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.
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.
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).
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 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.
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.