The Nissan Sentra SE-R and SE-R Spec V are the high-performance versions of Nissan's all-new-for-2007 Sentra compact sedan. With excellent new 4-door versions of the Honda Civic Si and Volkswagen GTI recently introduced and a sporty new Mitsubishi Lancer due as a 2008 model, the Nissan Sentra SE-R faces some of the fiercest competition the industry has seen in ages. In my opinion, the regular Sentra is the compact sedan to have -- but is the Sentra SE-R as desirable among compact hot-rods? Read on. Pricing and EPA fuel economy not yet annouced.
First Glance: If the Sentra is great, the SE-R has to be be better… doesn't it?
Considering how much I loved the new 2007 Nissan Sentra -- I awarded it a place on our Best New Cars of 2007 list -- I was really looking forward to trying out the hot-rod SE-R version. The SE-R was a hit when the original version came out in the early 90s, but subsequent versions simply lacked the right stuff. Nissan took a long, hard, honest look at the previous SE-R, identified its weaknesses and strengths, and came up with the best Sentra SE-R in years -- at least that's what Nissan's public-relations task force told us.
In order to prove it, Nissan gathered a bunch of us journalists together, filled our bellies with a delicious breakfast, then sent us on our way to Willow Springs International Raceway in Rosamond, California, to wring out the Sentra SE-R on the 2.5 mile road course known as the Fastest Road in the West.
Before I tell you how the track driving went, let me tell you a bit more about the Sentra SE-R itself. The SE-R is distinguished from ordinary Sentras by unique body trim and wheels (link goes to photo). The SE-R is available in two versions, Base and Spec V. Both get four-wheel disc brakes in place of the regular Sentra's front disc/rear drum setup; the Spec V gets larger front brakes and stiffer suspension settings than the base SE-R. A limited-slip differential, which allows the car to power out of the curves without spinning the inside front wheel, is optional on the Spec V.
In the Driver's Seat: Sporty interior and a novel powertrain
Inside, the SE-R has the same interior layout as the ordinary Sentra, done up in black with special sport seats, red stitching, and, on the Spec V, cool-looking red seat belts. The SE-R also gets an oil pressure gauge and a G-force gauge that registeres acceleration and deceleration (not real practical, but it's fun to slam on the brakes and bury the needle). The Sentra's back seat and trunk are among the roomiest in its class, but SE-R owners must give up some of that convenience: Because of the V-shaped metal brace behind the rear seat, which stiffens the SE-R's body, the back seat doesn't fold down.
Both SE-R base and Spec V get big 2.5 liter four-cylinder engines, but power output differs: 177 horsepower and 172 lb-ft of torque for the base model and 200 hp/180 lb-ft for the Spec V. What's most interesting is the choice of transmissions. The Spec V comes exclusively with a six-speed manual -- no surprise there -- but the base model comes only with a continuously variable automatic transmission, or CVT. I've always liked CVTs better than conventional automatics because they offer more power and better mileage. The Sentra SE-R is, if memory serves me correctly, the first dedicated performance model to come exclusively with a CVT. Nissan says the CVT makes the SE-R more practical for the scores of buyers who have traffic-clogged commutes or spouses/partners who can't drive a manual. Truth be told, the CVT is a great performance transmission -- more on why in a moment.
On the Road: Thumbs up for CVT, thumbs down for the suspension
The shape of the power curve is less important in the base SE-R thanks to the CVT, which allows the engine to spin at any RPM regardless of car speed. The SE-R's CVT has a "manual" mode that raises or lowers engine speed as you shift through the virtual gears. Its near-instant "shifts" address the concern many have raised about CVTs not responding as fast as other clutchless transmission such as VW/Audi's DSG. Frankly, I think it's a moot point; I found the best way to go fast in the SE-R was to shift the transmission into Low, which keeps the RPMs between 5,000 and redline regardless of car speed. On Willow Springs' all-too-brief straightaways I was able to get the SE-R going nearly as fast as the Spec V, because I didn't have to worry about shifting gears to manage the power.
On the curvy sections of the track, though, the base SE-R belies its economy-car roots. The soft suspension doesn't control body motions well, though it's possible to coax some oversteer out of it. Not so the Spec V, which feels more sure-footed but is tuned for pure understeer. It took an abrupt hand on the wheel and even a brief stab of brake to get the tail to come around (warning, don't try this at home). The Spec V doesn't feel as balanced as its rival, the Honda Civic Si, but the Nissan's ride on the open road is quieter and more comfortable.
Journey's End: Sporty, but not sporty enough
Of the two versions, the base Sentra SE-R is my favorite. Not only is the CVT convenient, but it's a great way for novice racers and autocrossers to concentrate on honing their cornering technique without worrying about managing engine power. The softer suspension makes things more interesting in the curves, but if I were to buy an SE-R I'd swap out the stock springs and shocks for something more aggressive. Doing so would make the SE-R match the technical prowess of the Civic Si, but not the pure fun factor of its high-revving engine.
For serious enthusiasts, I'd say skip the Sentra and go for the Honda Civic Si. Want maximum thrills with a more compliant ride and/or a self-shifting transmission? Then save your pennies for a Volkswagen GTI or Jetta GLI. The Sentra SE-R and SE-R Spec V get high marks for their good looks and fantastic engines -- but when it comes to handling, they just can't keep up. -- Aaron Gold