SANTA MONICA, CA – After much industry speculation, Nissan North America Inc. unveils its new Altima coupe to the media here.

The Altima coupe, which makes its public debut at the LA show this week and goes on sale in the U.S. next summer as an ’08 model, marks the first time Nissan has offered a body-style variant of its best-selling Altima sedan.

After debating various derivatives, including a wagon, “we landed on this as a concept and gave it to the designers to see what they could come up with,” Brad Bradshaw, senior vice president-sales and marketing for NNA, says of the coupe’s development.

Shiro Nakamura, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. design director, says the Altima coupe is targeted primarily at car buyers in their mid-20s to early 30s.

The car boasts many changes from the sedan.

“We didn’t want to create just a derivative model of an Altima sedan,” Nakamura says, pointing out the coupe’s unique rear treatment. However, “every Nissan vehicle should have a common atmosphere.”

Bradshaw says eight of the coupe’s nine body panels are unique to the car, with the hood the only shared panel with the sedan.

Nissan also shortened the Altima sedan’s wheelbase by 4 ins. (10.2 cm) to provide better handling, says Sean Blankenship, head of Altima marketing.

As with the sedan, the coupe will be offered with a choice of Nissan’s 2.5L 4-cyl. or 3.5L VQ V-6 engine, mated to either a continuously variable transmission or 6-speed manual, Bradshaw says.

Blankenship says all sedan trims, with the exception of a hybrid-electric model, will be offered on the coupe. However, there are some packaging differences.

“Some of the things we learned from consumer (clinics) are large vanity mirrors are unique; kangaroo pouches are unique,” he says.

The coupe’s wheels are different from the sedan, as well. And no rear spoiler will be offered for the coupe.

Bradshaw expects the coupe to add 25,000-35,000 units annually to Altima sales in the U.S.

Sales of the new ’07 Altima sedan, which hit dealer showrooms earlier this month, will push Nissan’s U.S. November car sales 16% ahead of year-ago, Nissan says.

Through October, Altima sales stood at 189,422 units, down 14.6% from like-2005, Ward’s data shows.

The coupe will be built at Nissan’s Smyrna, TN, plant, Bradshaw says. Nissan has not announced pricing, but Blankenship says it will be similar to the sedan.

Nissan also shows its Sentra SE-R performance model at a media event here. The normally aspirated 2.5L 4-cyl. engine pumps out 200 hp and 180 lb.-ft. (244 Nm) of torque in the SE-R’s SPEC-V trim, Nissan says.

The SE-R adds 40 hp over the standard Sentra 4-cyl., for 177 hp. The model comes standard with a continuously variable transmission but adds paddle shifters. The SPEC-V trim comes standard with a close-ratio 6-speed manual.

The Sentra SE-R lineup goes on sale in March. The Sentra SE-R SPEC-V will be priced about $20,000, a Nissan spokeswoman says.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com