Nissan adds heat to Sentra
Launched in 1982 and now six generations later, Nissan’s compact Sentra is still a wallflower.
I’m not saying it’s unattractive — far from it — but without the horn and flashing lights on your remote key fob, you’d be hard pressed to find it in a Costco parking lot on any given Sunday.
Thankfully, however, this practical little family sedan, with plenty of passenger and cargo room, sensible interior and loads of available amenities has an evil twin that is anything but dull.
The Spec V is Nissan’s answer to such sport compacts as the Civic Si, Golf GTI and Lancer Ralliart.
It has been around since 2002 and, like these other variants of dependable but also plain-Jane family haulers, it offers the kind of power, performance and handling that appeals to the driving enthusiast — not the typical buyer you would find in the compact segment.
First, a little background on the mainstream Sentra.
The base model, starting at $15,398, is fairly light on features, with standard items that include power locks, tilt steering and a four-speaker audio system.
It is also equipped with a 140-horsepower, 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine and independent strut/torsion beam (front/rear) suspension, both of which are more at home commuting or picking up groceries than carving corners or in a straight-line sprint.
Option packages and two more trim levels add content that ranges from basic conveniences (like air conditioning, keyless entry and power windows) to more premium amenities that include heated leather seats, touchscreen navigation and a rearview monitor.
But, the drivetrain — and driving dynamics — remain the same for all.
It is at the SE-R trim level where things get interesting.
Priced at $21,998, which is $1,200 less than Sentra’s top 2.0 SL trim level, you get a more powerful 2.5-litre engine (177 horsepower and 172 pound-feet of torque), sport-tuned suspension, more aggressive grille, sport bucket seats and a nice set of 17-inch alloys.
It comes with only one available transmission, a CVT with paddle shifters.
This is why I recommend you spend a few more dollars and step up to the Spec V.
In my mind, it’s a no-brainer.
Here’s what you get for another $1,400: A higher output 2.5-litre engine that delivers 200 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque (with a significantly higher redline — 7,000 vs 6,200 rpm), six-speed manual transmission, bigger front rotors (12.6” vs 11.7”) and “super” sport-tuned suspension which has also been lowered by 20 mm.
Yes, there’s still more, but they had me at 200 horses.
Although I’d like even more juice, 200 horsepower competes solidly with Honda and VW.
Like the Spec V, the Golf GTI delivers 200 horsepower, but more torque at 207 pound-feet, thanks to its 2.0-litre, turbo four. But this comes at a much higher starting price, with the three-door at $28,875 and five-door at $29,875.
Honda is also priced significantly more, with the Si starting at $25,990 for the redesigned 2012 model.
If you compare both 2011 models, the Sentra provides only three more horsepower, but loads more torque, with the Si delivering a scant 139 pound-feet.
The 2012 Si, with its 2.4-litre powerplant, has that problem licked, but still comes up 10 pound-feet short of the Spec V.
I can mention other competitors as well — like the Ralliart and Subaru’s WRX — but both deliver scads more power (253 and 265 horsepower, respectively), and start at just under (and just over) $32,000.
This makes the Spec V seem a bargain at $23,398.
And you get more than just a basic car with some performance upgrades.
The Spec V comes equipped with power windows, locks and mirrors, air, manual tilt steering, six-way manual adjustable driver’s seat (four-way for front passenger), leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter knob, and six-speaker, 160-watt AM/FM/CD/USB audio system with 4.3-inch colour display.
My one gripe here is you can’t get Bluetooth at this trim level, although it is available in other Sentras.
Instrumentation includes twin pod meters on the centre dash with oil-pressure and G-sensor displays, along with the usual speedo, tach and multi-mode display with coolant temperature, fuel consumption, outside temp and trip odometer.
On the outside, Spec V trim includes lower body-side sill extensions and rear fascia, smoked headlight surround, smoked taillights and rear spoiler.
Sure, coupes and three-door hatchbacks may look hotter but, for those like me who want sizzle but have kids to load in back, four doors is a plus.
Speaking of the back seat, the Spec V, like all Sentras, offers plenty of head and legroom, although you don’t get a centre armrest as you do in other models.
Nor do you get the 60/40 split fold, as this variant has a V-brace behind the rear seat for added rigidity.
Still, the trunk offers a respectable 340 litres of cargo space, which is more than enough room for a couple of golf bags or a weekend away.
Practicality aside, the Spec V delivers plenty of fun for the dollar; with good launch and acceleration that builds as you approach its 7,000 r.p.m. redline.
It is a pleasure to snap through the gears with its short-throw shifter, and with the car’s lowered height
and higher spring rates, it is also a joy in the turns.
My tester also included the helical limited-slip differential for added traction, part of the sport package ($1,400) that also includes a power moonroof and upgraded eight-speaker Rockford Fosgate audio system.
Does it capture the imagination of the sport compact enthusiast?
Perhaps not yet, which is part of the appeal, as you don’t see many of these on the road today.
And, starting at just over $23,000, there’s yet another reason to give this sporty sedan a closer look.