be for you.
2005 Nissan Altima SE-R
Base price: $29,350; price as tested: $29,750
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 260 hp/251 lb-ft
Transmission: Four-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 192.5 x 70.4 x 57.4 in
Wheelbase: 110.2 in
Curb weight: 3279 lb
Fuel economy (EPA cty/hwy): 20/28 mpg (w/manual)
Safety equipment: Dual front and side airbags; anti-lock brakes with Brake Assist
Major standard features: Performance exhaust system; 18-inch alloy wheels; air conditioning; power windows/locks/mirrors; electric defroster; rear spoiler; 150-watt Bose premium audio with CD player
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles