Nissan's entry into the world of tuned sport compacts is back after a long hiatus, so long that many young drivers forget there ever was a hot Sentra SE-R way back in 1990-94.

The latest version, which was new for 2002, takes a placid little four-door sedan and turns it into a fast-running, quick-handling street machine with lots of style and power. It's done right, and with the optional "audio fanatic" stereo system, it's what a performance enthusiast might dream of building with enough time, skill and money.

As it is, the SE-R is priced at a fairly reasonable $17,199 before options and shipping. That makes it a mighty appealing package for someone who could spend many thousands more to get the same results starting from stock.

Most of today's compacts, domestic and import, offer some sort of car-tuner version, such as VW Golf GTI, Honda Civic Si and Ford Focus SVT. These seem like modern-day versions of the tuned cars of a previous generation. They were regular cars turned into performance machines, led by the famous Pontiac GTO and Plymouth Roadrunner. The equipment has changed, but the intent is the same.

The fact is, there's no more ordinary economy car than a base-model Nissan Sentra, bought mainly by people who want low-cost, reliable transportation and little else. So the SE-R is a tribute to Nissan's newfound audaciousness, with the self-confidence to build a modern rendition of the classic Z-car and to upgrade the Altima into a world-beater, that it could transform the Sentra into a truly hot little sports sedan.

The test Sentra was the top-drawer performance model, the SE-R Spec V, powered by a 175-horsepower version of Nissan's sturdy 2.5-liter four-cylinder. This is a sweet and flexible engine that has impressive pull, especially for this lightweight car.

The Spec V comes with a six-speed manual transmission, a rarity in this price range, that feels slick and precise. The six gears serve this small engine well, helping keep it on the power band. A limited-slip front differential improves off-the-line traction and reduces torque steer.

There is no automatic available for the Spec V, though the regular SE-R, with 165 horsepower, can be had with either automatic or five-speed stick.

Stiffer spring rates, heavier anti-roll bars and heavy bracing for the front-suspension strut towers, tighter rack-and-pinion steering and low-profile tires on 17-inch rims combine to turn the Sentra from a mundane handler into a tight and responsive sport sedan.

The Spec V feels poised on the road, reacting quickly and precisely to driver input, and the big four-wheel disc brakes are quite effective.

Altogether, these upgrades and improvements make the SE-R Spec V a joy for sporting through the turns of a two-lane desert road. The growling engine note rising and falling with gear changes is sheer music for gearheads of all ages.

For ot her forms of music, the test car was equipped with the Audio Fanatic Package, a $549 stereo setup made up of a nine speaker, 300-watt Rockford Fosgate system with an 8-inch subwoofer. Cruising curbside, this system can deliver the bass response that goes boom and makes other drivers scowl into their rearview mirrors.

Set off by those 17-inch wheels, the Sentra sports lower-body extensions and a front fascia with fog lights and a handsome mesh grille that's designed to recall the famous Nissan Skyline sports coupe.

Actually, the styling may be too subtle for the young street-rodders the SE-R is designed to attract. I'll bet most of these get slammed, lowered as far as possible, with implausibly huge wings added to the trunk lid. As it is, Nissan could have tried harder to produce an attention-getter.

One piece missing in the performance package is antilock brakes, which are optional.

Besides the upgraded stereo package, which included a split folding rear seat, security system and vehicle immobilizer system to discourage theft, the tester came with a sunroof package, $699; floor mats, $79; and shipping, $540; for a total of $19,066.

The Sentra SE-R Spec V is another success in a season of successes for Nissan, the real comeback kid of the auto industry.

Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sedan, front-wheel drive.

Base price: $17,199.

Price as tested: $19,066.

Engine: 2.5-liter inline four, 175 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 180 pounds-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm.

Transmission: Six-speed manual.

Wheelbase: 99.8 inches.

Curb weight: 2,708 pounds.

EPA mileage: 22 city, 28 highway.


Quick performance.

Moderate price.

Great audio system.


Modest styling.

Antilock brakes optional.

Kids get all the fun.