Long before Subaru introduced its WRX in the U.S. and Mitsubishi brought its Evo, Nissan sold the sporty SE-R version of its Sentra sedan. Besides giving the dowdy Sentra a few more horsepower and a new attitude, the SE-R, along with the Honda Civic Si, are often credited for sparking the tuner craze of the late '90s.
Even though the SE-R doesn't get as much attention as it once did, with all-wheel-drive subcompacts with 300 horsepower or more overshadowing it, the SE-R lives on as a practical—and very reasonably priced—little sport sedan, which TheCarConnection.com recently drove.
Today, the 2009 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V gets an exclusive version of Nissan's ubiquitous 2.5-liter in-line four that gains a dual-branch exhaust manifold, resin intake manifold, reshaped pistons pushing 10.5:1 compression, a revised cam profile, reinforced connecting rods, and a counterweight crankshaft. Redline has been bumped to 7,000 rpm, and it makes 200 horsepower at 6,600 rpm—compared to 177 hp in the standard Sentra SE-R.
In addition to the heavier-breathing engine, the 2009 Sentra Spec V gets a close-ratio six-speed manual (those who want an automatic/CVT must opt for the standard SE-R), plus stiffer suspension tuning, upgraded brakes, a trunk-mounted brace, and W-rated high-performance tires.
The 2009 Spec V gets the same rather tall body style that the Sentra has had since 2007, but various trim enhancements, fog lamps, and bigger wheels help the Spec V look less like a cheap car. Overall it doesn't have the serious-enthusiast gravitas of a Subaru WRX or the racy coolness of a Mazdaspeed3, from a design standpoint, but it's not controversial either.
Inside, the SE-R Spec V gets all sort of extras that dress up the interior, most noticeably red stitching for the steering wheel, a nice leather shift knob and upgraded shifter boot, and nicely bolstered cloth sport seats with red embroidering. The Spec V's seatbelts in front at red yet they're a dark gray in back. Overall, the interior package is good looking, and even though the materials aren't especially upscale, it's executed well and the Spec V feels very tightly put-together and free from rattles compared to the other vehicles in its class, all of which we've driven.
There are two additional gauges atop the center stack: an oil-pressure gauge and a g-meter. Oddly, the g-meter only registers for acceleration and braking, not lateral acceleration.
The Spec V's engine is sweet; it blips quickly enough for snappy downshifts, and. You can tell its displacement is a bit large as it quakes the 2009 Spec V a bit when you crank the key to start it, but it settles to a nice, smooth idle that's unlike the trembly idles common in other tweaked performance machines.
The clutch is easy to modulate for a high-performance car, but the shift linkage spoils an otherwise perfect powertrain package. Shift motion is very deliberate and anything but subtle; the shifter moves from gear to gear loudly, with a notchy yet imprecise feel.
The Spec V's engine has plentiful torque beginning at about 2,000 rpm, so as you reach 5,000 rpm you expect it to run out of steam—as so many of today's modern emissions-constrained four-cylinders do—but instead as it passes that mark it gathers more ferocity and the last stretch up to its 7,000-rpm redline is especially frenzied. It's not a shift in breathing like Honda's VTEC engines, but more as if the engine's saying, "faster, faster."