Nissan Sentra SE-R, better performance for the common man (or woman)

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

We think Nissan has aimed the 2008 Sentra SE-R in the wrong direction, namely at the wrong audience. And we think many of our automotive writer colleagues have as well.

The higher-horsepower version of the standard bread-and-butter compact Sentra sedan has been compared more or less head-to-head with the Mazdaspeed3, the Volkswagen GTI, the Honda Civic Si, the Subaru WRX and the Chevrolet Cobalt SS.

Wrong thinking. Wrong comparison and maybe the wrong audience. The above competitors should really be set against the Spec V version of the SE-R. More later.

Let’s think outside the box for a minute. Let’s do some coloring outside the lines. In our time with a euro-silver version of the ’08 SE-R we found it perfect company for the errand-running mom, the empty-nest couple and the young head-of-new-family — all who want fuel efficiency. That and a modicum of performance not found in your standard sub-compact and compact sedans and hatchbacks. But they don’t want boy-racer add-ons, a teeth-jarring suspension and a manual shifter. And they don’t want a budget-busting sticker price.

The SE-R is a perfect fit.

Prime example — a close relative with an AARP card came home from running errands and proclaimed her love for the SE-R. “This car has some power. I got out on the highway without getting run over,” she said. “I love the performance.”

Maybe her affection for the SE-R would have been less keen had she not just emerged from a popular sub-compact B-segment test car the day before. She complained about its lack of forward oomph after every drive.

“I thought I was going to get run over a couple of times trying to get on the highway,” she opined. “Maybe it does get better gas mileage, but I couldn’t live with that car.”
“Now, THIS car,” she said, referring to the SE-R, “is what I need.”

The newest Sentra, which entered the market as a 2007 model, comes with a 2.0-liter 140-horsepower engine as standard equipment. We tested the Sentra last year and found it had adequate performance despite growing in size and weight from the previous generation.

The SE-R takes the Sentra a step further adding 37 horsepower (177 vs. 140) and 25 pound-feet of torque (172 vs. 147) over the standard model thanks to a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine mated to a continuously variable transmission (CVT). It also adds a more road-tuned suspension, bigger brakes and better handling capability.

But the SE-R has been assailed because there is no manual transmission option for 2008. Writers have agitated that it just isn’t sporty enough with the CVT.

While we are not a huge fan of the CVT we don’t think a manual is necessary.

That kind of sporty is not particularly relevant. Most of the people we think fit best into this car would never consider a manual or they have reached the age where the joy of manual shifting  died out along with partying past midnight.

For the driver who needs an occasional dose of shifting, the CVT can be put into a manual mode and shifted via paddles on the steering wheel.

We say the manual trans is not necessary because there’s a second version of the SE-R available called the SE-R Spec V that is designed to satisfy the road-carving fast-running wanderlust of all those people who would also consider the GTI, Civic Si and Cobalt SS.

It comes with a six-speed manual, a handful of run-fast upgrades, a bone-jarring suspension setup and 200 blistering horsepower. The fast and furious crowd can find a copy in most Nissan showrooms. Purchase one and be happy.

In the meantime, Nissan is going to sell the SE-R to the vast masses who want some real no-nonsense merging and passing power without sacrificing too much at the gas pump or too much on sticker price.

Let’s do some comparisons.

The Sentra comes in five trim levels with the base starting at $16,455 including destination. The standard-issue 2.0-liter Sentra also comes in S and SL trim levels. The SL is probably what a lot of people are purchasing because it comes with most things standard that customers want and carries a sticker of $19,305. You can move up in horsepower, gain larger brakes and a more driver-oriented suspension in the SE-R package for $20,305.

Mileage suffers slightly, but it’s a relative thing because both engines are fuel efficient. The 2.0-liter 4-cylinder mated to the CRV is rated at 25 mpg city and 33 mpg highway while the 2.4-liter is rated at 24/30. Both engines burn regular gasoline.

A word of caution to those who are used to squishy soft suspensions in their small car — the SE-R has a firm ride. But we don’t think it will be offensive to most people.

The newest Sentra, which is three inches longer and three inches wider than the car it replaced, has a more chiseled look and a more aggressive stance.

In profile it looks somewhat like a miniature version of the mid-sized Altima or larger Maxima. Nissan design cues can be seen in the front grille and headlights.

The interior also gets the Nissan treatment, and this is a good thing. It has fine fit and finish and quality materials.

The new look shouldn’t turn anybody off. The relatively simple center stack is trimmed in aluminum-looking accents, the three round climate controls are intuitive and have a good feel and the stereo controls are easily decipherable.

Nicely done is the gear shifter location jutting out from the center stack just below the stereo and climate controls.

The SE-R version comes with neatly done cloth-upholstered sports seats, aluminum-trimmed pedals and oil pressure and G-force gauges. The latter, we agree, will probably be a curiosity to most people.

By the way, the SE-R does not have a folding rear seat, but it does have a decent-sized trunk capable of hauling more than 13 cubic feet of cargo.

Standard equipment is generous including good-looking 17-inch alloy wheels, full power equipment, keyless entry, air conditioning, leather-wrapped steering wheel, cruise control and a good-sounding six-speaker audio system. XM satellite radio is an inex and many automotive writers have pensive $150 add-on.

Our test car came with a handful of options including the outstanding 340-watt Rockford-Fosgate audio system, power moonroof and keyless ignition bringing the bottom line to $22,510.

Perhaps we’re overly enthused about the SE-R for the common man. Most Sentra shoppers we are sure will continue to opt for the standard Sentra. They will be getting a very good compact. But for just a few dollars more they can have a more entertaining and performance-oriented ride.

How can we not help but being enthused?


Base price: $16,455; as driven, $22,510
Engine: 2.4-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 177 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 172 foot-pounds @ 2,800 RPM
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: CVT
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 105.7 inches
Length: 180.1 inches
Curb weight: 3,072 pounds
Turning circle: 35.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 13.1 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 14.5 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 30 highway, 24 city
0-60: 7 seconds (estimated)
Also consider: Toyota Corolla XRS, Mazda3 2.3-liter, Honda Civic Si

The Good
• Excellent performance for 20 grand sedan
• Spacious seating front and rear
• Controls are well laid out

The Bad
• Manual transmission not available in SE-R version

The Ugly
• Engine drones can be tedious with continuously variable transmission