Road Test: 2008 Nissan Sentra SE-R

Nissan's newest version of its classic Sentra, which debuted in 1991, goes a long way to correcting the sins of the past

Having soldiered through 16 years of auto journalism and ready to pass into the second half of life, I'm about to drag you through a dreaded stage of car reviewing: the one where I pontificate about What's Wrong with Cars Today.

Bear with me—because when I started doing this in 1991, the Nissan Sentra SE-R was brand-spanking new, and in fact, it was spanking a lot of what else was on the road, despite the fact that it cost about $15,000 and came from a company that was otherwise innovating exceptional pieces of machinery like the Stanza Wagon.

That first SE-R was the deal, if you recall. A light, flickable piece, with an upright windshield right in your face, it felt like a BMW 2002 at a dollar-store price. It won so many ten-best trophies, they would have trouble fitting in the SE-R's petite trunk or its upright, cramped back seat. With 140 hp it could hit 60 mph in about 7.6 seconds and when compared with the contemporary 3-Series, it did not want much for handling. The flimsiest of interior trim and sheetmetal aside, everyone I knew wanted to own one.

Flash forward to right now, and a new SE-R has replaced the interim 2002 version that followed the jewel-like original after it retired in 1994. The gap in between was filled by the unloved 200SX, and it and the second SE-R were middling at best—not crisp and sweet like the original, but doughy and unremarkable.

While it's still only available as a four-door, the new SE-R goes a long way to correcting the sins of the past, particularly in 200-horsepower Spec V form. With 17-inch wheels, a six-speed manual and a smart style, the new SE-R is a clearer successor to the original version. But when it comes to what's wrong with cars today, the lack of a two-door body, and the heft and size of the new car show that modern cars aren't always the superior of their elders.

SE-R versus Spec V

The choice for enthusiasts on the Sentra order form is clear. The base SE-R is more a name-only version that makes 175 horsepower and must suffer the indignity of a continuously variable transmission, which sucks the life out of its powertrain with 28 Days Later ferocity.

A quick massage of the mechanicals turns the standard SE-R into the mightier Spec V, and it's well worth the extra bucks, even though the base price rises to about $22,500. The 2.0-liter in-line four gets 25 horsepower more in this application thanks to a bunch of upgrades like a higher compression ratio, a racier cam profile, and reinforced connecting rods, which also grant it a 6800-rpm redline. The power peak of 200 hp arrives at 6600 rpm, and this engine makes 180 lb-ft of torque at 5200 rpm if you use premium fuel. The engine note has a little rasp, a little roar, and plenty of kick.

A six-speed manual is the only transmission, and it's a good one, although the prototype we drove had a very low clutch take-off point. A limited-slip differential is an option on the Spec V.

The Spec V puts on tighter running shoes, too—its shocks, springs, and bushings are set for more sporting duty than the other SE-R, and its 17-inch tires are unidirectional, 45-series treads hiding 12.6-inch front rotors. There's also a V-brace behind the non-folding rear seats to reinforce its body structure for handling, while simultaneously cutting down on versatility a smidge.

You can be happy with the Spec V's ride and handling dynamics—as taut as you'd expect, with a touch more firmness than you might want on patchy city streets. It's the SE-R's steering that will cause the biggest concern, even for drivers seeking something more ordinary. Though it's only 35.4 feet the SE-Rs feel like they have a huge turning circle—as in, did I really park over the right-hand line? Electric power steering, not hydraulic, makes the steering feel itself maybe the least satisfying perceptual experience of this SE-R, where the ur-car had a sensual grip on the road far above its station in life.

High visibility

We like the SE-R's four-door shape, even if we're used to thinking of SE-Rs as two-doors. Particularly when slathered in the bumblebee color scheme of our test car, the Spec V's body kit and globally influenced shape makes up for the functionality baked into the off-the-shelf Sentra body. (SE-R drivers shouldn't have to worry about car seats, right?)

Inside, the Spec V cabin one-ups the SE-R with its own details. The stock black interior gets sport buckets, SE-R stitching, aluminum foot pedals, a leather steering wheel and shift knob, and on the Spec V, red seat belts and other badging. It also gets oil pressure and g-force gauges, along with the usual AM/FM/CD player with iPod jack, power windows/mirrors/locks and air conditioning. The big air vents, clear gauges, and center stack-mounted shifter are common to all Sentras, and well done.

Safety features on the Spec V include dual front, side, and curtain airbags and active head restraints. Anti-lock brakes are also among the standard gear, which gets piled on with abandon, thus abandoning all hope of keeping the Spec V's curb weight under 3000 pounds.

Yesterday and today

This is a story about what's wrong with cars today—but it's not strictly about the Spec V Sentra. The first SE-R hard-wired me as a car writer, and most everything else pales in comparison. Since it drifted off into euthanasia in 1994, few cars under $50,000 have felt as visceral, as deft and as purposefully tuned. It may have been tinny as a North Georgia doublewide but the 1991 Sentra SE-R turned every pilot into a hero.

Today you can still be a hero, but you'll have room for three or four passengers to appreciate your skills—and that's almost beside the point. The new SE-R Spec V drives well and renews the Nissan imprint on bargain performance. But it's also thicker, less responsive, less built to a task, and laden with extras—extra doors, extra airbags, lots of extras we didn't have to take in the past.

In a single overblown metaphor, progress is the Old Country Buffet where the flyweight SE-R has packed on the pounds and lost its fighting edge.

Is someone writing this down?

2008 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V

Base Price: $22,500Engine: 2.0-liter in-line four, 177 hp/172 lb-ft (Spec V: 200 hp/180 lb-ft)Drivetrain: Six-speed manual (Spec V) or CVT (SE-R), front-wheel driveLength x width x height: 180.1 x 70.5 x 59.1 in (59.5 in SE-R)Wheelbase: 105.7 inCurb weight: 3078 lb (Spec V)Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 24/31 mpg (SE-R: 27/33 mpg)Safety equipment: Dual front, side and curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes and tire pressure monitorsMajor standard equipment: Climate control; power windows/locks/mirrors; tilt steering wheel; cruise control; AM/FM/CD with auxiliary jackWarranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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