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Masquerading as a Sporty Sedan

2005 Nissan Altima SE-R

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2004; Page G01

Sometimes, I just want to get to where I'm going. I don't want to make an impression. I don't want a car that's fussy or overly precious. I just want to get there in something that is the motorized equivalent of a good pair of jeans, or a great pair of tennis shoes.

That means the car has to fit and feel right. A hot-looking exterior, when I'm in that mind-set, doesn't matter. I just want to be comfortable in a car that is pleasant and easy to drive.

2005 Nissan Altima SE-R

Nuts & Bolts

Downside: Foppish, pseudo-sporty exterior that increases cost without improving the drive.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Excellent in all three categories. No complaints.

Head-turning quotient: C'mon, dude. You have a wife and kids, a mortgage and utility bills. And you probably do the soccer thing on weekends. Stop pretending otherwise.

Body style/layout: All Nissan Altima cars are front-engine, front-wheel-drive, four-door sedans with traditional notchback trunks.

Engine/transmission: The Altima SE-R is equipped with a 3.5-liter V-6 that develops 260 horsepower at 6,000 revolutions per minute and 251 foot-pounds of torque at 3,600 rpm. The engine is linked to a standard six-speed manual transmission.

Cargo and fuel capacities: The Altima SE-R, like its Altima siblings, has seating for five people. Maximum luggage capacity is 15.6 cubic feet. The fuel tank holds 20 gallons of required premium unleaded gasoline.

Mileage: I averaged 26 miles per gallon in mostly highway driving.

Safety: Head and side air bags are optional. Ditto traction control. Stability control was not available at this writing.

Price: The base price on the 2005 Altima SE-R is $29,200. The dealer's invoice price on the base model is $27,005. Price as tested is $30,560, including $800 for the optional head and side air bags and a destination charge of $560. Buy the bags. The dealer's invoice price with bags and destination charge is $28,259. Prices are subject to change. Quotes here come from Nissan, Edmunds.com and Cars.com, the last of which is an affiliate of The Washington Post.

Purse-strings note: The Altima 3.5 SE is a better deal. Compare with the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Subaru Legacy and Volvo S40.

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That, unfortunately, is why much of what Nissan Motor Co. has done to its 2005 mid-size Nissan Altima SE-R sedan is lost on me.

I like the upgraded 3.5-liter, 260-horsepower V-6 engine; and I'm quite pleased with what has been done to improve the car's already good handling. It's the exterior styling that bothers me.

"SE-R" has long been Nissan's designation for its high-performance pocket-rocket version of the compact Nissan Sentra sedan. The SE-R package -- aggressive front fascia, larger wheels and exhaust pipes, flying rear spoiler -- is okay on that model. It's what Nissan had to do to turn a rather mundane economy car into something that would siphon more cash from the pockets of the young and the restless.

But that approach misses the mark in the Altima, which, until this iteration, has always been a mild-mannered, reliable, affordable family car.

I suppose that Nissan came up with the "aggressive" Altima notion to compete against Subaru's popular 2005 Legacy 2.5 GT sedan. That competitive urge is understandable. But Subaru has a rough-and-tumble, go-anywhere, do-anything, sporty all-wheel-drive image. Nissan, in its family-car lines, the Altima and the Maxima, does not.

Slipping behind the steering wheel of the Altima thus evokes a feeling of phoniness, of being in a car that is trying too hard to be what it isn't. There is a certain disaffection here, which interferes with the psychology of the drive.

Luckily, there are other versions of the 2005 front-wheel-drive Altima that hew more closely to the car's original mission -- to transport families and their things in a safe, relatively fuel-efficient, high-value sedan. They include the base Altima 2.5, the 2.5 S, the 2.5 S with SL Package, the 3.5 SE (my favorite, and the one I recommend) and the luxury 3.5 SL.

All of the new Altima models have upgraded interiors, both in terms of materials and overall ergonomics, for 2005. In that regard, Nissan has heard and favorably responded to the pleas of customers demanding that the company get rid of the cheap-feel stuff that characterized previous Altima cabins.

In 1998 and again in 2002, Nissan made great strides in improving the safety of its Altima line. That progress continues in 2005, primarily through optional offerings -- head and side air bags and traction control. Unfortunately, stability control, which has been proved to help reduce the incidence of single-vehicle crashes, is not offered as standard or optional equipment on the new Altima.

That brings up a point: Automakers have in their minds "price points," essentially price-tag flash points they believe will attract or repel consumers shopping for specific models. Cars such as the Altima have always had favorable price points -- starting below $20,000 and not exceeding $30,000 in base prices.

To keep those price levels in the perceived favorable column, the companies often do some unfavorable things, such as sticking very useful safety equipment on the options list. In that manner, shopping for a safe car becomes something like shopping for medical care: If you can afford the best medical care, you get it. If you can't, you get what you get . . . and good luck.

That is a fundamentally silly approach to vehicle marketing, and it is manifest in the Nissan Altima SE-R. Pricey but no-real-value-added features such as the aggressive front fascia, the bigger wheels and tailpipes, the flying rear spoiler and a power moon roof are sold as standard equipment. But if you want something that could save your life, or reduce your chances of serious injury in a crash, you are asked to pay extra.

It doesn't make sense.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company