CARS.COM — Sports-compact enthusiasts haven't had much reason to consider the front-wheel-drive Nissan Sentra since 2012, after which the automaker scuttled the not-so-loved SE-R (and SE-R Spec V) version. Five model years later, its successor comes in the form of the new 2017 Sentra SR Turbo, a sedan that ditches the SE-R's extra-displacement strategy for a turbocharger.
It's specifically the one from the Juke: a direct-injected, turbo 1.6-liter four-cylinder that's good for 188 horsepower. Those modest specs on paper compare to the new Hyundai Elantra Sport, Ford Focus ST and Volkswagen Golf GTI, but driving is believing. And drive it we did.
Cars.com editors put a Sentra SR Turbo with its six-speed manual transmission through the same nine-turn racetrack Cars.com used two years ago in our $30,000 Cheap Speed Challenge. We also drove an automatic-equipped SR Turbo on local streets around the track.
Our quick take? The SR Turbo is among the more affordable performance compacts you can buy, but the savings come at a price. Though it's light on your budget, it's also light on fun.
Acceleration & Handling
Despite Nissan's claimed 177 pounds-feet of torque at just 1,600 rpm, the 1.6-liter doesn't entertain much until you get north of 3,500 rpm. Stay hard on the accelerator and it's quick enough after that to raise eyebrows from your passengers, with well-masked torque steer to boot. Detroit Bureau Chief Aaron Bragman called it downright zippy. Still, my gut tells me the SR Turbo would fall somewhere on the slower side of our Cheap Speed contenders. (My wife, meanwhile, tells me that gut is growing.)
The manual transmission, a Juke-spec unit that's distinct from the manuals in lesser Sentra trims, has unobtrusive gearing but loose throws and muddy, tentative gates. Better shifters exist in this class, from the Golf's sturdy unit to the Honda Civic's short-throw gem.
On the track, the SR Turbo has pervasive understeer. On switchbacks and long sweepers alike, the tail never wants to slide around; even lifting off the gas mid-corner, I couldn't coax any rotation out of the chassis — a condition not every front-drive compact suffers. In the Sentra it's all push, all the time, and despite sport-tuned springs and shock absorbers, the suspension allows an excessive degree of body roll for a sporty compact. High-performance summer tires might mask some of the dynamics better, but our test car's all-season Continental ContiProContact P205/50R17s had modest grip.
One high point: the brakes. With upsized hardware (11.7-inch front discs versus 11-inch discs in the regular Sentra), the SR Turbo stops with linear, predictable strength even after a few track laps — conditions ripe for brake fade.
Nissan also offers the SR Turbo with a no-charge continuously variable automatic transmission. The disdain was clear: "It's slightly more interesting than the regular model, but the CVT saps any peppiness that I expected and gives back so much drone and groan," Assistant Managing Editor Jennifer Geiger said.
Stay hard on the gas and some of that droning eventually goes away. Like many modern CVTs, Nissan's unit mimics conventional step-gear automatic by jumping to a taller gear ratio at high rpm for the familiar rev-and-upshift sensation. But it doesn't happen until somewhere north of 4,000 rpm, and it needs persistent throttle at that. At lower revs, the SR Turbo leaves you in CVT hell, with nonlinear response between the engine revs and your right foot. Throw in the engine's general power distribution and the CVT-equipped SR Turbo feels too similar off the line to its normally aspirated sibling.
"The Sentra SR turbo is an improvement over the regular Sentra, but it's a marginal improvement, at least with the CVT," Assistant Managing Editor Bill Jackson said. "The handling is a little sharper, but whatever extra oomph that's there from the engine isn't readily apparent, at least with the automatic."
Like the regular Sentra, the SR Turbo is still soft in a generic sort of way, though it still loses some composure over broken pavement. Still, the street drive illustrated one positive: In the Sentra SR Turbo, ride comfort more or less went unsullied where some performance variants punish you on bumpy roads. Ride quality is "pretty well damped," Bragman observed.
For all its faults, the SR Turbo comes through on value. It starts at just less than $23,000 including destination and tops out around $25,700 — a range more in line with bargain players like the Kia Forte5 SX and Hyundai Veloster Turbo than the GTI, Focus ST and Subaru WRX. (As of this writing, the Elantra Sport has yet to be priced.) Like the Hyundai and Kia, the Sentra SR Turbo lands somewhere between its commuter-car roots and a legitimate sports compact in both performance and price.
Perhaps the biggest problem, then, is that the regular Sentra is so underwhelming. The SR Turbo doesn't improve on the cabin, a drab layout of yesteryear design and low-rent materials. The steering wheel's minimal telescoping range puts you uncomfortably close to the dashboard; Bragman called the driving position "terrible." Two editors took issue with seat comfort in the SR Turbo's chairs, unchanged from the regular Sentra. The largest multimedia display is a small 5.8 inches, and it lacks Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. What's more, the current Sentra has a track record for problematic reliability.
Jackson summed it up: "Buyers committed to the Sentra who are underwhelmed by the base car's performance should give it a look," he said. "The same goes for those shoppers who find the competitors too pricey, given the relative low price of the Sentra. But the version I drove doesn't move the needle enough."