The Nissan Sentra SE-R, a boxy two-door sport compact, made Car and Driver magazine’s top-10 list in the 1991 to 1994 model years.
Then Nissan lost the plot.
Subsequent sport-ified Sentras never attracted the cult-like status of the first SE-R. And when the current version of the Sentra arrived for 2013, it was such a dullard that a legit sporty version seemed unimaginable. Nissan’s lofty goal for the car’s handling was “worry-free.”
Lately, though, Nissan has signed up the Sentra for a personal trainer.
For 2016, it added the SR Turbo version, with a 1.6-litre turbo mill generating 188 horsepower (the base 1.8 makes 130 hp), and muscled-up suspension, steering, brakes and bodywork. Transmission choices are six-speed manual or CVT automatic.
For 2017, a new NISMO version further buffs up the chassis and body, though the power ratings don’t change.
We like the way Nissan has packaged the SR Turbo.
It starts at just $21,598, so gearheads don’t have to pay for bells and whistles they may not want.
If they do want them, $24,998 includes the Premium package that adds, inter alia: leather, glass sunroof, Navi, power driver’s seat, blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert.
For $25,698, you lose some creature comforts but get body-hugging sport bucket seats to go with the toughened chassis and sticky rubber.
It turns out the Sentra SR Turbo is an oddly likeable blend of merits and misses that’s only a half-hearted sport-compact, yet makes up the difference with unexpected touches of premium-compact.
In straight-line speed, it sits somewhere between base-engined mainstream compacts and their 200-hp-plus hotter versions. But what the Nissan lacks in ten-tenths pace, it makes up in everyday driveability. The engine is smooth and muted, with eager throttle response and absolutely no perceptible turbo lag. Also completely absent, though, is any gearhead ear-candy from the tailpipes.
The ride is stiff yet never abusive; expressive cornering is met with tautly controlled body motions and solid grip. Move up to the NISMO and the road moves are the same, only moreso. It’s a solid effort, capable and safe. But even the NISMO, for all its grip, misses dynamic greatness. It lacks the vivid agility of a Civic Si or the pinpoint precision of a Focus.
When my first test vehicle arrived wearing an automatic, it seemed all wrong for a would-be sport-compact. Then I spent a week with it. Later, I drove a manual, and after a week with the stick’s notchy shift action I concluded that the seamless CVT automatic is actually a better partner for an engine that’s more notable for its refinement and tractability than aggressive acceleration.
The SR Turbo is unlikely to make Car and Driver 10-Best any time soon. If you’re looking for a hard-edged sport-compact, meh. But if you’re shopping for a deal on a roomy compact that’s a cut above in performance, refinement and features, it’s worth a closer look.
- Base price/as tested: $21,698; $24,998 (less $3,500 cash discount at time of writing).
- Engine: 1.6-litre Turbo L4
- Transmission/drive: Continuously-variable automatic/front-wheel
- Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.9 city, 7.3 highway
- Alternatives (160 hp and up): Ford Focus Titanium, Honda Civic EX-T, Hyundai Elantra Sport, Kia Forte SX, Mazda3 GT, Mitsubishi Lancer GTS
Any Sentra has visual presence, and it’s subtly enhanced on the SR Turbo by its skirts-’n-spoilers kit, with 17-inch wheels wrapped in 205/50 V-rated rubber.
The Sentra’s age is betrayed by the small touch-screen, just 5.8 inches. Secondary switchgear and instrumentation is fine (still plenty of knobs and buttons) though the lack of auto climate control is a little surprising. Six-way seat adjustment allowed our driver a decent combination of comfort and visibility, while arguably the cabin’s standout feature is the roominess and comfort of the back seat. Who needs a midsize car?
In a straight line the Sentra performs somewhere between base mainstream compacts and their 200-hp-plus hotter versions. But what the Nissan lacks in ten-tenths pace, it makes up in user-friendliness. The engine is refined, with peppy throttle response and no perceptible turbo lag (though equally absent is any gearhead ear-candy from the tailpipes). The ride is stiff yet never abusive, while expressive cornering reveals taut body motions and solid grip. What’s missing is the vivid agility of a Civic or pin-sharp precision of a Focus (though the NISMO gets close).
With a basic design that launched back in 2012, the Sentra is a little behind the times here. Still, the small touch-screen does house available navigation with voice recognition, mobile apps and SiriusXM traffic, as well as a back-up camera. Safety alert-and-assist features are limited to blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert.
Trunk volume of 427 L is among the segment’s largest. The pass-through is wide but shallow, with a sharp step up to the seats-folded backrests.
A well-priced sporty sedan for boy racers who’ve grown up.