2012 Nissan Sentra SE-R

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Really quick – and really powerful – compact sedans and hatches are now being sold by half a dozen automakers. Some – like the 2012 MazdaSpeed3 – belt out more than 260 hp.

The downside is they’re also pushing $24k – or more.

So while Nissan’s 177-200 hp Sentra SE-R/SE-R SPEC V is no longer the King Ninja among sporty FWD compacts it was as recently as two or three years ago, it’s still an appealing midway point between a schleprock econo-box with no guts or personality and a quick but getting-pricey MazdaSpeed3 ($24,000) VW GTI ($23,695) or Honda Civic Si ($22,405).

WHAT IT IS

The Sentra SE-R is a souped-up version of the Nissan Sentra compact economy sedan. It’s built around a larger, more powerful 2.5 liter engine, more aggressive suspension tuning and comes with interior/exterior upgrades over the regular Sentra.

It’s priced at $20,120 for the 177 hp SE-R with CVT automatic and $20,620 for the max-effort Spec V version with 200 hp and six-speed manual transmission.

WHAT’S NEW

SE-Rs get an upgraded (and larger) LCD display in the center stack for the audio/nav systems, with Real Time Traffic updating available. Otherwise, the Sentra’s a carryover.

WHAT’S GOOD

At its price point, the SE-R is still one of the hottest things going.

200 hp Spec-V will mop the floor with a Kia Forte SX, go toe-to-toe with a $22k Civic Si or $23k VW GTI in a drag race.

Roomier-than-most (in its class) interior.

Large trunk.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

SE-R not available with manual transmission. (It’s standard in the higher-cost SPEC V.)

Not as sharp-handling as Speed3, GTI or Civic Si.

Sedan-only bodystyle.

Isn’t the latest thing.

UNDER THE HOOD

The SE-R comes standard with a 2.5 liter, 177 hp four-cylinder working through a Continuously Variable (CVT) automatic transmission. The more aggressive SE-R SPEC-V has a hotter, 200 hp version of the 2.5 liter engine and comes only with a six-speed manual transmission.

Both versions are front-wheel-drive.

Output and performance-wise, the SE-R and SE-R SPEC-V slot in between lower-powered sporty small sedans like the $19,600 Kia Forte SX (173 hp) and$19,495 Mitsubishi Lancer GTS (168 hp) and more expensive, higher-performance runners like the $22,405 Honda Civic Si sedan (201 hp), the $23,695 VW GTI (200 hp) sedan and the segment-leading $24,000 MazdaSpeed3 (263 hp).

Zero to 60 in the SE-R takes about 7.5-7.6 seconds.

This puts it about mid-pack; the 177 hp SE-R is quicker than the Lancer GTS and Forte – but not as fast as the GTI or Speed3 or Civic Si, all of which are in the under seven seconds bracket (or better, in the case of the speedy Speed3).

The more powerful SER SPEC-V can reach 60 mph in about 6.7-6.8 seconds, which is right there with the GTI and Civic Si, though still not as quick as the Speed3.

One benefit of the SE-R’s standard (and mandatory) CVT transmission is almost-decent gas mileage … for this type of car. It rates 30 mpgs on the highway and 24 in city driving. That’s within a few clicks of what many current (and much less powerful) “economy” cars deliver. For example, Nissan’s own Versa econo-sedan – with a smaller, 1.8 liter engine making just 122 hp – rates 28 city and 26 in town. Or the new (2012) Beetle, which delivers only 22 city and has almost 25 less hp. A VW GTI rates 21 city, 31 highway; the Speed3 comes in at 18 city, 25 highway. Bottoms up!

The 200 hp SPEC-V witht he six speed is thirstier, though, as you’d expect: 21 city and 28 highway.

Still, that’s about the same as you’d get in a Civic Si (22 city, 31 highway) and significantly better than the Speed3.

You can burn regular unleaded, too – whereas the turbo’d Mazda and VW want premium.

ON THE ROAD

Nissan really likes CVTs.

It was one of the first automakers to offer them – and it offers them in more models than most other automakers. The reason for this is probably the fuel-efficiency benefit of the CVT, which is capable of squeezing out slightly more miles-per-gallon than either a conventional automatic or a manual transmission. In a world where Uncle Sam is demanding that all new cars achieve an average 35 MPG by 2016, every little uptick matters.

CVTs improve gas mileage by keeping the engine in the ideal operating range (engine RPM) for maximum efficiency, whatever the road speed happens to be. Since there are no fixed gears (first, second, third, fourth, fifth, etc.) to shift through, the transmission is always in the “right” gear for the speed you’re driving. There’s also almost no “slippage” (power losses through the fluid coupling) as in a conventional automatic.

But CVTs are not the best in performance applications – or even in everyday use.

First, there’s some lag when you floor it from a stop because CVTs, unlike normal automatics, don’t have a torque converter (a device that multiplies engine torque at low engine speeds, to improve off-the-line acceleration).

Second, because of the way a CVT is designed to work, with its single forward speed, acceleration characteristics are very different than they would be in a car with either a conventional automatic or a manual transmission. Floor it and engine RPMs shoot right up to near redline and stay there as you accelerate. This keeps the engine in the sweet spot of its powerband, which is good for efficiency but it also makes a furious racket; the car feels like it’s really sweating. The experience is not pleasant.

In a regular family car or economy car, where steady cruising along and moderate acceleration are the normal everyday parameters, the CVT’s operating characteristics are more muted and the absence of coffee-spilling shift shock between gear changes (as with a regular automatic or manual) is a positive.

But sport-minded cars tend to get hammered; it’s what they’re built for, right? And for that kind of service, a CVT is not the best choice. Besides, what performance-minded driver wants an automatic – CVT or otherwise?

Which is why it’s sucky that Nissan doesn’t offer anything except a CVT in the SE-R. Even the regular (non SE-R) Sentra is available with a manual transmission. But to get the clutch pedal in the SE-R (and the much-improved driving experience that comes with it) you’ve got to move up the scale to the SPEC-V. Given the small price uptick (about $500) and the fact that you also get an additional 23 hp (plus other upgrades) as part of the deal – it’s well worth doing.

The SPEC-V handles better, too – another plus.

Its suspension is noticeably firmer, with less body lean when you’re really going at it. Part of the reason for this is the more aggressive tire package that comes with the SPEC-V; there’s also additional body bracing to stiffen the chassis up.

And you get better brakes.

It won’t outrun a Speed3, but in the corners, a SPEC-V in the right hands can hang with the GTI or Civic Si.

AT THE CURB

The Sentra’s a pretty big car for a compact. In fact, in several key areas, its dimensions (and interior space) are “almost Altima.” Its width, for example, is 70.5 inches – almost exactly the same beam as the Altima’s 70.7 inches. Both cars have exactly the same front seat headroom (40.6 inches) too – and the Sentra actually has more backseat headroom (37.3 inches vs. 36.8 for the Altima).

The Altima has about an inch or two more legroom in front and back, but otherwise, these two cars are very close in terms of their people-carrying capacity.

Compared with other cars in its segment like the Mazda3, the Sentra’s downright Large Marge in a number of key respects. Though the Mazda and the Nissan are roughly the same overall length (180.1 inches and 180.7 inches, respectively) the Mazda’s got about an inch and a half less front seat headroom, about an inch less hip room – and much smaller trunk (11.8 cubic feet vs. 13.1 for the Nissan).

The downside, of course, is that it feels bigger – and heavier – because it is bigger and heavier.

Only the VW GTI sedan – at a fatty 3,113 lbs. – weighs more.

But the Sentra’s roomy, super-comfortable cabin makes up for a lot. The taller roofline is especially helpful if you’re over six-feet tall.

The SE-R doesn’t have a learning curve, either. You just get in and go. No over-the-top technology to drive you nuts. All the instruments and controls are immediately self-explanatory. The seats are also long-drive comfortable, in addition to providing the firmness and support you want in a car like this.

The SE-R package itself is both performance-minded and luxury-oriented. In addition to the more powerful engine and suspension upgrades, you get most of the Sentra SL’s creature features, such as power windows, locks, intermittent wipers and the LCD audio system display. You can add keyless, push-button ignition, leather, seat heaters and a sunrooof.

An usual SE-R feature is the standard “G-meter” gauge. It sits in a twin pod on top of the center stack, next to an oil pressure gauge. It registers acceleration and deceleration forces, measured in “Gs.” Fun to play around with.

Aluminum-trimmed pedals and orange backlighting for the gauges (very 370Z-ish) are also included.

THE REST

One thing that may help sell you on a Sentra vs. some of its newer-to-market competitors is that it has an established rep for being a solid, super-reliable car. Its naturally aspirated engine is not overstressed or peaky; there’s no $3,000 turbo/intercooler to worry about down the line – after the warranty’s expired.

Of the others out there, probably the only one that’s known to be a 150,000 mile car (with decent treatment) is the Civic Si.

Nothing against the Speed3. It is big fun. But 263 turbocharged hp flowing through the front wheels may not be the hot ticket five or six years down the road. I dig the GTI, too – but the fact is VW has had some issues with quality control.

So has Mitsu.

Kia seems solid – but the Forte is a new model and there’s no real way to know what the deal will be with it until five or six years from now.

Nissan gives you a three-year/36,000 mile comprehensive warranty and five-year/60,000 mile coverage on the powertrain. This is par for the name brand Japanese stuff right now, although not as good as Kia (or Mitsubishi) provide.

Traction/stability control, high-capacity disc brakes with ABS, front seat side-impact and both-row curtain airbags are standard in both the SE-R and SE-R SPEC-V.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The SE-R’s a lot like an aging but still solid fighter. It may not have the strongest punch or the fastest footwork anymore, but it’s still got some moves and for the money, lives up to its billing.

Throw it in the Woods?

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1 COMMENT

  1. Both my sister and I had the original Sentra SE-R–2 liters, 140hp, 7500 RPM econo-rockets.

    Fantastic little cars. I’m still sad I traded mine in. They were like eager little puppies; not as sure-footed as they could be due to the front wheel drive, but let that little motor rev and it was full of enthusiasm!

    I think I paid about $14K for mine, brand new.

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