I found the redesigned 2007 Sentra a vast improvement over the prior generation, and I'd hoped the sporty SE-R and full-bore SE-R Spec V (that's spec vee, not spec five) would similarly improve on their forebears when they joined the lineup a few months later. When I track-tested a Spec V in May of last year, I was disappointed (as detailed in the accompanying video). I've now spent a week with a 2008 Spec V in typical use, and my impressions are still lukewarm.
Within the affordable compact car class, this subclass of sportified versions has grown, and higher horsepower and capabilities are the orders of the day. Since the previous-generation Spec V's conception, Dodge even turned the Neon into a wild child called the SRT4 — a remarkable car with the most power for your dollar when it made its 2003 debut. If Dodge could turn a tragedy like the Neon into that, just imagine what Nissan could do with its newly competitive Sentra. Perhaps I did more imagining than Nissan did. The Spec V is good for many of the same reasons the Sentra is, but it breaks no new ground, failing to keep pace both with long-standing, long-refined rivals like the Volkswagen GTI and with come-latelys like the Mazdaspeed3. To wit:
|Sport Compact Performance|
|0-60 mph (sec.)||1/4 mile (sec.)||60-0 mph braking (ft.)|
|Dodge Caliber SRT4||6.4||15.0|
@ 97 mph
|Honda Civic Si||7.2||15.6|
@ 93 mph
@ 97 mph
|Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V||7.0||15.4|
@ 92 mph
|Subaru Impreza WRX||6.0||14.5|
@ 100 mph
|Volkswagen GTI (two-door)||6.5||15.1|
@ 95 mph
|Source: MotorWeek tests|
I don't think the new Dodge Caliber SRT4 is a very strong performer overall — actually, when compared to the original SRT4, it's a complete turd — but at least it compensates with turbocharged power and faster 0-60 times than the Spec V. Likewise, the WRX improved little in its latest generation, but a full second's superiority over the Spec V in the sprints is dramatic.
The Spec V's stopping distance is a huge disappointment. Not only is it long for a performance variant — it's one of the lighter models listed above — it's long for any car, especially of this size. In normal driving the brakes never felt deficient to me, but neither did they feel as precise as those of some competitors. These are different brakes than the regular Sentra's, including discs in place of the standard rear drums, so an opportunity was clearly lost.
Too High to Handle
The numbers quantify the Spec V's main disappointments, but there was something fundamentally wrong with the driving experience, and after days and miles I finally concluded that the car is just too high to handle as well as it should. The Sentra is relatively tall and high-riding, and that has advantages in terms of interior space and ease of sliding onto the driver's seat. It even gives you a better view of the road than some small cars do and improves compatibility in crashes with higher vehicles. In the company of ground-hugging sprites like the Mini Cooper S and Honda Civic Si, though, the Spec V's dynamics just felt wrong to me. (I had a similar experience in the high-riding SRT4.)
Note that my 2008 test car had all-season tires — a no-cost option — but I've also driven a 2007 with the standard summer performance tires (both are rated P225/45R17). In both instances, the Spec V exhibits understeer but is very manageable when grip is lost — notable because the car has a theoretically inferior non-independent torsion-beam rear suspension design. The loss of grip just happens more readily and noisily with the all-season tires. The steering weight and feedback are pretty good for electric power steering, but not as good as the best conventional hydraulic type (abandoned to improve fuel efficiency). Though it's not as compliant as the regular Sentra's, the firmer suspension in the Spec V provides livable ride quality for a car in this class.
Where the regular Sentra has a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, the SE-R and SE-R Spec V have a 2.5-liter, but the Spec V's is a higher-output version: Its intake and exhaust manifolds are modified, it has different pistons with reinforced connecting rods, a higher compression ratio and revised camshafts. The maximum engine speed increases to 7,000 rpm from 6,250 rpm in the lesser SE-R. The higher displacement makes a clear difference in torque over the engine in the regular Sentra, but the difference isn't as great between the SE-R and Spec V versions. I haven't driven the regular SE-R, so my comments focus on the Spec V.
At 2.5 liters, the Spec V's engine is relatively large among its competitors, but it's normally aspirated, and the difference shows in terms of output versus its turbocharged rivals.
|2008 Sport Compact Engines|
|Nissan Sentra 2.0S||Nissan Sentra SE-R||Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V||Volkswagen GTI four-door||Honda Civic Si four-door||Mazdaspeed3|
|Engine||2.0-liter 4-cyl.||2.5-liter 4-cyl.||2.5-liter 4-cyl.||2.0-liter 4-cyl.||2.0-liter 4-cyl.||2.3-liter 4-cyl.|
|Induction||normally aspirated||normally aspirated||normally aspirated||turbo||normally aspirated||turbo|
|140 @ 5,100||177 @ 6,000||200 @ 6,600||200 @ 5,100||197 @ 7,800||263 @|
|Torque (lbs.-ft. @ rpm)||147 @ 4,800||172 @ 2,800||180 @ 5,200||207 @ 1,800||139 @ 6,100||280 @|
|EPA-estimated MPG (city/highway — combined)*||24/31|
|Curb weight (lbs.)||2,907||3,115||3,091||3,162||2,945||3,153|
|*With manual transmissions|
Source: Manufacturer data
Just a few years ago, the Spec V's main advantage was its larger engine and low-rev torque. Compared to the turbo lag of the GTI's turbo 1.8-liter and the anemic launch characteristics of the Civic Si, which needed to rev to high engine speeds to tap into what little torque it had, the Spec V's acceleration was often more enjoyable in day-to-day driving. Things have changed. The GTI now has a 2.0-liter direct-injection turbo four with virtually no lag, and other new sport compacts — turbo and non — bring a healthy dose of torque. At the same time, the new Spec V's output characteristics changed: It gained 25 hp but zero additional torque over the previous-generation 2006 model, and the peak of 180 pounds-feet climbed from 4,000 to 5,200 rpm, with the engine's redline increase. This plus virtually the same transmission plus almost 400 pounds more curb weight equals a less spirited launch. (Though a good car overall, the Civic Si remains the torque weenie of the class.)
While I have no problem with the six-speed manual's gearshift being mounted nontraditionally on a dashboard outcropping, the shifter itself is a bit floppy. Available on the regular SE-R but not the Spec V is an optional continuously variable transmission augmented with steering-wheel shift paddles for step-gear-style feel and performance.
The SE-R is dolled-up with a black interior and sport bucket seats. The cloth upholstery, embroidered with the SE-R logo, is a step up from the regular Sentra, but I found the seats marginal in terms of comfort. A driver's seat height adjustment is standard, though. Also distinguishing the SE-R versions are aluminum pedals and a leather steering wheel and shift knob. The Spec V adds red steering-wheel stitching and red seat belts. Two dashtop gauges display oil pressure and a g-force meter for acceleration and braking (erroneously called a lateral g meter in the video; my bad).
Overall interior quality is decent but not great. On the regular Sentra, the stakes aren't as high; being a sport compact, this model goes up against the GTI, a well-appointed bank vault on wheels.
At this time, the Sentra has not been crash tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Standard safety features include antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, active head restraints for the front seats, and lots of airbags, including front, front-seat side-impact and side curtains. While traction control isn't offered, a limited-slip differential is optional on the Spec V (but not the regular SE-R). Unfortunately, an electronic stability system isn't offered. It's standard on most sport compacts and optional on others.
At 13.1 cubic feet, the Sentra's trunk volume is competitive with other compact car trunks, but the SE-R models sacrifice a standard folding backseat for a V-brace — visible at the front of the trunk cavity — that's claimed to add structural stability.
I find the Sentra peculiar-looking, but you can form your own opinion. As for the SE-R and SE-R Spec V variants, they have unique side sill extensions and deeper front and rear bumpers to match. A tastefully subtle trunklid spoiler is also standard. The front brake calipers — easily spied through the thin-spoke 17-inch wheels — are painted silver and labeled "SE R." Makes you wonder why the rear calipers didn't get similar treatment. They look pretty grungy in comparison.
Sentra Spec V in the Market
The Spec V definitely makes for a more entertaining Sentra. Its main advantage against other sport compacts is its price. At $20,470, it's cheaper than the Civic Si and Cooper S by about $800, the Cobalt SS and Mazdaspeed3 by almost $2,000, the Caliber SRT4 by more than $2,200, the GTI by $2,830 and the WRX by almost $3,900. Where it falls short is in meeting its performance potential. Nissan is the same company that brings you the 350Z and, for cripe's sake, the GT-R. Both of those models do things that comparably priced cars can't. The Spec V is supposed to be the ultimate version of the Sentra in a class where other ultimates include the Mazdaspeed3 and GTI. Even the WRX is in some ways a star, and it's not even the ultimate Impreza — that would be the WRX STI. So the Spec V is a better Sentra, but I don't think it's the ultimate.
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