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Nissan Sentra SE-R'ocket' High-winder sometimes leaves driver wanting more torque or another gear

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

CHANDLER, Ariz. – It's taken 10 years, but Nissan's pocket-rocket Sentra SE-R is finally coming to Canada. And it's been worth the wait.

Introduced in the U.S. in 1991 and sold there through 1994, the original SE-R was a high-performance coupe variant of the work-a-day Nissan Sentra.

Unfortunately, no Sentra coupes, SE-R included, made it to Canada during that period because they did not satisfy our unique seat-belt standards.

The SE-R nameplate, absent since then, is returning for model year 2002 as a highly capable but still affordable sports-sedan, and this time it will be sold on both sides of the border.

In concept, the original SE-R was the spiritual heir to the late-60s' Datsun 510 – the BMW 2002-like economy car that pioneered Datsun's (to become Nissan's) reputation for building sporty, well-engineered cars even before the 240-Z.

Like the 510, the SE-R was a "sleeper" – a modest-looking commuter car with performance and handling that contrasted with its appearance.

The 140-hp, DOHC 2.0 L four-cylinder engine that powered the first SE-R, and the Infiniti G-20, found its way into Sentra SEs sold in Canada, and it is still available in those models, now rated at 145 hp.

Impressive as its performance is, it is a high-winder that sometimes leaves a driver wanting for either more torque or another gear.

Not with the new SE-R. It is powered by an all-new, 180-hp 2.5 L DOHC four-cylinder, with 180 lb-ft of torque – 44 lb-ft more than the 2.0 L. And, it is available with a six-speed manual transmission! The engine speeds at which those ratings are achieved have not yet been confirmed – tentatively in the 6,000-6,400 rpm range for peak power, and 4,400 for peak torque.

Frankly, those numbers don't matter. What does matter is how the car feels, and it feels both strong and tractable.

Nissan let a few of us drive the new SE-R back-to-back with a current Sentra SE, and some other new products, on a combination of ride-and-handling development course and high-speed banked oval at its Arizona Test Center, about an hour's drive into the desert south-west of Phoenix.

It's been a long time since I've had that much fun in a sedan that is likely to hit the market for around $25,000.

The big four-cylinder positively squirts the SE-R off mid-third-gear corners, and it cruises comfortably, turning just 4,000 rpm in sixth at the arbitrary 160 km/h speed limit Nissan set for us on the big track. (Okay, I squeezed that limit a little, but the SE-R remained thoroughly civilized, with only moderate engine noise.) First and second gears in the six-speed are geared plenty short. They get you moving quickly – just over seven seconds from 0-to-100 km/h by Nissan's figures – but it's easy to catch the rev-limiter if you aren't paying close attention.

Third is a do-it-all gear. With all that torque, you can lug the SE-R around in third at city driving speeds, then nail the throttle and extend it to the limit without any hesitation or jerkiness from the engine. It's perfect for two-lane passing manoeuvers.

With the six-speed comes a torque-sensing, helical limited-slip differential that acts to reduce understeer in the front-driver when pushed hard on tight corners. It really works, giving the SE-R a sense of balance that is unusual in front-wheel-drive cars.

The effect is perhaps not as dramatic as with Honda's trick Active Torque Transfer System, used in the Prelude Type SH, but neither is the system as complex nor as costly.

Not all SE-Rs will get the 180-hp engine and six-speed transmission, as they will be restricted to an up-level Spec V variant that Nissan says is "almost track ready." That's an exaggeration, but not by a lot. It probably wouldn't take much more than tires to make a Type V a respectable Solo 1 or 2 car.

Original equipment wheels and tires are 17-in aluminum alloys and P215/45ZR17s respectively. The base SE-R gets 16-in alloy wheels with P195/55R16 tires.

The base car also makes do with 10 fewer horsepower and a 5 lb-ft lower torque rating – not a huge sacrifice. It is available with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission and a viscous limited-slip differential.

All SE-Rs are fitted with a sport-tuned version of the Sentra's McPherson-strut front, multi-link-beam rear suspension, with bigger anti-roll bars front and rear and a front strut-tower brace to improve rigidity.

Type V upgrades include even-stiffer springs and different damper settings, as well as the aforementioned 17-in wheels and tires.

Four-wheel-disc brakes – 279 mm in diameter up front – are standard and four-channel ABS will be available. A decision on whether standard or optional is yet to be made. As with the lesser Sentra SE, brake feel is about as good as it gets these days, and braking performance is not only very good but easy to modulate.

As with the lesser Sentra SE, brake feel is about as good as it gets these days, and braking performance is not only very good but easy to modulate.

The SE-R's power-assisted rack and pinion steering feels neither over- nor under-boosted in most situations, turns-in progressively, and tracks straight-ahead without undue wandering. Nothing there to complain about.

As might be expected, the Type V corners with little roll and provides ample grip, but it doesn't impose the often-corresponding penalty of a spine-compressing ride.

To be sure, it's no Jaguar Vanden Plas, but neither is it so harsh as to disqualify the SE-R as an everyday family car, which is usually the case with aftermarket-modified vehicles of similar capability.

There is still plenty of opportunity for aftermarket individualization on the SE-R, particularly the base model, but it has shed the sleeper look.

Deriving some styling cues from the Japanese-market Skyline super-coupe, it incorporates an aggressive front fascia with a mesh-pattern grille and fog lamps, body-coloured side-sill extensions, a rear-deck spoiler, and big, chrome-plated exhaust tips.

Inside, the SE-R benefits from upgraded trim, including leather-wrapped steering-wheel and shift-knob, titanium-faced guages with orange illumination, and SE-R-specific seat design.

The Type V gets Skyline- style, charcoal-and-red sports seats and both versions offer front-side airbags as an option. Also optional is a 9-speaker, 280-watt Rockford Fosgate audio system.

I never turned on the audio system during my brief test drive.

Who needs external stimulation when a car is as entertaining as this one? The Sentra SE-R, available this fall, fills a void in the current sports-sedan landscape – swinging the pendulum further in the sporting direction than Chrysler's Neon, Ford's Focus, or Subaru's Impreza sport variants currently do.

It is a capable all-round performer that should help Nissan resurrect its reputation as a purveyor of exciting, fun-to-drive cars. If you can't have fun in this one, you just don't understand what driving fun is.

Freelance journalist Gerry Malloy prepared this report based on sessions arranged and paid for by the automaker. E-mail: mgmalloy @ aol.com

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