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First Drive: 2007 Nissan Sentra SE-R
We drive Nissan's latest sport compact.
by : joanher lara.
February 22, 2007 - Though the last-gen Nissan Sentra SE-R had damn near the entire sport compact market to itself, it didn't exactly light the scene on fire. A lot of kids still prefer their 10-year-old Civics and 15-year-old Nissan 240s to the SE-R, and to be honest, we still have yet to see a tricked-out SE-R at a show like Hot Import Nights. But enough people must have purchased the hopped-up version of Nissan's fifth-gen compact sedan, as Nissan has given its latest sixth-gen Sentra the SE-R treatment. Can the new SE-R cut it in a market that now has vehicles like a good Civic Si, MazdaSpeed3 and a revamped GTI?
We think that the latest Sentra SE-R will have a hard time shaking the "chick car" stigma that the base Sentra already has, but Nissan believes that this car can make a splash in the testosterone-filled highly-competitive sport compact scene. Nissan believes in this car so much, it invited us (and a bunch of other tuner-book guys) to thoroughly thrash the car on the "big track" at Willow Springs International Raceway. But before we get to how the vehicle drives, let us first talk about what makes the SE-R different from the run-of-the-mill Sentra.
Nissan is once again offering two versions of its Sentra SE-R: the regular SE-R and the Spec-V. While the engines, transmissions and other key mechanical bits differ between the two, Nissan is working hard to make sure that the difference between the SE-R and the Spec-V is minimal. All Sentra SE-Rs will now look the same on the outside, meaning that they all get the same aggressive aero treatment, darkened headlight housings, 17-inch wheels and more. These bits and pieces do a good job of "toughening up" the Sentra's appearance, but the SE-R still looks a bit more "girly" than a Civic Si sedan.
The SE-R's cabin is also pretty well-appointed. The standard Sentra's steering wheel wasn't bad, but the SE-R's fatter, leather-wrapped wheel is great. It's just the right size and feels great in the hand. Sport bucket seats - complete with the requisite red stitching - replace the flat chairs found in the normal car. These seats certainly look sporty, but they really don't offer a whole lot in the way of side support. We wonder why Nissan didn't just steal some seats from the 350Z parts bin and bolt those into the SE-R.
Our first jaunt in the Sentra SE-R was spent in the normal car. The standard Sentra SE-R comes powered by a 177-horsepower 2.5 liter inline-four (engine code QR25DE). Yeah, the standard SE-R can't quite match the power of cars like the Civic Si, MazdaSpeed3 and GTI, but at least the Nissan can run happily on 87-octane gas. Transmission choices for the SE-R include a six-speed manual and a "six-speed" CVT with paddle shifters. We started off in the CVT with paddle shifters.
We first took our CVT-equipped car through a twisty section of the Angeles Crest highway. Not surprisingly, the CVT still had a little bit of that "rubber band" feel when set to "D". Bumping the stick over to sport mode and taking advantage of the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters changed the car's behavior completely. On uphill sections where the CVT was struggling to find a "gear", we would just "downshift" once or twice and instantly feel the kick of power finally getting to the ground. "Gearshifts" were quick, smooth and seemed well-matched to the car's natural power band. After a mile or two through the twisties, we stopped using "D" mode entirely and only used the "manual" mode. It seriously completely changes the way the SE-R drives.
The SE-R's handling is also pretty good for a front-driver. There was no noticeable torque steer to speak of, and the car went exactly where we pointed it with little fuss. The stock all-season tires are pretty good and offer a decent amount of grip, and even though we really pushed the car through the corners, the tires never screamed in protest. Though this car is able to hold and keep a driver's desired driving line, it still feels a bit "floaty", which we imagine is due to the limitations of the rear torsion beam suspension.
So while the CVT-equipped SE-R is fun on the twisties, it isn't as much fun on the track. We admit to not being masters of Willow Springs' big course, but it was hard to really feel like we could push this thing. There was just some kind of disconnect between the road, car and driver. The SE-R handled the elevation changes and corners well enough, but it didn't feel razor sharp. We also felt like we needed more power. Not even the paddle shifters could really help us here.
Luckily for us, the SE-R Spec-V alleviates all of the problems we had with the CVT-equipped car... at least on the track. The Spec-V was tuned on the Nurburgring; it has to be good on a racetrack. Though still a bit soft around the edges (at least when compared to vehicles like the Civic Si and MazdaSpeed3), the Spec-V is the more "hard core" of the two, and boasts a 200 horsepower version of the QR25DE. Spec-V buyers can also have any type of transmission they want as long as it is a proper six-speed manual. Other modifications include a helical LSD, V-shaped bracing in the trunk, larger front brakes (12.6 inches on the Spec-V vs. 11.7 on the SE-R), revised suspension tuning and high-performance tires.
As soon as we accelerated on to the track, we could tell that the Spec-V's performance potential shames that of the standard SE-R. We don't know if it was due to our having a better understanding of the track or if it was just the Spec-V's magic, but we definitely felt a lot faster in the Spec-V. This car accelerates faster, turns better, has more grip and overall is just easier to drive fast than the standard SE-R. The Spec-V is to the SE-R what the SE-R is to the standard Sentra. The difference really is that big.
Keep in mind that we only got a handful of hot laps in the Sentra SE-R/Spec-V, so these impressions are admittedly pretty off-the-cuff and our "feel" for the car is not as deep as we'd like. Still, it only took two laps at Willow to know that Spec-V is the (much) better performer of the two. We look forward to getting our hands on a Sentra SE-R so that we can actually take the time to get to know the car. We can say that the Sentra SE-R is priced pretty competitively; pricing for the Spec-V starts at around $20K, while the standard SE-R will be a bit less. Look for these cars to hit Nissan showrooms in March.