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