This is the most fun I’ve had in a Nissan Sentra since my buddy’s B13 SE-R, and it’s a great alternative to budget sport compacts like the Chevy Sonic turbo and new Civic. Nissan’s turbo 1.6 actually behaves (and sounds) like the zingy little naturally aspirated fours of yore, and it’s connected to a lovely six-speed stick that never misses a shift. Yes, there’s torque steer, and the whole thing is pretty raucous when you keep your foot in it, but in this case, it suits the car’s amped-up budget scooter personality. I’d like to get it on some better roads to test the handling, but for suburban stoplight drags, it’s great fun to beat on without being powerful enough to get into too much trouble.
This end of the market — sport compacts a level below the GTI/Focus ST/WRX — is suddenly getting interesting again; aside from the aforementioned Sonic and Civic, the Ford Fiesta ST is also in this price range, and it remains the most purpose-built performance car of the bunch. That said, the Nissan Sentra Turbo SR is a welcome addition to the must-drive list.
If it hadn’t been for that “turbo” badge on the trunk (What a throwback!), I’m not sure I’d have known that the Turbo SR was forced-induction. The torque band is wide, but you’ll still have to build up to 5,600 rpm to get all 188 hp. It’s smooth across the whole rev range without any lurking surges of power.
The transmission is generally pleasant, too, especially for this class, and the powertrain combo did more than anything else to help this car’s cause. For one, we’re so used to CVT whine in these sorts of vehicles that it’s nice to actually hear a motor wind up properly. The gear selector is suitably crisp as well, and — just as importantly — the clutch isn’t a featherweight like you’d get on a stick-equipped Corolla, for example.
I don’t remember having particularly nice things to say about previous Sentras. It’s not that they’re bad cars — if they were terrible, that would stand out in my mind as well — but they all too easily fade into the affordably priced, acceptably adequate compact morass. What’s the difference between a Sentra S and a Corolla L? How do those compare to a Focus S? Off the top of my head, I’d struggle to tell you.
This, though? It’s uncomplicated, affordable and fairly fun. It can’t hold a candle to a Focus ST or a Subaru BRZ for (relatively) cheap-car kicks, but I wish something like this were the benchmark for the segment when it came to entry-level driving feel.
Note that if you want features like navigation, you’ll need to add the SR Turbo premium package for a hefty $2,590 — just be thankful Nissan allows you the option of onboard tech and a manual transmission at all.
Alright, alright, alright. Everyone calm down about the SR Turbo. I’m glad Nissan’s making it — it’s the only damn decent transmission in the lineup besides the pickup trucks, but it’s not the second coming of SE-Rs past.
For one, it’s still dorky-looking. I guess most things in this class are the same, but from the straight front and straight rear view, it looks too tall. The three-quarter view is better to me, but there’s still a ton of wheel well space, and it’s not very low to the ground. Drop that sucker 2 inches or so.
This engine is good, not great. Like Graham said, I don’t think I would have known it’s a turbocharged mill if I hadn’t been told. There’s no lag or boost feeling at any rpm, and it doesn’t really get thrilling until, well, never. I was just in the Cooper Clubman, which has 30 more lb-ft of torque (but weighs almost 500 pounds more) and that felt quick. This Nissan feels like it’s about to do something cool — and then it’s time to shift. Sure, you can spin the front tires with clutchwork, and that pedal feel is better than a lot of the others in this space, but I was expecting a little bit more.
The steering wheel has a little bit of weight behind it and there’s a little kickback from the road, which is good. I hate when all of the feel is dialed out. But I wouldn’t complain about a little less body roll. The NISMO version is on its way with “unique tuning” for steering, suspension and the like, so that should be a bit tighter, chassis-wise.
The interior feels inexpensive, and that’s fine — the car is inexpensive. But the shifter feels too plasticky in a semi-performance car. Even the Fiesta ST, which is close in price, has a nice, solid shifter feel. I don’t love the collared reverse shift either, but I don’t like when reverse is to the left of first either with no collar. I like when you have to push the shifter in, then over, which seems safest to me.
The Fiesta ST starts at $21,100; this is $21,900. The damn Civic turbo is $21,500. I love that Fiesta, but I like hatchbacks better than sedans. And the Civic is really nice to drive. But that’s me, and if quick sedans are your thing, check it out. I do love that Nissan is still building little turbos though, so kudos to them.
Jake, while I agree there are better cars for the money, I have to agree with Andy: This is the best Sentra since the SE-R. The sheer fact that Nissan turned one of my least favorite cars to drive — the Sentra — into something that I actually enjoy is worth noting.
The shifter does feel rubbery and reminds me of the stick in the 370Z, not my favorite. I also hit the shift gates a few times, as opposed to the actual gears, but that’s easily resolved by more careful shifting. Still, the changes could be crisper and less notchy. I don’t want to complain too much — thank God it’s not a CVT.
The turbocharged 1.6 sends 188 hp to the transmission, and that’s plenty enjoyable. You’re bound to hit the safe but low rev limiter often if you drive spiritedly, but you’ll be happy it’s there later in the car’s life.
Like all cars at this price point, the interior suffers from rubbery-textured-plastic syndrome. Jake complained about the H-point, or where your hips sit in relation to the rest of the car, and I agree — it’s pretty high, but the folks at Nissan could only do so much with the Sentra’s platform. A solution would be to replace the seats with some aftermarket performance units, but that almost defeats the point of the car.
This turbocharged stick-shifted SR managed to make me forget how much I dislike the regular Sentra. And that’s gotta count for something.