There was a time when the Nissan made fun stuff for the U.S. that wasn’t just the GT-R or Z. Before the millions of boring CVT-equipped crossovers and Versas for people with bad credit, there were supercharged Frontier and Xterras, Sentra SE-R’s, and a Maxima that was a legit sports sedan. One sport sedan, though, has been lost to the ages due to Nissan’s unwillingness to return to performance and the model’s own descent into rental car duty: the Altima SE-R.
Welcome to Forgotten Cars where we go into a brief history and background of some models you may not remember. Join us for an automotive trip down memory lane.
The Altima SE-R was based on the third-generation Altima. This gen was a game changer for Nissan. Introduced in 2002 for the 2003 model year, this Altima was unique in that it showed Nissan giving the U.S. market a little attention. The Altima rode on the FF-L platform, which was specific to the North American market and also built in Tennessee. The Altima put the midsize sedan market on notice. Motor Trend called it a “hot rod.” With a 0-60 mph time of 6.3 seconds and 240 horsepower from a 3.5-liter V6, it was impressive. And you could get it with a manual!
But around 2005, a new generation of front-wheel drive performance sedans came around. Cars like the Acura TL Type S or Pontiac Grand Prix GXP that said “Screw torque steer!” Nissan wanted in on the action and dropped the Altima SE-R on the world.
It was the driver’s Altima, if such a person existed. On the outside, the design turned aggressive. You could only get the SE-R in black, silver, gray, or red. You also got dark-tinted Xenon headlights, a deeper front fascia with fog lamps, side skirts, a rear lip spoiler and nicely sized exhaust out back that actually had a good little burble to it.
Changes weren’t just all cosmetic either. Engineers threw on stickier rubber on 18-inch wheels and bigger brakes, stiffened the suspension, and gave it bigger anti-roll bars. Under the hood, the 3.5-liter V6 received 20 more horsepower for a total of 260 hp and 251 lb-ft of torque.
Inside, there was a spot for auxiliary gauges that wouldn’t look out of place in a Z but were also pointless in that they showed oil pressure, voltage and instant fuel economy. There were also thickly bolstered sport seats with SE-R embroidered on them that were covered in black leather with either red or gray inserts and aluminum pedals. Other than that, it was a typical mid-2000s plasticky Nissan interior.
The performance was actually decent for the time. In a nod to enthusiasts, Nissan made a manual transmission standard and an automatic an option. Weirdly, the manual was slower. Depending on what you read, 60 mph came in 6.0 to 6.1 seconds. The automatic was the fastest. Motorweek tested an example with the auto, and it needed just 5.8 seconds to get to 60 mph. That stickier rubber also helped it pull 0.86 gs on the skidpad.
While all this was impressive, the devil is in the details. Car and Driver noted that even with all the performance goodies, the SE-R was 0.2 seconds slower to 60 mph than an Altima 3.5 SE they previously tested. This was either a bad thing or a reality of all those performance goodies adding nearly 200 pounds to the Altima’s weight.
While it’s great the Altima SE-R existed, it wasn’t around long. It was only made during the 2005 and 2006 model years. It’s hard to pin down production numbers, but it doesn’t seem as if many were made. I haven’t seen any on the road in years. It could be people thought its $29,930 base price was a hard sell when there were actually sport sedans available for the same money. The Infiniti G35 existed with more power and rear-wheel drive, and it cost just a bit over $1400 more than the SE-R.
But even then, it’s great it even existed. Fun-to-drive sporty family sedans are damn near extinct now. And with public in love with crossovers and the move to EVs, I don’t expect to see anything like this from Nissan again.