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.
2002 Nissan Sentra
In the SE-R, the 2.5-liter makes a healthy 165 horsepower, but the engine makes an additional ten horsepower and five foot-pounds of torque in the Spec V, thanks to a specially designed exhaust system.
The SE-R models also get strut braces, beefier anti-roll bars and other suspension revisions, while the Spec V establishes its performance merits with tuned shocks and tighter springs.
Kudos to the Nissan chassis engineers. The base Sentra rides well and the suspension feels even a bit on the firm side, but then on curvy, unevenly surfaces roads it reveals its underlying softness with some bouncing and wallowing. The Spec V gets rid of that, with no serious cost in ride comfort. The front end doesn’t plow at all, leaving the handling near the limit neutral and safe but fun. You will, however, have to live with is a steering wheel that wants to tramline into truck ruts and follow pavement irregularities, but it’s a minor side affect we’ll live with for having the wider 215/45ZR17 (Z-rated!) rubber.
For on-the-edge track performance, weekend racers will be pleased to know that the Spec V comes standard with a helical-type limited-slip differential, which helps control stability and wheelspin at the limits of adhesion.
As it’s tuned, the 2.5-liter is just so darned torquey that there is some noticeable torque steer: You only have to watch out for it when aggressively bringing the power back on in low-speed corners or taking off quickly into a corner. With a firm hand on the wheel, it’s not a problem, but it’s not the type of thing you’d experience in other high-strung, lower-torque rice burners like the Honda Civic Si.
The 2.5’s robust character makes it feel more like a small six. It feels happiest in the low-to-mid rev range, but it’s smooth and willing to rev. The engine seems to build fervor up to about 5000 rpm, then the last thousand revs or so are meaty but not as spectacular.
2002 Nissan Sentra
The six-speed gearbox cuts the fun a bit. The ratios are well chosen, but it’s extremely notchy—vocal enough so that passengers hear the loud clunk going from gear to gear. It balked at purposeful shifts from fourth to fifth, and from fifth to sixth, even when we were used to the gear spacing. While Nissan seemed to have perfected its manual transmission with the slick five-speed in the last-generation SE-R, the new gearbox takes a step backwards. The clutch is great, though—progressive yet firm—allowing for great control over your takeoffs and whether or not you want your passengers heads to jerk.
There’s only one reason why the Spec V might go to a tuner shop soon after purchase—the exhaust note. It belies the strength of the engine and the fun of the car. It sounds good just off idle, but then sounds decidedly un-sporty when revved hard or when downshifting. On the other hand, though, it doesn’t betray the Spec V’s rather stealthy outside image.
The large, four-wheel disc brakes provide powerful stopping power. The anti-lock system uses four separate channels for surefooted stops on irregular surfaces. Curiously, though, anti-lock brakes remain an option even on this performance-oriented model. They’re bundled with side airbags in a $749 package.
Fuel economy is good for the SE-R, making it a good choice for the commute. We noticed nearly 30 in mostly highway driving, including some vicarious spurts on a few mountainous stretches.Upscale feel, low sticker price
On the inside, the quality of the materials and plastics are pretty much what you would expect from a sub-$20,000 car, but there are some trim enhancements that help the SE-R feel unique and more upscale. The Spec V’s ‘Skyline style’ red-textured seats and door trim accents make have an upscale, flamboyant look. Our test car had the excellent, 300-watt Rockford Fosgate audio system, part of the $549 Audio Fanatic package. The high-power system has excellent all-around sound; we kept turning up bassy music to feel the trunk-mounted subwoofer at work.
2002 Nissan Sentra
2002 Nissan Sentra SE-R V-SpecEnlarge Photo
Other distinguishing appearance features include attractive red-tinted radial sport gauges, tinted glass, an overhead console, and an attractive, carbon-look shifter knob on the inside; and a rear spoiler, chrome exhaust tips, and extended lower-body sills on the outside. The standard equipment list is long, including a decent roster of entry luxury equipment and few other options.
In the SE-R Spec V, Nissan has a serious, fun performance machine, albeit in an ordinary, unremarkable sedan body. The package turns the plebeian Sentra into a much more robust performance machine, akin to the underappreciated Infiniti G20 (and its twin, the European-market Nissan Primera). But the staid, sedan body style doesn’t necessarily have the cargo flexibility or swoopy lines that younger buyers seek. With an bolder sedan, a five-door hatch, or a sport wagon body style of the Spec V, we have a feeling Nissan could better find the youth market.
Some followers of the original 1991 SE-R have griped that the new car isn’t as lean and lithe as its predecessors. That might be true, but the new Spec V is a well-rounded, robust sports sedan in a way that those models never were, satisfying on the track and on the daily commute. If you don’t necessarily want to be the center of attention, the Spec V is a great choice from an automaker that’s definitely on an upswing.
2002 Nissan Sentra
Price: $16,999 base, $20,014 as tested
Engine: 2.5-liter inline four, 175 hp
Transmission: Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 99.8 in
Length: 177.5 in
Width: 67.3 in
Height: 55.5 in
Curb Weight: 2743 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 22/28 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags
Major standard features: Air conditioning, keyless entry, power windows, locks, and mirrors, cruise control, AM/FM/CD sound system
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles