Monterey, California - Want to build a sport-compact hot rod? Just add horsepower and a big wing, then put a lot of wattage in the sound system. It's such a slam-dunk that even the dowdy Nissan Sentra has been transformed into an enthusiast's machine. Nissan is calling its new Sentra model the SE-R, after the two-door Sentra SE-R sedan that achieved cult status from 1991 to 1994. There will be two versions of the new four-door SE-R: the cost-effective SE-R and the autocross-ready SE-R Spec V.
The SE-R story begins with an engine. The new 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine has plenty of displacement, adds a very efficient sixteen-valve cylinder head, and then introduces continuously variable valve timing (a first in this class and a move beyond Honda's step-type system). The result is lots of torque under the power curve, so there's none of the wispy, breathless performance that curses small-displacement engines when they're stretched to their limits. The numbers are 175 hp at 6000 rpm and 180 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm (165 hp and 175 lb-ft for the standard SE-R). Even better, there's a balance shaft so the newfound power won't rattle your eyeballs.
This is just the right kind of thrust for the road. You're always in the fat part of the power band, so you can lay into the throttle without much need for the Spec V's new six-speed transmission (sixth gear is a little hard to find anyway).
There's plenty of car to go with the horsepower, too. The SE-R's upgraded suspension calibration is stiffer yet for the Spec V, and the package includes 215/45ZR-17 Continental ContiSport Contact tires. The 2743-pound SE-R Spec V drives like a big car, drifting steadily through the corners more like a little Maxima than a sport-compact coupe.
Yet there's a terrific amount of coupelike grit to this small sedan. When you drive it on the racetrack or on an autocross course, as we did, it won't wimp out. The Spec V's standard Torsen-type limited-slip differential makes the front end feel as if it's really digging for traction, no matter how much throttle pedal you throw at it. Whip the steering wheel back and forth, and the power assist keeps up with your enthusiasm (a rare thing in this class). The brakes are effective, and the optional ABS doesn't intervene too soon.
But the biggest surprise is the way the SE-R Spec V looks. That is, it looks good. A rear wing, sill extensions, and a Skyline-like front fascia make you forget how the standard Sentra resembles a Chevy Lumina. The interior is handsomely trimmed as well. The supportive seats are the best in this class. The optional nine-speaker, 300-watt Rockford Fosgate audio system (complete with eight-inch subwoofer) includes a six-disc CD changer. The only false note lies in the red-on-black instruments, which are nearly illegible in bright sunlight.
All this for $18,000? More cars should be built to this formula.