Nissan says the Altima Coupe was designed separately from the Altima sedan. It’s a different car, from the ground-up. Roger that. Not since the Chevrolet Lumina Sedan and Minivan have two more disparate vehicles shared the same name. While Chrysler’s auto show folk are talking-up the joys of a “shared genetic pool,” the Altima Coupe 3.5SE isn’t even swimming in the same ocean as the sedan. In fact, the Altima Coupe deserves a sexier name, something distinctive, with more panache. I suggest “Accord-killer,” but it’s unlikely to get approved by any legal department, anywhere.
A quick tour around the Altima Coupe reveals the missing link; Nissan took the 3.5SE to Infiniti and beyond. From the side, the two-door Altima is nearasdammit a dead ringer for the new G37. Sure, they changed the headlights and taillights, gave it dumpier base trim and hood strakes (and aren’t charging you an arm and a leg for it). But the DNA is there. Chrome milk moustache non-withstanding, the 3.5SE Altima Coupe is a whole lot of sexy. It’s every bit as hot looking as the new Accord Coupe is not, and a fair piece cheaper.
One sit behind the base 3.5SE’s wheel shows why this bad boy is a bargain basement bomber. The base SE comes with cloth seats and the most basic of pseudo-luxury accoutrements, including push-button engine start and stop and one of those nagging fuel economy gauges that tries to guilt you into punching the gas less. But there is nothing to dispel the notion that you’re in a souped-up economy car. Sure, the fancier options are there, but if your style is ‘shut up and drive,’ being able to forego leather seats and premium audio is a bonus.
Yes, the 3.5SE’s cabin is nicer than many of its Japanese rivals, but oy, the ergonomics. The shoulder bolsters were more than a tad overly-bolstered (and I’m not exactly a football player), the center armrest is ill-positioned and the entire interior had the most overpowering new car smell I’ve ever suffered.
But by far the worst offender: the system used to move the passenger seat forward so the few and the damned (damned few?) can enter the backseat. Nissan's placed the latch on the far side of the passenger seat, where only the driver can see and reach it, and only while they’re seated. Forcing the driver to move the seat is cruel and unusual punishment.
Engine on, and all is forgiven (for the driver anyway). In terms of sheer engine performance, Goldilocks couldn’t ask for a better whip. The 2.5S is too slow. The G37 is too expensive. In terms of horsepower to dollars to curb weight, the 3.5SE Coupe just nails it. Zero to sixty takes just 5.8 seconds. The high-revving, hefty Accord feels downright sluggish next to this beast. Astonishingly, the Altima has more torque and horsepower and better gas mileage.
No matter what you’re doing, prodding the gas is immensely, intensely and immediately satisfying. A cackle-worthy exhaust note would be the cherry on the icing on the cake. The 3.5SE's six-speed manual is better than Nissan’s standard fare, delivering unrestricted access to every last one of the 350SE Coupe’s 270 horses. If you start comparing it to better gearboxes… just offer a silent prayer that it’s not a CVT.
In terms of handling, the 3.5SE’s a front wheel-drive car. Push it and you’ll be "rewarded" by the gradual onset of understeer. Thankfully, tight proportions (a small wheelbase and a stubby rear) mean you never feel like the nose is trying to plow a path to scenery, or an angry god controls the tail end. It’s Goldilocks material again: smooth, safe and predictable.
Nissan has even managed to keep the torque steer demons at a distance, although uncomfortably numb steering is the regrettable result. Once you get used to the anesthetic helm, you can cane the 3.5SE like a pro– just don’t expect the sort of feedback you’d get from a car that really knows its way around a track.
The 3.5SE’s highway ride is comfortably quiet, with little wind noise and a moderate amount of tire roar. Around town, the 3.5SE’s suspension absorbs bumps and potholes with ease. Standard safety features won't win any awards; even stability control costs you extra. Stripper lover's alert: nearly everything is optional. The Altima is a blank slate with a fast engine, just waiting for you to customize with your choice of toys. Or not.
So the 3.5SE’s dead sexy, has the guts to match and starts at $24k. Not to put too fine a point on it, that’s the sort of price point that pisses in Subaru and Honda’s Wheaties. If you’re less than six feet tall, emo-thin and don’t need space for more than two, I can’t think of a car in its class that presents a better performance bargain.