Nissan's Sentra SE-R is back...with a vengeance.
Introduced in 1991, the SE-R was a high-performance version of the Sentra two-door. A rather dowdy car to look at, the SE-R was much more exciting when in motion. One print ad compared it to the old BMW 2002. The gist of the ad was that, like that old entry-level BMW coupe of the early 1970s, the Sentra SE-R was something of a wolf in sheep's clothing a boxy, practical, affordable four-passenger car that just happened to be able to cover ground in a hurry. And the SE-R was a much better performer than the old 2002 in terms of acceleration, braking and passenger comfort.
The 1991 SE-R had a 140-horsepower 2.0-liter dual-overhead-cam inline four, four-wheel disc brakes and 14-inch alloy wheels wearing 185/60R14 tires. Back then, that was impressive hardware for an econobox, allowing it to sprint from 0 to 60 mph in under 8 seconds and give some sports cars a run for their money on a twisty road.
Although Nissan claims the Sentra SE-R was last produced in 1994, car buffs will recognize that it lived on, in a way, as the 200SX SE-R. When the Sentra was redesigned in 1995, the two-door version was essentially rebadged as the sportier 200SX, which shared the Sentra's underpinnings and was available (as an SE-R, as well) until 1998.
When the fifth-generation Sentra arrived in 2000, only four-door models were available. The sportiest trim level, the SE, came with the 140-hp 2.0-liter, but it still lacked the hard-core personality of the SE-R.
For 2002, the SE has been shelved and two SE-Rs will be available: the standard SE-R and the full-bore SE-R Spec V. Both SE-Rs announce their arrival with an aggressive front fascia featuring a mesh grille and the obligatory foglights. Big wheels come on both cars: SE-Rs wear 16-inch alloys with 195/55R16 tires, while the Spec V has 17s shod with chunky 215/45R17 rubber. Out back, both cars have a rear spoiler and chrome exhaust tips.
Beating under the hood is a new 2.5-liter DOHC inline four (shared with the '02 Altima) that boasts leading-edge technology such as electronic throttle control (also called "drive by wire") and continuously variable valve timing. The big four pumps out 165 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque in the base SE-R. The Spec V cranks out a bit more: 175 ponies and 180 lb-ft of twist, thanks to a tuned exhaust system. A chief advantage of the relatively large displacement engine (most cars in this class have 1.7- to 2.0-liter engines) is its healthy torque output, which means you don't have to rev the whee out of the engine to get the power.
To reinforce its serious sporting demeanor, the Spec V comes with a six-speed manual gearbox, as well as a limited-slip differential to optimize acceleration and handling performance. The base SE-R comes with a five-speed manual; a four-speed automatic is optional.
Both SE-Rs have four-wheel disc brakes standard, with ABS as an option. A sport suspension with front and rear stabilizer bars is fitted to both cars, as is a front strut tower brace. The Spec V has firmer springs and shocks, as well as the larger wheel/tire combo mentioned earlier.
Several interior elements separate the SE-Rs from run-of-the-mill Sentra sedans, such as titanium-colored gauges, different seat trim and leather wrapping for the steering wheel and gear shift knob. The Spec V goes even further, with sport seats tailored in a two-tone black and red mesh cloth and red accent stitching for the steering wheel rim. Optional is a 300-watt Rockford Fosgate audio system that gets the message through, loud and clear. Side airbags are also optional on both models.
Our sentiments toward the cabin were mixed; we appreciated the seat's comfort and support as well as the simple and familiar control layouts. But we didn't care for the orange over titanium gauge markings, as there isn't enough contrast for them to be read easily. And the cupholder location is not ideal for those with big hands, as our editor found out when he crunched his knuckles into his water bottle during a couple of aggressive gearchanges.
Seat time was limited to the Spec V (yeah, we know your heart bleeds), so we can only comment on that model. The car's peppy nature is noticeable straightaway. And from around 2,000 rpm on up, there is plenty of grin-inducing pull. Nissan claims the Spec V will rocket from rest to 60 mph in less than 7 seconds, which would put it fender-to-fender with a number of pricey sport sedans.
In general, gearshift action was crisp, except it was too easy to miss the upshift to the fifth cog. There should have been more resistance laterally on the fourth to fifth gearchange. As this was a pre-production car, we're hopeful that this will be ironed out before the car goes on sale. Beyond that, changing gears was a snap, and the clutch takeup was smooth and linear.
Of course, the Spec V is more than a straight-line car, and when the road starts to dance, this pocket rocket doesn't miss a step. Dynamically, the Spec V was a standout, with responsive and well-weighted steering, flat and neutral cornering and strong, even braking. The ride is definitely on the firm side, but nothing that will rattle your fillings. Keeping in mind that this was the stiffer of the two SE-Rs, that is by no means faint praise.
All too soon, our ride and drive was over. But in spite of the brief amount of quality time we had with Nissan's junior sport sedan, we came away duly impressed. As of press time, we don't see anything that would compete directly with the SE-R Spec V in terms of all-around performance and practicality. Upcoming Ford Focus SVT? That's going to be a two-door hatchback. And the same goes for the Civic Si. Mazda Protege MP3? Not nearly the same power. Subaru Impreza WRX? Yep, it's a sedan, and it has all-wheel-drive and 227 horses. But it's out of reach for enthusiasts who want to spend under $20,000 for a fun four-door.
Although firm pricing was not available at press time, a range of $17,000 to $19,000 would be a reasonable educated guess for the SE-R siblings. Nissan states that the car will be ready to go on sale around mid-October. With such a well-rounded little gem, we feel that a lot of budget-minded enthusiasts will be more than ready for the new SE-R.