Nissan's 2007 Sentra SE-R has a legacy to carry on. When the first-generation SE-R was released in 1991, it hit the brand-new sport-compact market with an irresistible combination of performance, style and price. Today, the 1991 SE-R is remembered as the car that Nissan got right in every way.
With the introduction of the third-generation Sentra SE-R, Nissan is hoping to get it right again with the high-performance Spec V. But following the same formula isn't going to be easy. That's mostly because the new Sentra shares a chassis platform with the upcoming Nissan Rogue crossover SUV, so it's even taller and wider than the Acura TSX and Mazda 6 midsize sedans.
It's hard to call the Sentra Spec V a sport compact ("sport midsize" just sounds wrong), yet it's clear that Nissan is hoping this car will compete with the Honda Civic Si, Mazdaspeed 3 and Subaru WRX.
The rest of the formula The Spec V is one of two Sentra SE-R models. It's a dedicated high-performance package, with more power, a six-speed manual transmission and a special chassis calibration. The conventional SE-R also has a uniquely tuned engine (although with 177 hp), but it's matched with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) and a chassis that's not meant for maximum attack.
Thanks to a base price (including destination fee) for the SE-R Spec V of only $20,515, Nissan has nailed the low-bucks budget of most of its SE-R buyers.
But when it comes to styling, the new Sentra doesn't live up to the SE-R formula. We'll admit that the original Sentra SE-R couldn't exactly be called striking, but it had excellent proportions that gave it a purposeful look. This 2007 Nissan Sentra looks confused. Its arched roof and short rear deck seem awkward at best, and even a lowered suspension and big wheels can't disguise the look of a utilitarian commuter car.
The heart of the matter With 200 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque, the Spec V's revised DOHC 2.5-liter inline-4 is now on par for the class. The long-stroke engine has enough torque to motivate the chassis in engaging ways, while now a screaming 7,000-rpm redline helps give it a new dimension of performance.
The QR25DE engine doesn't pull with the same fervor at 6,500 rpm that it does at 5,500, but it is still a huge improvement over the old lump that was done making power well before its fuel cutoff at 6,200 rpm. There's lots of power under the curve, so it's very drivable no matter how many revs you have on the tach.
Of the two Sentra SE-R models, only the Spec V gets a six-speed manual transmission with an optional helical limited-slip differential.
The Spec V also has a special suspension setup with harder bushings, more aggressive strut and damper tuning, a ride height that's 10 millimeters lower, and a larger 25-millimeter front stabilizer bar. There's a strut-tower brace up front, plus an interesting V-shape chassis brace between the rear dampers that means you have to sacrifice the base Sentra's fold-down rear seats.
There are summer-spec 225/45WR17 Continental SportContact2 tires at all four corners. The Spec V also gets big 12.6-inch front brake rotors, which are almost a full inch in diameter larger than those of the regular SE-R.
On the road Drive the Spec V at 7/10ths and you'll be impressed by its composure. Its steering and brakes keep up with the cornering demands and the chassis tuning feels appropriately sporty. Once you start turning the screws, however, it becomes evident that the Sentra chassis suffers from crossoveritis.
Like a crossover, the Sentra has a long 105.7-inch wheelbase, and it's tall at 59.1 inches. There's no shortage of cornering grip, but you will feel plenty of body roll because of the car's crossoverlike height. The Spec V also rides pretty busily on city streets (especially at the back of the car), although when you're driving fast on less-than-perfect back roads, you'll discover there's a good compromise of spring and damping rates.
Thanks to its limited-slip differential, the Spec V is especially adept at putting the power down through tight low-speed corners. Just be sure you've got a good grip on the wheel, because the combination of the engine's considerable torque at wide-open throttle and the helical-type limited-slip differential will lead the Spec V to carve a line that might require you to unwind the wheel at the exit of the corner.
We were able to find a good driving rhythm in the Spec V, and it probably was as quick as a Civic Si over most roads. The SE-R's steering feel and overall composure aren't as refined as those of the Honda, however, and you'll notice this as you approach the limits of the chassis. At least part of this equation is the Spec V's weight. At 3,080 pounds, this car is 135 pounds heavier than the Civic Si sedan and about 300 pounds heavier than the previous-generation SE-R Spec V.
We also couldn't get along with the awkward shift action of the Spec V's six-speed manual transmission. The shift lever is right where you want it, high up on a console next to your hand. But the cable-operated shift action is a bit balky and it takes a lot of effort to move the lever laterally across the shift gate to grab another gear. We also had one of the transmission's shift cables come loose from its mounting bracket. (A roadside repair saved the day.)
On the track Despite its composed personality, the Spec V has respectable performance on the test track. It hit 60 mph in 6.7 seconds and broke the quarter-mile traps in 15.1 seconds at 92.6 mph — a quicker performance than the Honda Civic Si sedan. The Honda hit 60 mph in 7.1 seconds and went through the quarter-mile in 15.3 seconds at 93.3 mph.
The Spec V split the slalom cones at 64.7 mph, which ties it with the Subaru WRX, although this is slower than many cars in the class, probably a function of the Sentra's size. At the same time, the Spec V's grip on the skid pad is very good at 0.86g.
These big brakes stopped the Spec V from 60 mph in 125 feet — the same as the Civic Si sedan.
Spartan but functional The SE-R interior has a few touches to remind you this isn't your mother's econobox. We like the comfortable cloth-upholstered seats, although the bolsters aren't supportive enough.
The good news is that the Spec V is genuinely capable of carrying four medium-size people in reasonable comfort. We loaded someone 6-foot-2 in the back, where he complained of limited headroom but found the legroom adequate. With 97.7 cubic feet of passenger volume, this is a spacious package.
The stereo controls are easy to figure out and the huge center-mounted volume knob offers satisfying punch when the car is optioned with the eight-speaker, 340-watt Rockford Fosgate audio system, which includes MP3 capability.
The rim of the leather-wrapped steering wheel nicely fills your hands, and it's trimmed with red stitching just like the seats. The front seatbelts are also red — not the kind of style choice we'd make.
Does it matter? With decent performance numbers, real-world usability and competitive pricing, the Spec V comes closer to the magic SE-R formula than we anticipated, given its size. The only real obstacle facing the Spec V is the fact that its arched roof line and tall profile scream "frumpy commuter car" much louder than its low-profile tires and semi-sporty exhaust note declare it an official sport compact.
Nissan tells us that about 10 percent of Sentra sales have traditionally been SE-R models, and the high-intensity Spec V has comprised the majority of that number. SE-R enthusiasts are clearly a dedicated crowd, and we'll see if they start hanging wings and spoilers on the Spec V or get used to crossing over to its newly adult personality.
Executive Editor Michael Jordan says: Like the Dodge Caliber, the Sentra lives on top of a platform that's really meant for a crossover sport-utility, so it's no wonder that its proportions look like they've been stretched out of shape as a result. Unfortunately, the SE-R Spec V's personality also feels as if it's been stretched out of shape.
All the performance numbers look pretty good, and Nissan has shown us plenty of compelling video of the SE-R Spec V being tested at the Nürburgring. We've driven the Spec V at a racetrack ourselves, and can report that it's terrifically stable in long, sweeping bends. But like the Renault Mégane from which it's derived, the Sentra always feels a little too big for what it's trying to be.
It weaves a bit like a French car as it goes down the road, as if the front tires are doing all the work and the rears are just along for the ride. Even the engine sounds like it's unhappy, though it's powerful.
This is what happens when you stretch a kid's personality around a grown-up car. The whole package just doesn't have the right kind of snap.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.