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2005 Nissan Altima SE-R

     There’s a renaissance going on at Nissan.
     After teetering on the brink of obliteration in the late 1990s, the company is coming back in a big way with amazing cars like the 350Z and impressive trucks like the Titan and Armada. The change couldn’t have been more dramatic.
     And now the turnaround is showing more than ever in a variation on Nissan’s venerable, bread-and-butter Altima, a four-door sedan that has played second fiddle for years to the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
     Although the newest generation of Altima stood out against the very drab Accord and Camry when it was introduced a few years ago, it still wasn’t enough for a true renaissance company to brag about. Nissan needed something that would leapfrog the competition — something that would make the world take note.
     That’s why the Altima SE-R exists.
     Instead of trying to create a more exciting version of a Honda or Toyota — something that’s not very hard to do — Nissan took aim at BMW by creating a high-performance version of the Altima called the SE-R for hardcore driving enthusiasts. It’s a car you can drive straight from the dealer to the autocross course.
     To start with, Nissan massaged 10 extra horsepower and a smidgeon more torque out of the Altima’s already powerful V6 engine, giving it a whopping 260 horses. It’s essentially the same engine that Nissan uses in the heart-stopping 350Z sports car, a fact that’s made more obvious by the deep growl of the SE-R’s high-flow exhaust system.
     The SE-R also has a significantly firmer suspension than the regular Altima. It’s based on the Japanese market Nissan Skyline that kids love racing on Playstation games, including different shocks, stiffer springs and thicker stabilizer bars.
     The front suspension uses plenty of aluminum parts to reduce weight, and the rear uses a multi-link, independent setup for great control without too much harshness. It’s a nice suspension for having fun at the track, but it’s not so harsh and unforgiving that it’s uncomfortable for everyday driving. Nissan deserves big kudos for the ride and handling.
     Unique 18-inch wheels — ones that look great but may be easily damaged because they extend beyond the width of the tires — along with an aggressive front fascia, rear spoiler and painted brake calipers let other drivers know this Altima is no ordinary sedan. It’s a nice variation on the Altima’s existing design, one that stands out from the crowd without being too flashy or annoying.

     Changes also extend to the interior, where leather seats with big side bolsters are standard and a unique gauge cluster looks like it came right out of the Z car. It also comes with some luxury goodies at no extra cost, including a great Bose stereo CD changer with steering wheel controls.
     However fun the SE-R is to drive, it still falls well short of the BMW benchmark for a couple of reasons.
     One, it’s just not as polished and refined as a car that was intended to be a high-performance sports sedan in the first place. Its acceleration and handling are good, but there are a few little annoyances like numb steering that feels too much like an old lady’s Altima. It has bits and pieces of greatness, not an overall great package.
     Second, it’s still front-wheel-drive. While sending power to the front wheels is fine for everyday driving — and is safer for the average driver — a great sports sedan must send power to the rear wheels. Under hard acceleration, the Altima’s front-drive layout has far too much torque steer, which tries to jerk the steering wheel to the side in a corner, not to mention too much understeer, which is when the front of the car keeps going straight even when you steer it in a different direction. That’s unacceptable for anyone who wants to take it to the track from time to time.
     To be honest, comparing the SE-R to a BMW isn’t fair because of the enormous price difference. While the SE-R starts at $29,200, a similar BMW 5-Series would cost at least $11,000 more.
     But that doesn’t matter. Nissan simply has a sedan that can be mentioned in the same breath with BMW, which is a major accomplishment and definitely something to brag about.
     And, despite their better sales, Toyota and Honda don’t have a performance car that comes close.

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