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.
Today’s grail continues down this familiar path of a special version of an otherwise forgettable sedan.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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’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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or drop it down in the comments!
(Images: Manufacturer, unless otherwise noted.)
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