Driven: 2009 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V

July 9, 2009
2009 Nissan SE-R Spec V

2009 Nissan SE-R Spec V

2009 Nissan SE-R Spec V

2009 Nissan SE-R Spec V

2009 Nissan SE-R Spec V

2009 Nissan SE-R Spec V

2009 Nissan SE-R Spec V

2009 Nissan SE-R Spec V

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 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."

At a time when there are all-wheel-drive choices like the WRX or Ralliart, the 2009 Nissan Spec V does just fine with front-wheel drive. Our test car had the optional helical front limited-slip differential, which basically makes the Spec V feel secure and planted until you get to the tightest switchback with a broken surface; there, where the inside wheel would have come loose without the diff, when we got back on the power we had a slight issue with the steering wheel pulling a little bit off course—but there's nowhere close to the torque steer we've experienced on some V-6 vehicles.

There's a feeling that prevails in the driving experience, if you're driving enthusiastically: There's more fore-and-aft motion than expected—especially a feeling of front-end lift on hard acceleration—which translate to a lot of roll in back when going downhill on switchbacks. It's a car that will require you to be especially smooth on the throttle and brakes when driving it near the limit.

Nissan made some good choices for the 2009 Sentra SE-R Spec V to accommodate how people will drive it most of the time—in daily driving, and on the commute. The suspension doesn't have the sort of impact harshness nearly every entry in this class but the WRX. And there's none of the engine-noise boom that we've noticed in both other tuner cars and in Nissan's Versa and Cube, though there is a noticeably wind-noise swoosh around the front cowl area at 70 mph and up.

Outside of the wind noise and a creaky clutch pedal, this reviewer's only other complaint pertains to the seats, which though they look like sport seats have soft foam, aren't very supportive, and lack the hip-and-thigh support that we'd expect.

There is one sore spot in the feature list: no electronic stability control. It's not even offered, and seems like a glaring omission in a performance car that's going to have its limits tested. Parents beware.

The 2009 Spec V is otherwise well equipped, with air conditioning, power accessories, and a six-speaker sound system all standard. Ours had the optional moonroof, helical limited-slip front diff, and the awesome-sounding 340-watt Rockford Fosgate sound-system upgrade.

The test car slotted right between the EPA ratings of 21 mpg city, 29 highway, with 25 mpg altogether in about 100 miles of around-town driving, some of it quite aggressive. Premium fuel is recommended though.

The 2009 Nissan Spec V is a strong value, costing several thousand dollars less than the least expensive rally machines like the Ralliart and WRX, but what's especially surprising that it costs less than the Dodge Caliber SRT4 or Chevrolet Cobalt SS—both turbocharged but less refined.

If the newest Mazdaspeed3 is anything like the last one, it still trumps the Spec V, but versus just about any other hotted-up small car. The last-gen '09 Speed3 had somewhat peaky powertrain response, but its suspension tuning was excellent—much like the Spec V, but with a more buttoned-down feel to the motions.

Stay tuned for our driving impressions of the Mazdaspeed3 as we get an advance drive next month.

High Gear Media drove a manufacturer-provided vehicle to produce this hands-on road test.

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