Remember the first-generation Sentra SE-R from 1991? The one we described as being "perfectly harmonious and elegantly balanced" and "a great little car"? Well, successive generations of the hot Sentra progressively lost their mojo, that agility and driver involvement that so marked the original. This latest SE-R is Nissan's attempt to recapture some of that old glory.
Let's start with the power. The standard Sentra SE-R is offered with a 177-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder, or you can go for the optional Spec V package, which boosts the 2.5's output to 200 hp. Interestingly, the SE-R is offered only with a CVT, while the more potent Spec V comes exclusively with a six-speed manual.
The 2.5 is a really sweet engine, particularly in higher-output form (not always a given). Smooth and rev-happy--the 200-hp unit's redline is 7000 rpm--both versions provide performance that backs up the sporting pretensions of this Nissan. It's a shame, then, that you can't get a manual box in the non-Spec V model, as the CVT takes the edge off an otherwise willing powerplant.
On paper, things look promising for the chassis, too. Developed at the Nrburgring, the SE-R uses Nissan's global C-platform, which it shares with the fine-handling Renault Mgane. Extra bracing in the cowl and the trunk bulkhead adds stiffness to help the suspension do its work.
In fact, Nissan had enough confidence in the SE-R to let us loose at Willow Springs International Raceway. On the drive there from Los Angeles, we discovered that both cars ride surprisingly well, with the regular SE-R doing a particularly good job of absorbing bumps and potholes. Sadly, though, our experience on the track didn't fulfill the promise, with the dynamic experience dominated by understeer and mediocre body control. Steering feedback wasn't great, either. On the plus side, the SE-R's default handling is "safe." No amount of deliberate midcorner throttle lifts could get the tail to come around (we suspect many people will consider that a downside).
Prices haven't been announced, but expect the Spec V to come in at just under $20,000, which will make it a good value compared with the Volkswagen GTI and the Honda Civic Si. But if it's the driving that matters, either one of those contenders would probably be the better bet.