Ann Arbor- When the Nissan Altima was redone for the 2002 model year, we opined that it was at last a rival to the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry in power, space, and dynamics. But, like so many recent Nissan products, it was a bit half-baked. Quality, particularly inside the car, didn't seem to be too high on the list of priorities.One look inside the SE-R confirms that Nissan obviously agreed, because '05 Altimas have materials that have been upgraded from cheesy to quite nice, while the minor controls have more of a quality feel to them.
The SE-R is the sporty version of the Altima, so it gains some unique features, such as aluminum pedals, a center-stack-mounted pod of three auxiliary gauges, and sport seats. Outside, the SE-R has a more aggressive look than the stock Altima, with a deep front bumper that incorporates foglamps, side skirts, standard xenon lights, monster dual exhaust tips, and a slightly apologetic trunk-lid spoiler. Peculiar-looking eighteen-inch aluminum wheels, with 225/45 ZR-rated Bridgestone Potenza S-03 tires, complete the package.
Underhood, the 3.5-liter, DOHC, 24-valve V-6 engine makes 260 hp and 251 lb-ft of torque (up from the SE's 250 and 249) and is mated to a six-speed manual transmission or a five-speed automatic. The suspension has stiffer springs, recalibrated rear dampers and front struts, and thicker antiroll bars, while front brake disc diameter has been increased from 11.7 to 12.6 inches. ABS is standard.
The SE-R is a front-wheel-drive hot rod. The engine provides plenty of performance and makes a great noise. Torque steer is moderate (on dry pavement, at least), but you can leave black lines at will in the lower gears. There is no limited-slip differential, and traction control costs an extra $800.
At higher speeds, the SE-R handles in a forgiving manner, but the steering is overboosted, and body control goes away on the edge, which is disappointing when you consider the stiff-legged ride.
If the SE-R cost in the mid-$20,000s, we could make a case for it as a sporty and roomy family sedan. But at close to $30,000, it seems pricey. Especially when you can buy a better-handling, 298-hp, rear-wheel-drive Infiniti G35 with a six-speed, limited slip, and traction control for only $1410 more.