Accord and Camry owners: "You're Welcome." At the risk of sounding sniffy, Toyota and Honda owners owe a large debt of gratitude to Nissan. Without the Altima, rival pink-slippers might still be trundling around in severely underpowered appliances. Rewind to 2002, when Nissan lit a fire under the collective backsides of every carmaker in the family sedan segment. At the time, Altima's haute-couture shape and Tabasco-infused engine gave competing engineers gray hair– and their marching papers. How else do you explain today's 240hp Accord?
That was then. And this is… later. Fortunately, while Nissan's busied itself immolating the wick at both ends of their considerable lineup, they haven't lost sight of the car that put them back in the game. I submit Exhibit 'SE-R'. Okay, so the new uber-Altima only boasts a modest bump in horsepower (10) and an extra ratio (6) in the manual gearbox. But don't be misled: the revised Altima is no trim-and-tape proposition designed to hold the fort until reinforcements arrive. It's yet another leap forward for Nissan's standard bearer.
In SE-R guise, the Altima's sheet metal has aged more gracefully than Heather Locklear. A gentle nip/tuck up front, tastefully restrained aero kit, purposefully lowered stance and the sexiest OEM wheels this side of the prancing horse make the Camry, Accord and Mazda6 look positively demure. It's a convincing renovation of an intrinsically attractive design. The SE-R blings the noise with projector-style xenons, black chrome dipped light housings, up-rated 12.6" front discs (whose calipers sport bold 'SE-R' insignias) and large-diameter dual exhausts.
Inside, the SE-R benefits from a much-needed trip to finishing school. While Matron retained the car's fundamentally sound ergonomics, she arranged higher-quality plastics throughout the cabin. Although the specter of discount motoring still lingers in places (the armrest's storage latches are particularly cheap and nasty), the SE-R can now hold its head high in mixed company. It's pretty hip too; what with power everything and a BOSE in-dash CD changer with standard-fit XM. Racy close-cropped leather seats look and feel the part, though slightly larger side bolsters wouldn't go amiss. A bank of three auxiliary telltales punctuating the center of the dash (temp, volts, and a comically useless MPG gauge) completes the transformation.
Turn the key and the SE-R's 24-valve, 3.5L VQ-series V6 capers to life. In a shameless display of potential power, the tach needle charges up the tach before relenting to idle. Prod the accelerator and the SE-R derestricted exhaust speaks with fantastically guttural authority. Slot the slightly long-of-throw gearshift into first, put the damage on the accelerator and drop the clutch. The SE-R runs to 60mph in just over six seconds, and does so without any electronic nannies putting the clamps on driver ebullience.
That's right: a front-wheel driver marshalling 260hp without traction control that doesn't smoke the forward tires every time you put the smack down. Sure, if you floor the SE-R on a pockmarked, knotted road she'll make for the brush like a truffle pig on a zephyr of prized fungi. But stick to the smoother stuff, goad the ponies with a bit of forethought and sensitivity, and the SE-R battens down the (hot) hatches and just plain hauls ass.
The augmented Altima gives a good account of itself when the road turns to fusilli, too, thanks to 18" 45-series Z-rated Bridgestones, re-valved shocks, stiffer springs and thicker anti-roll bars front/rear. In fact, the SE-R's absolute limit of adhesion is appreciably higher than garden-variety Altima SE's, though the steering effort could do with a bit of upwards ratcheting. Drop anchor and the ABS/EBD-abetted binders arrest SE-R's 3,200lbs. with repeatable alacrity. Admittedly, the car's raucous pipes and taut underpinnings might make for tiresome commuting, but for enthusiasts karmic balance is only as far away as the next stretch of open tarmac.
One minor snag: overlap. With the Altima SE-R within a whisker of the Maxima by most metrics, Nissan has optimistically crowded its showrooms. Compounding this first among equals dilemma is the bargain Infiniti G35, which routes power through God's own rear wheels AND boasts higher-quality and a more prestigious badge (for a premium of just $1,400). That's a lot of mid-size four-doors to have sunning under one corporate parasol.
But forget the inter-showroom cannibalism for a minute. Seek out your favorite twisty onramp. Whir the windows down and bury your right foot, deploying all the SE-R's horses full in sound and measure. Row through the first few gears, then drop into sixth and marvel as the SE-R hunkers down, dispatching mile after mile with ludicrous ease. I guarantee you won't be wishing yourself behind the wheel of a rival product, from inside OR outside the Nissan fold. And for that, SE-R drivers should be truly grateful.