02/21/06 — SE-R package livens up Altima

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SE-R package livens up Altima

Nissan Altima SE-R (2006)

The wild success of the new Altima in 2002 turned Nissan from a troubled Japanese automaker at the turn of the century into one of the success stories in modern automotive history.

Nissan sold more than 200,000 of its mid-sized family sedans that year, and reached an all-time high in 2005 with 255,000 sales.

Nissan Altima SE-R, 2006

Granted, Nissan has created some other very desirable products over the past few years including a hot Z-Car revival, a new cutting-edge Maxima sedan, a full-sized pickup truck and a popular new edition of its mid-sized Pathfinder sport utility vehicle. Likewise, Nissan has transformed its moribund Infiniti luxury lineup into a sizzling performance-oriented stable of cars and trucks.

But the high-volume Altima, in direct competition with the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, is the star of the comeback, worthy of the most valuable player award. Nearly 900,000 Altimas have been sold in four years.

The Altima was conceived in 1993 to take the place of the Stanza in the Nissan lineup. For nine years, the original Altima provided hundreds of thousands of buyers with conservative transportation that has endured the test of time.

It was smaller than the hot-selling Camry and Accord, actually falling into the compact size, and had only one engine available, a 4-cylinder.

And the original Altima was an also-ran in the Japanese sedan sweepstakes, settling for a small 100,000-a-year piece of the family sedan pie.

The Altima was not only at a size disadvantage compared to its Japanese rivals, but it never possessed a V-6 engine to go head-to-head with the optional powerplants in the best-sellers.

That became history in 2001 when the 2002 Altima was introduced. In one gigantic wave of the magic manufacturing wand, the Altima leapfrogged both the Camry and Accord in size and horsepower. The new Altima was 5.7 inches longer (191.5 inches), had a 7.1-inch increase in wheelbase (110.2 inches), was 1.3 inches wider (70.4 inches) and 2 inches taller (57.9 inches) than the previous edition.

Both Altima engine configurations trumped the competition as well.

The 2.5-liter 4-cylinder generates 175 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque. And the 2002 Altima V-6 developed 240 horsepower and 246 pound-feet of torque.

The Altima is still a segment leader in 2006 with its 175-horsepower 4-cylinder in the base 2.5 and 2.5 S. The V-6 is now rated at 250 horsepower and comes in the 3.5 SE and 3.5 SL models.

And Nissan trumped its chief competitors again in 2005 when it developed a SE-R edition — the performance designation of Nissan products.

The SE-R allows the family guy to have all the attributes of the sedan, but with the added fun factor that comes with 260 horsepower, a 6-speed manual transmission (a 5-speed automatic is available, too), bigger brakes, 18-inch wheels with Bridgestone performance tires, a sport-tuned suspension, leather seating, a Bose audio system and exterior tweaks such as a more aggressive front fascia, a rear spoiler and smoked headlight and taillight lenses.

Nissan has executed these exterior upgrades without giving the Altima the boy racer look of some performance-enhanced models. This is definitely a good thing. Subtlety is better than bravado for guys in the early baby boomer years.

Three auxiliary gauges are positioned atop the center console canted toward the driver similar to the setup in the 350Z. They display voltage, oil pressure and gas mileage.

The SE-R is on the expensive side of the Altima equation starting at $29,650 for the manual version, but if you are into hotrod performance complete with a growling engine note, then it is worth the extra change. Our 2006 test car, outfitted with an automatic, came with a little over a $1,000 in options including XM satellite radio and side airbags bringing the bottom line to $31,440.

The SE manual V-6 starts at $23,600 and the SL automatic V-6 edition begins at $27,400.

Is it worth an extra two grand to get the SE-R upgrades? The answer from this corner is a rousing, yes.

The SE-R has the same comfortable and spacious interior as the other Altima models, but it is faster with outstanding handling and cornering capabilities. And without the loss of gas mileage. The higher horsepower V-6 is rated as a frugal 20 miles per gallon city and 29 highway.

One word of caution to guys who see the SE-R as a must have — get the wife to take a test ride before signing the papers. The suspension is stiff, perhaps too stiff for a sensitive backside.

We can imagine that the SE-R outfitted with a manual transmission is a rocket ship, because our automatic-equipped model not only felt sprightly off the line, but immensely competent in higher-speed passing and merging situations. We could easily live with this guy.

You might think that the increased horsepower would translate into more torque steer on the front-driven Nissan. But Nissan engineers have dialed out much of this malady and its only slightly noticeable on full-power launches.

The Altima is still a family favorite based on last-year’s impressive sales figures. And the SE-R package is a worthwhile enhancement to those who crave a little more excitement in their driving experience than the standard mid-sized sedan in capable of supplying.

By Jim Meachen
Published in Car Reviews on February 21, 2006 4:05 PM