Every generation of the Nissan Sentra since the early 1990s has sprouted a sporty variant. Most of these hotted-up small cars have worn the SE-R badge, a name that earned a fair share of credibility after the B13-generation Sentra SE-R captured enthusiasts’ hearts (and appeared more than once on C/D’s 10Best Cars list) thanks to its high fun-per-dollar ratio. Now in the midst of pumping up its NISMO performance arm, Nissan has put that name on the latest Sentra performance variant. It helps make a connection among all of Nissan’s performance-oriented offerings, comprising the Juke NISMO and NISMO RS, the 370Z NISMO, and the top-dog, 600-hp GT-R NISMO.
But the Sentra NISMO is not a racetrack-slaying, high-performance beast. Far from it, in fact, given that it has just 188 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque from a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. That’s less than was offered in the last Sentra SE-R (available from 2007–2012), which had 200 horsepower and 180 lb-ft of torque from a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. It’s also far short of the Volkswagen GTI (210 or 220 hp), the Ford Focus ST (252 hp), and the Subaru WRX (268 hp).
Of course, power isn’t everything, particularly considering the Sentra NISMO’s estimated starting price of less than $25,000. After all, cars like the 197-hp Ford Fiesta ST prove that outright speed is far from the sole measure of a car’s fun factor.
After a quick drive around Los Angeles in the Sentra NISMO, we’re pretty convinced that it won’t unseat our current favorites such as the GTI. But that’s not to say there’s nothing to like about the NISMO. The little 1.6-liter engine is zesty enough once on the boil; there’s some turbo lag down low in the rev range, but the six-speed manual has relatively short gearing that makes it easy to keep the engine in the meat of its torque curve. (There’s also a continuously variable automatic transmission available as a no-cost option. We didn’t get the chance to drive a Sentra so equipped, but we can safely say we’d pass on that transmission.)
We do wish NISMO had gone a bit further with the chassis tweaks. Turn-in could be sharper, and steering feel is nothing to write home about. The NISMO’s suspension is noticeably stiffer than that of lesser Sentras, but its tuning seems to negatively impact ride quality more than it improves handling prowess. The lightness of controls—the steering, shifter, and clutch—combine to make the Sentra feel tossable even at a sedate pace, but push harder and its economy-car roots become all too obvious.
The zippy engine and sharper chassis certainly improve the Sentra’s dynamics, but given the lackluster starting point, this supposedly “motorsports-inspired” sedan (as Nissan calls it) only ends up approaching the driving pleasure available in a mainstream Honda Civic 1.5T or Mazda 3 2.5-liter. So the sportiest Sentra doesn’t live up to the promise of its performance ambitions, merely managing to get into the conversation with the rest of the compact herd—to say nothing of the upper-echelon sport compacts.