Home » The Short-Lived Nissan Altima SE-R Tried To Be A Family Sedan And A Sports Car: Holy Grails

The Short-Lived Nissan Altima SE-R Tried To Be A Family Sedan And A Sports Car: Holy Grails

Bigaltimaenergy2
ADVERTISEMENT

In this age of crossovers and SUVs, Nissan is one of a seemingly dwindling number of automakers offering buyers not just sedans, but a sports car and a supercar, too. But, look closely at the sedans and you might be disappointed. The Maxima has been coupled to a CVT since 2007 and the Altima has actually lost power over time. Don’t bother checking, even the Sentra is saddled with a CVT, too. It wasn’t always this way. From just 2005 to 2006, Nissan sold an enthusiast version of the Altima. The Nissan Altima SE-R paired a 260 HP V6 with a six-speed manual transmission, resulting in a family car that hit 60 mph in under 6 seconds.

Last time on Holy Grails, reader Matt Pence reminded us that for a short period between 2006 and 2007, Honda sold an enthusiast version of its Accord sedan. Throughout the Accord’s long history, the trusty family car offered buyers a V6 engine and a manual transmission, but for the most part, they had to buy a coupe to get it. Then, in an unexpected surprise, the automaker briefly gave enthusiasts the Accord sedan with a V6 and a manual transmission. This turned an otherwise forgettable family car into a sporty sedan that reviewers ranked ahead of actual enthusiast fare. Sadly, Honda killed it off and left V6 power with a manual transmission to the sedan’s coupe counterpart.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Today’s grail continues down this familiar path of a special version of an otherwise forgettable sedan.

Nissan Altima Ser 2005 1600 0a

For this one, we must go back to an arguably better time for enthusiasts, the 2000s. This era was a fantastic time to love cars. If you lived in Europe, you could buy Smart’s only sports car, the Roadster. Here in America, you had a frankly incredible lineup of sport sedans to choose from. There was the Mazdaspeed6, the Lincoln LS, the Volkswagen Jetta GLI, the Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen SEL, the Pontiac G6 GTP, the Acura TSX, the Honda Accord, the Nissan Maxima, the BMW E39 5 Series, the BMW E46 3 Series, and so many more. If you loved American roadsters, you could hop behind the wheel of a Pontiac Solstice or Saturn Sky.

ADVERTISEMENT

If you wanted your speed a bit daft, how about a Chrysler PT Cruiser GT or Chevrolet HHR SS? The era’s economy cars also weren’t afraid to get a bit spicy. I totally wouldn’t mind hooning a Dodge Caliber SRT4. Speaking of Dodge, you could even buy a Ram pickup housing the firepower of a Viper’s V10 engine.

The best part? All of those cars were available with manual transmissions. The 2000s were full of enthusiast specials, some of them more popular than others. Famed YouTube personalities have reviewed the Dodge Ram SRT-10 and the BMW E39 remains a coveted enthusiast car. Even the Saturn Sky and Smart Roadster still get some love. One car that has seemingly faded into obscurity is Nissan’s performance variant of its Altima sedan.

30 Years Of Big Altima Energy

1997 Nissan Altima 01 Source
Nissan

As timing would have it, the Altima nameplate turns 30 this month. Nissan says the Altima name originated as a trim level for the Nissan Laurel that was sold in Central America and the Caribbean. As Auto Trader notes, Nissan found itself in a difficult situation in the early 1990s. The midsize sedan segment was hot, but Nissan didn’t really have a viable competitor. The Honda Accord and Toyota Camry gained traction. Unfortunately for Nissan, it didn’t really have a right fit in its lineup. The Sentra was too small while the Maxima was priced a bit too high.

Slotted in the middle was the Stanza, which was a neat car, but not competitive enough for the burgeoning midsize market.

Photos Nissan Stanza 1992 1
Nissan

Thus, in 1992, Nissan decided to end production of the Stanza for a new car called the Altima. The Altima was penned by designers in California and built in Smyrna, Tennessee. It launched for the 1993 model year with the name Stanza Altima. Nissan explains that thanks to some unspecified regulatory hurdle, the car had to be called the Stanza Altima for its first year. To comply, Nissan stuck a tiny Stanza sticker next to the Altima name. Apparently, there was also concern at the time that the American public wouldn’t be able to pronounce Altima, so guidelines on proper syllable emphasis were distributed.

ADVERTISEMENT

Auto Trader notes that the car still fell short of its contemporaries. Despite that and those concerns about how hard it would be to say the car’s name, the Altima was an instant success. Something notable about the first-generation Altima was found in its GLE trim level, which had a head-up display in 1993 and 1995. This HUD displayed speed, turn indicators, and warning lights. Nissan noted other luxury features like adjustable lumbar support in the front seats, digital automatic climate control, keyless entry, cornering lights, and a high-end sound system with metal speaker grilles. Furthering the luxury vibe was rosewood color trim in 1993 and burl wood trim in 1994.

1997 Nissan Altima 02 Source

Nissan ran the first generation of the Altima until 1997, giving the car a second generation in 1998. The second-generation Altima was more evolution than revolution and had a similar look as the outgoing model, but more power and an interior with more sophistication. Auto Trader notes that these cars didn’t quite have the sales punch Nissan expected. It wasn’t until the 2002 model year that the Altima got a major overhaul with its third generation.

A Complete Overhaul

Nissan Altima 2004 1600 04

 

ADVERTISEMENT

With the third-generation Altima, Nissan dropped the hammer on chasing the Accord and the Camry down. The new Altima was bigger with more class and a fresh, modern, and sporty design. In fact, the Altima grew so much that the Maxima had to grow to remain Nissan’s big sedan. I’ll hand Nissan the microphone:

It was the first mass-market product built on Nissan’s new FF-L platform, which was unique to North America and had no equivalent model in Japan. It was produced in model years 2002 through 2006. This new design had up to 18-inch wheels and was the first Altima series to offer a 3.5-liter V6 in addition to its 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine. The Altima grew substantially for this generation, as interior volume expanded to 118.8 cubic feet. The Altima’s interior dimensions even surpassed that of the higher-end Maxima, so the 2004 Maxima moved more upscale into the full-size bracket. The new Altima also featured improved handling and more aggressive styling. Reviews were consistently strong by media and consumers alike as the Altima helped lead Nissan’s product resurgence in the early part of the new century.

Nissan Altima 2004 1600 08

Nissan’s push with the third generation Altima was aggressive, with Nissan Sales and Marketing VP, Al Castignetti, saying the new Altima stopped copying its contemporaries and instead, it would blaze its own path. Equally as aggressive was the Altima’s marketing, which touted the car as ‘The Cure for the Common Sedan.’ This was Nissan’s way of saying that buyers could buy an anonymous Honda or Toyota or they could stand out in the crowd and buy the Altima. The car’s new styling was sporting and followed the trends of the era. This was a time when tuner cars were pretty popular, and so were so-called “Altezza Lights,” taillights with clear lenses. The new Altima got clear, jewel-like lenses of its own.

This push paid off, with the new Altima scoring the “North American Car of the Year” award in 2002 while earning a “Best of the Year” nomination by MotorWeek. Check out this review by MotorWeek’s John Davis, it’s worth every second of its 6-minute runtime:

ADVERTISEMENT

Something Nissan misses in its own retrospective on this car is the fact that it’s bigger than the Accord and the Camry it’s competing against. David also notes that the Altima SE he tested had a manual transmission, something that was missing from the Accord sedan and part of why that car was its own grail.

In his review, Davis noted how much Nissan meant business. The base engine in the Altima was a 2.5-liter four making 175 HP and 180 lb-ft torque. That was 40 more thoroughbreds in the stable than the Accord had and still bested the Camry by 18 horses. Backing up the power was a new chassis with torsional rigidity that was up by 70 percent. Meanwhile, usage of aluminum in the car’s suspension touted weight savings while adding strength.

Nissan Altima 2004 1600 0c (1)

Speaking of suspension, Nissan tossed out the torsion beam rear for a multi-link setup based on the one found in the Japanese market Skyline. Nissan even tossed in a 20-gallon fuel tank, giving the Altima long legs for its 29 highway mpg for the four cylinder and 26 highway mpg for the V6.

Initially, that 3.5-liter V6 dished out 240 HP and 246 lb-ft torque. That was good for a sprint to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds. It seemed the Altima made for a pretty decent sporty family hauler, one that Nissan was serious about using to beat Honda and Toyota. This brings us to our grail.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Grail

Nissan Altima Ser 2005 1600 05

 

The final years of the third generation Altima were 2005 and 2006. In those final two years, Nissan sold a trim level that you could say was an enthusiast model. Much like the Accord V6 + 6MT, Nissan didn’t go overboard with the enthusiast version, but it’s cooler than the regular Altimas in subtle ways.

Reader ClemsonWahoo nominated the Nissan Altima SE-R for this week’s grail:

I suggest Nissan Altima SER. Practical, but fun! Good looks, especially the smoked headlight/taillight surrounds and forged wheels (one of my all time favorite factory wheels). Mine was metallic gray with red/black leather interior. Bought new, and never had any issue with it in 8 years of ownership.

Nissan Altima Ser 2005 1600 09

ADVERTISEMENT

In 2004, the Altima got a facelift, freshening the sedan up for the rest of its run. Nissan says it actually held back a little bit and saved the best of the updates for 2005. That year, Nissan introduced the SE-R, a performance variant of the Altima with very mild upgrades. How mild? The standard 3.5-liter V6 made 250 HP and 249 lb-ft torque in 2005. The SE-R’s got 260 HP and 251 lb-ft torque. Really, the additional power wasn’t really the selling point here, but the entire package, which spiced the Altima up into something just a bit more than a family car.

From Nissan:

The Altima SE-R adds an array of special styling features, including a new front fascia, headlight bezel coloring, compact fog lights and dark window molding coloring. In the rear, the SE-R stands out with a new rear fascia and spoiler, smoked taillights and large dual exhaust finishers. Also visible are the new side sill spoilers, silver painted front and rear disc brake calipers, with the SE-R logo on the front calipers. SE-R badging is located on the rear of the vehicle.

The most prominent difference between the SE-R and other 2005 Altima models is the three-pod center-mounted gauge package, similar to that found on the legendary Nissan Z, with volt meter, oil pressure and fuel consumption gauges.

Nissan Altima Ser 2005 1600 10

Other changes include sport-shaped front seats and headrests with perforated red or gray leather-appointed inserts and matching stitching on the seats, steering wheel and shift knob, dark chrome trim treatment and drilled aluminum pedals. The front seats are also heated, as are the SE-R’s outside mirrors. Altima SE-Rs equipped with the standard short throw linkage 6-speed manual transmission also feature a new gearshift knob.

Nissan’s visual changes are pretty subtle. The automaker could have leaned in on tuner culture and made something that looked like it came from the Fast Saga, but this is pretty conservative as far as performance variants go. Like ClemsonWahoo, those wheels look rather fantastic. They might be the best visual upgrade here.

Nissan Altima Ser 2005 1600 0e

ADVERTISEMENT

Additional notable changes are 225 series tires wrapped around 18-inch forged wheels and a sport-tuned suspension. Car and Driver reviewed the SE-R and gave it a mix of positive and negative marks. The magazine’s testers found the car’s Bridgestone Potenza S-03 tires and tuned suspension to produce real grip in the corners while the body was tightly controlled. Turn-in was noted to be sharp and the car’s steering was precise. The magazine felt as if the car wanted to go to the track and set hot laps, but it had a couple of oversights holding it back.

Great Handling, Burnouts Instead Of Traction

Nissan Altima Ser 2005 1600 04

Car and Driver was less impressed with the car’s ability to take off in a straight line, noting the vehicle’s lack of a limited-slip differential and inadequate optional traction control system:

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.

Nissan Altima Ser 2005 1600 12

Also weird about the Car and Driver review was the fact that it took the magazine’s tester to hit 60 mph in 6.1 seconds, 0.2 seconds lower to 60 mph than the Altima 3.5SE. Car and Driver chalked it up to the fact that the 3,380-pound sedan was 160 pounds heavier than a regular Altima V6.

ADVERTISEMENT

To further confuse things, when MotorWeek tested an Altima SE-R equipped with an automatic transmission, that car hit 60 mph in 5.8 seconds, 0.1 seconds faster than a regular V6. So, the discrepancy in times may not be weight at all, but perhaps factors like the driver or wheelspin.

Nissan Altima Ser 2005 1600 14

 

I haven’t found any confirmed production numbers for the Altima SE-R, but the best guess by enthusiasts is a total of 9,699 units built between 2005 and 2006. Of those cars, 3,075 examples are suspected to have manual transmissions. Nissan hasn’t explained why the model was short-lived, but perhaps its price could explain things. A 2005 Nissan Altima 3.5SE was $23,300. If you wanted that sweet body kit, the forged wheels, and the new gauges, that set you back $29,930. While six inches shorter, the Infiniti G35 netted you a 3.5-liter V6 making more power and punching it out to the rear wheels for $30,700.

Sadly, the Altima’s manual transmission wouldn’t last much longer. The Altima got a fourth generation in 2007. Its V6 got 10 more ponies for a rating of 270 HP, too. But, this would persist only until 2011. After that, the Altima was available only with a CVT, which remains true today. The fastest Altima you can buy now makes 248 HP from a 2.0-liter turbo, which to its credit hits 60 mph in the same 5.8 seconds the Altima SE-R can.

ADVERTISEMENT

Nissan Altima Ser 2005 1600 07

Despite the rarity, it won’t be too hard to find a Nissan Altima SE-R. I found a bunch on my local classifieds and not a single one of them was more than $10,000. One particularly rusty unit is just $2,000!

The Nissan Altima SE-R may not have been the best sport sedan, it wasn’t even faster than a regular Altima. But, like the previous Honda Accord, Nissan did just enough to make an otherwise forgettable car better for the family person who is also an enthusiast.

As a note for the future of this series, don’t be afraid to nominate vehicles that are buses, motorcycles, or heck, even RVs and planes! Thus, do you know of or own a car, bus, motorcycle, or something else worthy of being called a ‘holy grail’? Send me an email at mercedes@theautopian.com or drop it down in the comments!

(Images: Manufacturer, unless otherwise noted.)

ADVERTISEMENT

Support our mission of championing car culture by becoming an Official Autopian Member.

Popular Stories

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on whatsapp
WhatsApp
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on reddit
Reddit
Subscribe
Notify of
30 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
11 months ago

Can we get someone to create a graph of holy grails? To date the autopian has been around for 14 months. That is 78 werks. 546 days and approximately 8,572 holy grails.

Mike B
Mike B
11 months ago

I remember when these came out, I thought they were cool. I thought the gen was a really good-looking car at the time, especially compared to it’s predecessor. In the early ’00’s, this thing was like a damn musclecar with that 3.5L.

Rabob Rabob
Rabob Rabob
11 months ago
Reply to  Mike B

I was in high school and the big-3 Japanese manufacturers having a mini horsepower war with their family sedans was pretty cool at the time. My dad ended up buying the Accord V6 which was fun to joyride at night – unsurprisingly it eventually turned its transmission into glitter.

Elduchey
Elduchey
11 months ago

Do the Chevy Malibu Maxx SS next! I still havent actually seen one of these ugly unicorns out in the wild yet but man what a weird car for the bowtie to give the SS badge.

MikuhlBrian
MikuhlBrian
11 months ago
Reply to  Elduchey

Pre-pandemic I used to see a blue Malibu Maxx SS on my commute in San Diego. Everytime I saw it, brought a little smile to my face because I knew what an oddball of a car that was.

B3n
B3n
11 months ago

Nissan had some interesting engine choices back then. Pathfinder V8 for example.
They should’ve put that V8 in the Frontier too

Mike B
Mike B
11 months ago
Reply to  B3n

I only recently learned that V8 Pathfinders existed. I’ve kinda wanted one since. It’s just a shame the rest of the vehicle is arguably terrible (though much better than the following gen).

Joe The Drummer
Joe The Drummer
11 months ago

Remember when Nissan made great cars with great transmissions? Pepperidge Farm remembers.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
11 months ago

I dont

Eddie Aftandilian
Eddie Aftandilian
11 months ago

I had a 2002 Altima 3.5SE with the manual. It wasn’t a great car. It had too much engine for the FWD chassis. Torque steer was pretty bad, and it was too easy to break traction. One of the car magazines described the manual like moving a screwdriver through a bowl of rocks.

My next car was a 2008 Infiniti G35 with a manual, which was a much better car.

Leo T.
Leo T.
11 months ago

I remember that gen Altima having super light steering too

Chris Campbell
Chris Campbell
11 months ago

I received in the mail from Nissan a cardboard tube that resembled a prescription bottle… “The cure for the common sedan…” that and the accompanying digital content made for a very compelling case. I nearly bought one, and regret it.

Rollin Hand
Rollin Hand
11 months ago

I liked the 02-era Altima, but could not make the SE-R work because it had the damned sunroof, which made it a hair too small for me.

I very nearly bought an 07 Altima V6 6MT to replace my 540i6, but it failed the pre-purchase inspection, and they wouldn’t work with me on the price. Good God, that thing had a ton of motor. I scared myself by hammering it in first. It felt like the engine would break itself loose one day.

ScottyB
ScottyB
11 months ago

For a brief moment in time in the 1990s to early 2000s, Nissan had some stunningly clean, well designed cars. My theory is this generation Altima was too good looking and was stealing Maxima’s thunder, so they had to ugly it up a bit.

Rabob Rabob
Rabob Rabob
11 months ago
Reply to  ScottyB

Nissan had great stuff in the 2000s. The new 4 door (novel at the time) Frontier, XTerra, Altima V6, Maxima, Infinity G35

Brekkurz
Brekkurz
11 months ago

Fun Fact: The Sentra SE-R Spec-V LSD can be swapped into the bellhousing for the VQ35s in 6spd altimas or maximas to give them a Torsen LSD.

Andrew Wyman
Andrew Wyman
11 months ago

I never loved that line of Altima for looks, but those wheels are nice. I would love to pop those on a different car.

J R
J R
11 months ago

There’s a better Nissan grail: the 2001.5-03 Pathfinder SE equipped with the VQ series engine paired with a 5 speed manual. God, I wish I’d never sold mine.

GreatFallsGreen
GreatFallsGreen
11 months ago
Reply to  J R

That is a good one – I had visions of finding one of those for sale for a long time, but they’re surely even more scarce now than they were then. Though I think one did actually pop up in my apartment parking lot recently but I never got to pinpoint the owner.

I did get to take a 2nd gen Xterra Pro-4x 6MT for a spin a few years ago, and that was surprisingly fun, but it wasn’t something I was seriously considering then. Of course, it would work better with my driving and needs now, after they’ve climbed in value…

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
11 months ago

I call BS. There’s never been a red Altima. Ever. Greige or GTFO.

Scorp Mcgorp
Scorp Mcgorp
11 months ago

these were an interesting trim, and really livened up the drab commuter stylings of the more base models. unfortunately they suffered from common maladies of the time for Nissan vehicles. the automatic transmissions were prone to failure, especially the solenoids ( when they got hot they would not allow shifts, which was a sign they were about to go). the manual transmission syncros wore really fast ( happened in my Sentra SE-R Spec-v too), and also they suffered from the same issue that killed my Sentra’s smaller 2.5 Liter engine, the dreaded Precat failure. the ceramic inside the precat would crack under high heat and get sucked back into the engine, scoring the cylinder walls.

i recall there were several folks who spent a lot of time to take the VQ35 engine and shove them into the smaller Sentras though. those were proper fast sportcompacts. with some bolt ons they were seeing 250-260HP to the wheels, and running ~12.5 second 1/4 mile times.

Jack Swansey
Jack Swansey
11 months ago

Do you want a TL Type-S but worse?

Altima SE-R

CRX89
CRX89
11 months ago
Reply to  Jack Swansey

For once, Nissan had the better transmission here. Auto, at least.

Data
Data
11 months ago

The Altima may be many things, but a Grail is not one of them.
The first generation looked great in it’s time and each successive generation has gotten uglier (IMHO). Like the generation where the Altezzaesque lights nearly ate the entire rear quarter panels like a creeping plague.

Gen-O Bernardo
Gen-O Bernardo
11 months ago

this column has become one of my must reads when it’s published. LOVE IT! I’d like to nominate the 2001-2005 mercury grand marquis LSE and the equivalent ford crown vic sport for your next holy grail car. limited build out of 1 million plus (?). 20 plus hp over their other trim lines AND the piece de resistance, floor shifter! https://mercurygrandmarquislse.com/ is a great resource. keep up the fantastic work. you must be the hardest working auto journo on the planet!

Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
11 months ago

I liked the idea of the Altima SE-R a lot more than the execution. Being FWD was tough enough, but the lack of a limited slip hurt this things sporting pretensions quite a bit. I had a friend who wanted one of these and instead left in a Maxima which he felt was just as sporty and whole lot nicer for similar money. To pour salt in the wound, these things were very quickly relegated to the role of buy-here, pay-here darling.

RalliartWagon
RalliartWagon
11 months ago

While I agree the SE-R was cool in the context of Altimas, as noted in the article, the G35 was right there for not much more money. The handling improvement was substantial.

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
11 months ago

In 2004, I was new-car shopping and I wanted an Altima. I test-drove a 4 with manual and found it to be pretty tepid. So that night, I went to Nissan’s build-and-price website (a new thing back then) and hopped one up with a VQ.
Unfortunately, getting a VQ in a 2004 Altima required a lot of other boxes to be checked. It ended up at almost $26k with a lot of features that I didn’t even want. So I thought to myself, “how much is a stripped Maxima?”
The answer was a little over $27k. I got mine for $26,200, because the dealer had two stripper manual Maximas and was afraid he’d never sell either of them.
Now, when I say stripper, I mean base. There was a lot of standard content, but it was stuff I wanted. It had a much nicer interior than the Altima, rode better, and had more room in the back seat. I called it my “poor man’s M5”.

NW_6MT
NW_6MT
11 months ago

I bought a used 2004 6MT maxima in late 2008ish. Loved that car. Ran flawless and seemed basically bulletproof. Drove it 120k over the next 9 years and was sad to see it go when I sold it.

30
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x