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by Richard Russell
Nissan’s Sentra SE-R has been one of those secret successes – those in the know appreciate the big power/small car story while the rest of the world has no idea of what lurks beneath that innocuous skin.
For 2005, Nissan has applied the same recipe to the bigger Altima – but this SE-R, instead of boasting inordinate amounts of power, has a spicy set of clothes to ensure it does not go unnoticed.
Nissan has a reputation for hot four door sedans dating back to the legendary Datsun 510. Now called Nissan, the company has continuously offered family cars with a combination of ride, handling and performance that allows you to ferry the crew around and enjoy the driving experience at the same time. If the passengers allow, or are absent, these boxes allow you to really enjoy yourself.
For the last while, the Maxima has carried the colours in this arena as the company’s sport sedan. The availability of a manual gearbox coupled to one of the world’s great engines, has always stood as a benchmark in this category. To many it offered an alternative to some pretty respectable German four-door sedans with much higher profiles.
At the other end of the size and price scale, Nissan came up with the Sentra SE-R. Here, a big 2.5 litre engine in a small body, equipped with plenty of brakes and rubber made this Sentra a sleeper, one of those little-known secrets car enthusiasts appreciate.
For 2005 Nissan has bumped things up a notch, taking the same tact with the mid-size Altima. With the Maxima having moved upscale, the Altima SE-R assumes the performance mantle. This road rocket has all the go-fast goodies and plenty of visual reminders to let everyone know this is not your normal Altima. It sits atop the Altima line-up which also includes four-cylinder models – the 2.5 S and 2.5 SL and the six-cylinder 3.5S and 3.5 SE. The numerals indicate engine displacement and here we are talking about Nissan’s award-winning VQ-series V6 which, in the case of the Altima SE-R, produces 260 horsepower @ 6000 rpm and 251 lb. ft. of torque @ 3600 rpm (up from 250 horsepower @ 5800 rpm and 249 lb. ft. @ 4400 rpm in the standard Altima V6).
The SE-R doesn’t look like a regular Altima, because it isn’t one. Redesigned less than a year ago, the 2005 Altima got new front and rear styling and considerable interior reworking. The SE-R takes it a step further with a unique and aggressive front fascia, compact fog lights and dark colouring for the moulding. At the rear – a common view of this road rocket – you’ll find a unique spoiler and fascia, this one incorporating smoked lenses for the taillights and a pair of big chrome outlets at the end of each exhaust pipe – which connect in turn to special low-restriction mufflers. The side view reveals silver-painted brake calipers inside monster alloy wheels and sill extensions.
When you climb into the SE-R you realize how complete the package is. All of the changes and upgrades made to the rest of the line for 2005 are here as well as a unique three-pod centre-mounted instrument cluster containing information about voltage, oil pressure and fuel level – reminiscent of that used on the legendary Nissan Z. The SE-R also gets unique sport seats with ample side bolster and great support. Those on our test vehicle had perforated red leather inserts with matching stitching on the dark leather used for the rest of the seat. That same stitching is also found on the leather steering wheel and shift knob covers. Look down in the driver-side foot well and you can’t help but notice drilled aluminum pedals.
The standard equipment list of this line-topper is extensive and includes all the normal amenities and power assists as well as a premium audio system and heated front seats and mirrors. Also of significance on the audio front is the sweet sound emanating from those two big pipes out back.
Thankfully the promise made by the designers has been backed up by the engineers. The terrific engine is mated to a sweet-shifting six-speed manual gearbox – or a five-speed automatic if you are so-inclined. Our tester had the standard and it boasted precise linkage and well-defined gates. Combined with smooth clutch take-up and abundant torque, the combination results in one of the better high-performance front-drivers on the market.
So we’ve got plenty of go, now we need whoa, and here also the SE-R comes to the plate with all the right gear. The unique and much larger brake system is comprised of discs at each corner controlled by a four-channel ABS system which also incorporates brake force distribution.
The final part of the performance equation is handling and this is the component that truly defines a sport sedan. After all, anyone can stuff in a big engine and bolt on appropriate brakes. It takes considerable engineering prowess to come up with a chassis that can take advantage of a potent engine and provide a combination of ride and handling that allows the owner to enjoy the experience, not regret the purchase. Again, it is the balance that counts. Slapping on beefy springs, roll bars as thick as your thigh and shocks with very high compression rates will allow wicked handling on smooth surfaces, but knock your teeth out on real world roads. Only through careful analysis, plenty of testing and development can you arrive at a compromise that allows exploration of the limits without sacrificing everyday driving comfort.
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The Altima does that very well indeed. Of course it rides more stiffly than the rest of the line – but it is not a punishing ride. When it comes to the twisties however, the SE-R will bid adieu to its siblings and most other front-drive sedans of any size and price range, and do so with considerable alacrity.
Much of the credit goes to great rubber – sticky high performance, speed-rated summer tires wrapped around forged 18-inch wheels. Ensuring they get maximum grip and preventing them from being turned into a molten mess is a standard electronic traction control system.
Put this all together and in one $35,298 package you have a four-door family car with an immensely strong and responsive engine, a lovely manual gearbox, well-sorted suspension and steering, great brakes that put a smile on your face and a constant urge to go for a drive.
Technical Data: 2005 Nissan Altima SE-R
|Price as tested||$36,516|
|Type||4-door, 5 passenger mid-size sedan|
|Layout||transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive|
|Engine||3.5 litre V6, DOHC, 24 valves, CVVT|
|Horsepower||260 @ 6000 rpm|
|Torque||251 lb-ft @ 3600 rpm|
|Transmission||6-speed manual (opt. 5-speed automatic w/manual mode)|
|Tires||225/45WR-18 summer tires|
|Curb weight||1494 kg (3293 lb.)|
|Wheelbase||2799 mm (110.2 in.)|
|Length||4889 mm (192.5 in.)|
|Width||1788 mm (70.4 in.)|
|Height||1458 mm (57.4 in.)|
|Trunk space||442 litres (15.6 cu. ft.)|
|Fuel consumption||City: 11.8 litres/100 km (24 mpg Imperial)|
|Hwy: 7.6 litres/100 km (37 mpg Imperial)|
|Warranty||3 yrs/60,000 km|
|Powertrain warranty||5 yrs/100,000 km|