As it ambles toward the end of its current design cycle, the Nissan Altima has evolved into a pretty nice family sedan with better-than-average performance.
To help buy a little time before a major overhaul next summer, Nissan for model year 2005 added a juiced-up special edition, the Altima SE-R, inspired by the racy Sentra SE-R series.
We tested a 2005 Altima SE-R with very few options and a window sticker of $30,150.
HE: I’ve never understood the widely held notion in this business that functionality and performance are mutually exclusive when it comes to family sedans. Fortunately, Chrysler got it when it created the 300C; Ford clearly did not with the Five Hundred. I think Nissan gets it, with the Altima SE-R, which is one of the more entertaining mid-size four-doors we’ve tested this summer. I had a brief drive in the Altima SE-R earlier this year out in California, and almost hated to give it back, it was so much fun. It’s amazing how an extra 10 horsepower, a six-speed manual gearbox, larger tires and a few other tweaks here and there can turn a “pretty nice” car into a really appealing and desirable product that runs away from most of its competitors. My biggest concern is the price — $30,000 — which is starting to encroach on BMW and Mercedes turf.
SHE: Yeah, but what BMW or Mercedes sedan has a face like Keith Richards?
HE: Huh? The Altima didn’t seem to be missing any teeth, the last I looked.
SHE: I’m talking about the SE-R’s craggy face, with all those lines that provide a lot of definition and character. I would describe the SE-R’s exterior look as gutsy, and more appealing to dads than moms, with those striking 18-inch forged-alloy wheels, rear spoiler, aluminum pedals and a monochromatic black cabin giving it kind of a boy-racer look. But it sure has a lot more personality than a Honda Accord or a Toyota Camry — slightly dangerous, veering off the mainstream. Just like you, honey.
HE: Nissan has just done a really nice job of repackaging the traditional grocery-getter, so you don’t feel like you’re stuck driving a “family car.” I was impressed by the SE-R’s responsive throttle and steering, which seem like they were lifted from a European sport sedan. The Altima still tends to understeer a bit, which is characteristic of front-wheel-drive cars, and the large turning circle puzzles me in an otherwise finely-tuned package. The suspension is well-damped and not at all harsh. In this size and price segment, I’d say the Acura TL is one of the few competitors that could give the Altima SE-R a real challenge.
SHE: The TL is also one of the few cars in the class that makes more horsepower than the SE-R. The Accord, the Camry and the Hyundai Sonata all lag well behind the Altima in terms of power. But you can’t just talk about horsepower when you’re talking about family cars. And that’s why the Altima SE-R doesn’t get a top five-star rating from me. It’s pretty average in terms of safety features. Our test car had no side air bags or traction control, which come bundled together in an $800 option package. The rear seat is middle-of-the-road, too, with no vents, no individual reading lights and too-tiny door pockets. And if you look hard, it seems that Nissan still needs to tweak the interior quality. I noticed the trim around the sunroof was wavy and the lid on the cup holders in the center console felt cheap.
HE: Nissan clearly spent some money to upgrade the Altima’s cabin for 2005, but they should have put a little more effort into it. The interior is still only average, and there are some jarring details, like the mismatched textures between the black plastic in the center stack and the rest of the instrument panel.
SHE: I was a little surprised that, considering how much they’re charging, Nissan seemed to scrimp on convenience features. And little things bothered me like the center armrest, which is placed too far back for shorter drivers. I thought it was a little weird, too, that you get perforated-leather seats in front, but not in back.
HE: The Altima SE-R is a great concept, well-executed for the most part, with enough flaws to keep it from world-class status.
He drove, she drove Anita and Paul Lienert are partners in Lienert & Lienert, an Ann Arbor-based automotive information services company.
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2005 Nissan Altima SE-R
Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan.
Price: Base, $29,880 (inc. $580 destination charge); as tested, $30,150.
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6; 260-hp; 251 lb-ft torque.
EPA fuel economy: 20 mpg city/28 mpg highway.
Where built: Smyrna, Tenn.
Key competitors: Acura TL, Audi A4, BMW 325i, Cadillac CTS, Chevrolet Impala SS, Chrysler 300C, Dodge Charger, Ford Five Hundred, Ford Taurus, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Mercury Montego, Mitsubishi Galant, Nissan Maxima, Pontiac G6 GTP, Toyota Avalon, Toyota Camry.
12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan: $1,532. (Estimate. Rates may be higher or lower, depending on coverage and driving record.)
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Anita’s Vehicle rating: 3
Likes: Boy-racer exterior styling. Aggressive face with lots of definition. Cool perforated-leather front seats. Deep trunk with cargo net. Striking 18-inch forged alloy wheels. Nice little quality touches.
Dislikes: Center armrest too far back for shorter drivers. No one-touch up/down windows. Not enough rear headroom. Only average convenience features. Traction control and side air bags cost extra.
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Paul’s Vehicle rating: 4
Likes: One of the most entertaining family sedans on the market. Responsive 3.5-liter V-6 packs a surprising wallop. Crisp handling. Comfortable, supportive bucket seats.
Dislikes: Despite improvements for 2005, cabin is still only middle-of-the-road. Huge turning circle makes parking difficult in tight spaces. Sometimes have to force shift lever into fifth and sixth gears. Sticker is inching up into BMW/Mercedes country.
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1. Unacceptable, 2. Subpar, 3. Acceptable, 4. Above average, 5. World class