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2017 Nissan Sentra NISMO Review: First Impressions and Quick Spin

11_17Nissan_SentraNISMO_AS_ES_11.jpg 2017 Nissan Sentra NISMO | Cars.com photo by Evan Sears

CARS.COM — At the 2016 Los Angeles Auto Show, Nissan has taken the wraps off the 2017 Sentra NISMO, a hotter version of its 2017 Sentra SR Turbo. The Sentra NISMO uses the same turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine pumping out 188 horsepower and 177 pounds-feet of torque as the SR Turbo, and offers the same six-speed manual or continuously variable automatic transmission too (although the CVT supposedly has special NISMO-tuned programming).

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When we drove the Sentra SR Turbo this fall, we frankly came away unimpressed — but not through any fault of the new turbocharged mill. With a suspension tune that was too soft to be entertaining, a CVT that sapped peppiness and power, and a throwback cabin that simply was not competitive with the best in the segment, we declared the Sentra SR Turbo to be better than the regular Sentra, but not a car that moved the needle enough for widespread recommendation.

09_17Nissan_SentraNISMO_AS_ES_09.jpg 2017 Nissan Sentra NISMO | Cars.com photo by Evan Sears

The Sentra NISMO features some exterior styling and interior enhancements that have been included for cosmetic purposes. With an estimated price of around $25,000 without destination fee, this model is in a new competitive set, and we’re more interested in how it drives than how it looks.

Not Quicker, but More Agile

Instead of going for faster, however, Nissan has aimed for better handling on the Sentra NISMO. New shock absorbers, different spring rates, a new tuning of the electronic power-steering software and standard 18-inch wheels and tires all create a stiffer, sportier Sentra than the SR Turbo. It isn’t afraid to dance through corners and provide much more useful feedback than the lesser Sentra models.

Despite this newfound stiffness and the reduction in body roll, ride quality is still admirably compliant. You feel the suspension working, but even with downtown Los Angeles’ broken pavement, the Sentra NISMO is never harsh or objectionable. The upgraded brakes from normal Sentras also continue to impress, with solid feel and little fade under heavy use. Sadly, my first drive was limited to just 30 minutes through downtown L.A., so I have no track comparison to make with the SR Turbo model from a few weeks ago.

01_17Nissan_SentraNISMO_AS_ES_01.jpg 2017 Nissan Sentra NISMO | Cars.com photo by Evan Sears

But the other areas of complaint that we have with the Sentra SR Turbo carry over intact for the Sentra NISMO. While the little 1.6-liter engine feels peppy once you get into its power band, the CVT simply can’t keep up with it. Even in Sport mode, stab the accelerator while rolling and the reaction time of the transmission is noticeably laggy; there’s no immediacy of action like there is in the Sentra NISMO’s competitors. Trying to drive the Sentra NISMO in cut-and-thrust traffic conditions is frustrating when the car simply doesn’t want to be driven in this manner.

13_17Nissan_SentraNISMO_AS_ES_13.jpg 2017 Nissan Sentra NISMO | Cars.com photo by Evan Sears

When comparing the Sentra NISMO to a normal Ford Focus, Subaru Impreza or Volkswagen Golf, there isn’t much performance difference, but this car will be priced within reach of the hot versions of those models. The power deficit versus the Focus ST, Golf GTI or Subaru WRX means that the Sentra NISMO simply can’t keep up.

By not touching the powertrain, Nissan says it can keep the cost down, but I find it unlikely that the automaker couldn’t find the ability to add a NISMO cat-back exhaust for aural enhancement alone, or a more aggressive software tune for the turbocharger to at least get to 200 hp.

Sentra’s Woes Carry Over

The Sentra SR’s interior issues carry over as well in the Sentra NISMO. While the sport seats are nicely bolstered, the driving position is awkward, requiring you to sit uncomfortably close to the steering wheel.

The car is narrow and feels cramped, like it’s a size smaller than a Focus or Golf, and the interior materials still feel like they’re last year’s fashions. While you can get big, shiny multimedia systems in just about any of the Sentra’s competitors these days, you’re still stuck with a smartphone-sized 5.8-inch screen running outdated software in the Nissan.

The Sentra is more than ready for a complete redesign. The new Sentra NISMO is the sportiest version of that tired mare, for what it’s worth. Nissan thinks it’s worth as much as a Focus ST or Golf GTI. With deals available on both of those models and a new Hyundai Elantra Sport and Honda Civic Si on the way, we think that’s going to be a difficult sell to shoppers.

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