Much to our delight, carmakers have rediscovered that small cars sell—and bring younger buyers into the fold—if they’re fun to drive. In the Eighties, there were plenty of ‘pocket rockets’ such as the Toyota Corolla FX-16, the Volkswagen GTI, and the Dodge Omni GLH. These were great examples of how behind-the-wheel excitement was added to bland, bread-and-butter models.
While there were few options five years ago, there are now, once again, many choices in the small, pocket-rocket category. There’s the Mazda MP3, the Ford Focus SVT, the Mitsubishi Lancer OZ, the Subaru Impreza RS (the WRX is a league ahead), the Dodge Neon R/T, the VW GTI, and even the new Mini Cooper.
What makes it even better is that each of these machines has its own distinct character. From the outside, the Nissan SE-R Spec V is a bit of a plain-jane, but inside and behind the wheel we found it extremely competent and a riot to drive.
While the base Sentra is an ordinary, unobtrusive small car that tries to take after larger sedans in terms of styling, features, and ride comfort, the sporty SE-R model—and especially the edgy, track-tuned Spec V package—has several important differences that make it considerably more exciting.
Most notable is the new 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. Nissan says that many design elements have been borrowed from its renowned family of V-6 engines. It has a compact counterweight system to reduce the vibrations that normally result from large-displacement engines such as this, and chain-drive system replaces a conventional timing belt for reliability.