Nissan’s Sentra SE-R is a bit of an anomaly as a bridge between the compact and sport compact segments. At 177 hp and 172 lb-ft of torque, it’s at least 23 hp shy of being considered a true sport compact. Rather than a Honda Civic Si, the SE-R compares more closely to cars like the Mazda 3 and Kia Forte with their optional engines.
But it’s not the relatively low power output that’s most out of place here; the continuously variable transmission is what gives the SE-R a strange character. Revs climb quite slowly at full throttle, and if you keep your foot in the hole long enough, you’ll experience the bizarre sensation of accelerating with the needle pegged at redline. There is a manual-shift mode that attempts to mimic a six-speed automatic transmission with steering-wheel-mounted paddles, but it’s rather unconvincing. It appears that there aren’t really six fixed ratios, but that an upshift will land in different rpm ranges based on throttle input. At times, for instance, moving from second to third at a decent speed moves the needle only 200 rpm. The ride isn’t punishing, but the tuning is rather rudimentary. Bumps are damped linearly with quite a bit of suspension travel, making the car feel rather unsophisticated.
Nissan does offer the more appealing Sentra SE-R Spec V with a six-speed transmission and 200 hp, but even that car falls short of the 230 to 260 hp that is now the norm for cars like the Mazdaspeed 3, Subaru Impreza WRX, Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, and Chevrolet Cobalt SS. Equipped with satellite radio, a small navigation system, and a back-up camera and priced at $22,600, our Sentra was an impressive value. Still, you can’t help but notice that the SE-R Spec V starts at just $500 more than a base SE-R.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
Eric described the Sentra SE-R pretty accurately, particularly his note that the CVT lends the car a very strange character. I must admit, though, that it was refreshing to drive such a peppy CVT-equipped car. But surely the SE-R would be much more enjoyable to drive with a manual transmission, whether with our test car’s 177 hp or the Spec V, stick-shift-only edition’s extra 23 horses. Unless your daily commute is darkened by constant gridlock, the Spec V’s extra $500 would be money very well spent.
I also wasn’t impressed with the SE-R’s ride, which was quite rough on some of Michigan’s worst frost-heaved roadways. The seventeen-inch SE-R wheels that contribute to the harsh ride are quite attractive, though. Otherwise, the SE-R doesn’t look different enough to cosmetically stand up to the more serious sport compact players on the market.
Inside the car, the SE-R-specific cloth seats are attractive and comfortable, particularly after a long day of walking around the Detroit auto show in old dress shoes. Rear-seat and trunk space are deceptively large, too, making the Sentra a good small-family hauler.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
Enthusiasts will undoubtedly prefer the more powerful SE-R Spec V (especially since it adds a proper manual transmission), but for those who want some sporty flair in a daily driver, this may be your Sentra. The monochromatic exterior is attractive, the 2.0-liter plenty peppy, and although odd, the CVT does allow those who haven’t mastered three pedals a crack behind the wheel. Better yet? Those in colder climates won’t immediately have to spring for a new set of tires (the Spec V comes standard with summer performance rubber).
As Eric noted, our test car came relatively well equipped for $22,000 — Nissan’s iPod controls worked well, and I was very impressed with the display and interface on the company’s new “budget” navigation system. An extra $3000 may buy a Volkswagen GTI — and an extra heaping of power and sophistication along with it — but those features will help push the price tag into the $30,000 realm. So long as you’re not looking for a compact sedan that’ll double as a track toy, the SE-R remains an interesting — and relatively affordable — option.
Evan McCausland, Web Producer
I agree with previous comments about the Sentra SE-R’s somewhat strange powertrain, what with its CVT. When I drive this car, I am reminded that it is no early-1990s Nissan Sentra SE-R, a car that helped define the pocket-rocket segment in America and that was an absolute standout in its class both for its performance and its value. In fact, that car was so good, it was an Automobile Magazine All-Star for several years in a row. The current SE-R? Not so much.
I will say, though, that the Sentra SE-R has a well-tuned chassis, with a good balance of handling and ride and steering that provides decent feel and feedback. And it is indeed a bargain. And I completely understand why Nissan chose to equip it with a CVT transmission rather than a manual: the fact is, the vast majority of Americans under the age of 30 do not know how to drive a manual.
Joe DeMatio, Executive Editor
I find it a bit disconcerting that Nissan, a brand that staked its revival on building powerful, passionate vehicles, offers a sport compact so far behind the rest of the pack. As Eric notes, the 177-hp SE-R more closely matches the output of the non-Speed Mazda 3 and Kia Forte. This would be OK if the SE-R traded on refinement and value. It doesn’t. True, there’s a high level of feature content, but I don’t see anything here that I couldn’t get on a similarly priced 3, Forte, or Corolla, all of which leave the aging Sentra behind in terms of refinement. The CVT doesn’t help here, as it highlights the big four-cylinder’s buzziness at high RPM.
At least the SE-R drives pretty well. Steering is suitably quick and responsive, and the suspension maintains its composure under hard cornering. But once again, this is nothing that similarly priced, more recently updated competitors don’t offer. I’m aware that Nissan now has a relatively fresh stable of small cars with the Cube and Versa, but the C-segment remains too important to ignore. I hope at some point soon we’ll see a class-leading Sentra and along with it, a truly tasty SE-R.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
CVT transmissions are just fine, but not in a vehicle with any kind of sporting pretensions, like the Sentra SE-R. It does nothing for enthusiasts in terms of driving involvement. Sure, the paddle shifters help, but not enough. The SE-R can be a fun car with a manual transmission, but the CVT just numbs the entire experience.
As others have mentioned, engine power is lacking, interior quality and amenities need upgrading, and the exterior style is getting stale compared with its sport-compact competitors. However, steering is pretty tight and turn-in is quick and precise.
Overall the Sentra SE-R falls short in the pocket rocket category, though surprisingly, the price doesn’t make up for that shortage. This particular test unit costs $22,600; that is $400 more than a base Honda Civic SI sedan and only $1000 less than a base Volkswagen GTI. It’s also on par with a fully loaded Scion TC, a much more entertaining, if slightly smaller, car.
Mike Ofiara, Road Test Coordinator
2010 Nissan Sentra SE-R
Base price (with destination): $20,300
Price as tested: $22,600
Side and side-curtain airbags
Auto-up/down driver’s window
Auxiliary audio input
Leather wrapped steering wheel
Sport bucket seats with SE-R embroidery
Aluminum sport pedals
Rear decklid spoiler
SE-R front and rear fascias
Sport headlights and taillights
Options on this vehicle:
SE-R upgrade package – $2050
– XM satellite radio
– Rearview camera
– 340-watt 8-speaker Rockford Fosgate sound system
– Nissan Intelligent Key keyless entry and ignition
Splash guards – $140
Floor mats – $110
Key options not on vehicle:
Auto-dimming rearview mirror – $125
Interior accent lighting – $300
24 / 30 / 26 mpg
Size: 2.5L DOHC I-4
Horsepower: 177 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 172 lb-ft @ 2800 rpm
Weight: 3078 lb
17-inch aluminum-alloy wheels
225/45 all-season tires