Nissan Altima SE-R
How much Altima is too much? Nissan dares to find out with the Altima SE-R, cranking up the butch by adding 10 horsepower, a rigid suspension, and forged 18-inch wheels wearing super-stick summer tires. The Altima 3.5SE with 250 horsepower is pleasantly sweet; the Altima SE-R wants to be two Hershey bars washed down with a Coke. Hope you like Nissan’s brand of sugar buzz.
The Altima SE-R keeps company with the 270-hp Acura TL and 303-hp Pontiac Grand Prix GXP as one of a new generation of sedans whose power languishes in a front-drive cage. Bury the SE-R’s rubber-studded aluminum gas pedal, and the weight leans on the wrong set of tires, the right set of tires making smoke and painting stripes instead of providing traction. The steering wheel develops an urge-albeit less fervent than in some amped-up front-drivers-to seek out the nearest ditch.
Granted, the SE-R’s output, 260 horses and 251 pound-feet of torque, won’t be remembered as a turning point at a time when it takes 500 horsepower to make a headline. But the SE-R lunges down the drag strip, putting 60 mph behind it in 6.1 seconds, rattling off a quarter-mile in 14.8 seconds at 97 mph. The 12.6-inch front discs and 11.5-inch rears bring it to a halt from 70 mph in 168 feet, and double-D soles get it around the skidpad pulling 0.86 g. That’s fairly rabid for a family car carrying 3380 pounds and a $29,930 base price. It is 0.2 second slower to 60 than the last 3.5SE we tested, but the SE-R also picked up 160 pounds.
We said the SE-R is a sugar buzz. Take it to a picture-postcard road to unlock its best flavors. There, the 225/45 Bridgestone Potenza S-03 tires and hewn-from-oak suspension provide real cornering grip, a fierce turn-in response, and tight body control. When squirting bend to bend under less-than-woolly throttle, the SE-R’s steering is delicate and precise. Scribe your corner lines as steadily as your hands can hold the wheel.
Changing gears is a long hand wave, thanks to the tall shifter, but the beanpole slides through its gates tightly if not with the sharpest and most satisfying metal-to-metal feel. This Altima wants to set your best lap time and just might if it had a limited-slip differential to plug all its power into the road. Instead, it relies on an optional $800 electronic traction-control system to suppress wheelspin, which isn’t quite the same thing.
The 350Z cockpit has been reprised in the SE-R with three gauge nacelles, largely ornamental, parked on the center console: oil pressure, charge-system volts, and least useful of all, a twitching pointer indicating instantaneous fuel consumption represents the data points to be gleaned by turning your head 30 degrees to the right. You won’t very often, not until the car hits 100,000 miles and charge voltage becomes a worry.
Nissan offers four exterior colors: gray, silver, red, and black. The bolstered front buckets flare with an embroidered SE-R logo and your choice of red or gray perforated leather accents down the center and matching topstitching. As with the Z, the driver’s seat bulges with a sort of codpiece between your legs. No explanation or diagrams are given to explain its supportive function. Sound gushes from a standard Bose eight-speaker system with a six-CD changer.
Nissan keeps it reserved on the outside. The raciest feature, aside from the blocky chin fascia, modest rump wing, and twin exhaust cans emitting a hearty snore reminiscent of the Z, is the snowflake-pattern 18-inch wheels. The spokes are forged aluminum rather than die-cast-it says so right on the rim-presumably lending extra strength. They need it, because the stiff, 45-series Bridgestones transmit bump energy to the suspension the way a bat transmits Johnny Damon’s swing into a baseball. It doesn’t take many days behind the SE-R’s wheel to develop a detailed mental map of every pothole, frost heave, and pavement fissure in your town.
There are no eurekas! in the SE-R. It offers a more traditional ride-versus-handling trade-off than magazine favs such as the Acura TSX, which seems to do better combining both. The SE-R does offer big V-6 performance in a clean, nicely appointed, and commodious package that will entertain people who like to play. No more Altima is required.