Warren Clarke, Automotive Content Editor
It's easy to get lost in the middle. Overlooked and struggling to get attention just like the usual middle child, the 2010 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V knows a thing or two about being cast adrift in nebulous middle ground. This high-performance variant of the 2010 Nissan Sentra is neither a leader nor a laggard, falling in midpack when measured against its segment rivals.
If you're shopping the Spec V, you place a premium on athletic handling. This front-wheel-drive Nissan is crisp and engaging compared to the other Sentra variants, but little has been done to develop it as more attention-getting cars have appeared in the marketplace, among them the Honda Civic Si, Mazdaspeed 3, Mitsubishi Lancer GTS and Subaru Impreza WRX.
That's not to say the Spec V doesn't have its strengths. Its 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine has impressive power, while the cabin measures out as among the most spacious in the segment.
In the end, the Spec V makes its bid for respectability based on price and its Nissan brand, as its performance simply doesn't prove compelling enough to compete against cars that have a higher profile in the marketplace. If you want a Nissan sport sedan, then this is the one to have; but if you don't have brand loyalty, the 2010 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V is likely to be overlooked.
At the heart of the 2010 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V is a 2.5-liter inline-4 engine good for an impressive 200 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque. In the horsepower race, this Nissan is ahead of choices like the Civic Si, Toyota Corolla XRS and Lancer GTS (197 hp, 158 hp and 168 hp, respectively), but behind the mega-brawny and turbocharged Mazdaspeed 3 and Subaru Impreza WRX (263 hp and 268 hp, respectively). Around town, the Nissan is agile and energetic. There's always enough urgent power underfoot to inspire confidence, whether you're merging into traffic from that freeway on-ramp or looking to make something happen in a corner.
Track testing yielded a time of 6.7 seconds on the sprint to 60 mph. This is quick — the Spec V's time is quicker than those logged by the Civic Si (7.0 seconds) and the Lancer GTS (7.7 seconds), although a few ticks short of the segment leaders, the turbocharged Mazdaspeed 3 (6.4 seconds) and Subaru Impreza WRX (6.1 seconds). The car's six-speed manual transmission has short throws, but the action is notchy and imprecise.
Under braking the Spec V feels stable and responsive, with a firm pedal feel. At the track, the Spec V stopped from 60 mph in 121 feet. This performance is better than the Corolla XRS (132 feet) and the Civic Si (123 feet), but less impressive than the Mazdaspeed 3 (113 feet), the Subaru WRX (113 feet) and the Lancer GTS (115 feet).
Despite its relatively tall body, the front-wheel-drive Spec V did well on the slalom course, delivering well-controlled handling. It weaved through the cones at a speed of 67.2 mph, making it faster than the Corolla (64.8 mph) but slower than the all-wheel-drive Subaru WRX (69.3 mph) and all-wheel-drive Mazdaspeed 3 (72.4 mph). In the real world, the Spec V delivers on its promises on winding roads, responding to steering inputs with real agility even as the suspension soaks up the broken pavement out in places where the driving gets fun.
With EPA ratings of 21 city/28 highway mpg and 24 mpg combined, the 2010 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V's fuel economy is about average for the segment: a little on the thirsty side, but better than the turbocharged Mazdaspeed 3 and Subaru Impreza WRX. We managed 19 mpg in mostly stop-and-go city driving. Premium fuel is required.
Ride quality is on the firm side, much as you'd expect from one of the sporting, high-performance cars in this niche segment. The front seats get high marks for comfort, though those with longer legs might find the seat cushions to be a bit short. Seat bolstering is also fairly aggressive; this is great for keeping you firmly in place when navigating sinuous turns, but not so great if you're a wide body. There is lots of space in the front of the cabin, as the Sentra's tall body makes the 2010 Nissan Sentra Spec V one of the roomiest choices in its segment as far as its front row is concerned.
Rear headroom and hiproom are decent, but rear legroom is a bit on the tight side (34.5 inches), although this is far from important among these driver-oriented high-performance cars. Long limbs will find the Toyota Corolla XRS (36.3 inches) and the Mazdaspeed 3 (36.2) to be more accommodating. Seats in back are flat and rather firm.
There isn't much road noise, but there's noticeable wind noise within the cabin. Overall, the Spec V's cabin is quieter than the cacophonous Civic Si, but noisier than that of the Corolla XRS.
The layout of the gauges is familiar and easy to understand. Climate settings are controlled by a three-knob setup that allows you to adjust mode, temperature and fan speed settings. We wouldn't have minded an extra knob with the audio controls. There is one for volume adjustment, but station tuning is managed via a pair of buttons — not the quickest and most efficient way to accomplish that task. Still, the audio system's control layout wins praise for its relatively large buttons with sizable letters. Our 2010 Nissan Sentra test car was equipped with an optional navigation system. At just 5 inches, the nav screen is pretty tiny.
The shift lever sits relatively high on the center console, where it's within easy reach. There's a smallish bin under the center armrest and cramped bins on the doors. Outward visibility is decent from most angles, while door openings are on the small size.
The Spec V's flat rear seats facilitate child-seat installation. There was enough room for a rear-facing child seat, even with the front seat adjusted for a driver over 6 feet tall. With 12 cubic feet, this Nissan's trunk offered an average amount of space for the segment; it easily swallowed golf clubs and a standard-size suitcase. (If you need a bigger trunk, check out the Mazdaspeed 3, which offers 17 cubic feet of cargo room.) Unlike other Sentra trims, the Spec V comes with a reinforcement brace behind the backseats. As a result, folding rear seats aren't available.
Design/Fit and Finish
The Spec V's sheet metal doesn't exactly scream "sporty." Its towering body calls to mind a midsize family sedan with style overtones of its distant Renault siblings, and its rounded lines are more cute than aggressive. This is really an ordinary passenger car dressed up with wings and snappy paint. It's not unattractive, but if you're looking for a car with a look that really expresses performance, you'll likely be happier with a choice like the Civic Si or Mazdaspeed 3.
It doesn't get much plainer than our test car's unadorned, mostly black cabin. Nissan maintains that black is synonymous with performance, yet virtually all of the other picks in this segment offer more visual excitement in this area. Fit and finish in our test car was spotty.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2010 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V is a car for fast driving, and its virtues as a passenger car are clearly secondary. Nevertheless, the Sentra's utility gives it a practicality that many of its competitors lack. At the same time, the Sentra SE-R Spec V's inability to find a loyal group of enthusiasts comes from this mixed message. Compared to its competition, it's relatively fast and affordable, but it doesn't have the big personality that makes the Mazdaspeed 3 and Subaru Impreza WRX the commanding models in this category of small sport sedans.
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