Pocket rockets are to muscle cars what sprinters are to fullbacks.

They are quick and skittish in a torquey sort of way, but when it comes to straight ahead, powerful bashing, forget it.

It's lightning speed vs. brute strength.

But now comes the new Sentra SE-R, and specifically the hotter, as tested, Spec V model. It still has the finer attributes of a pocket rocket - wide torque through very high rpms - but it comes with a touch that other pocket rockets often lack: muscle.

The SE-R was an enthusiast's favorite from 1991-94, even with its lesser 2.0-liter engine. Now it is back, as the SE-R and the SE-R Spec V, after a seven-year hiatus. It returns as a peppier, more powerful, better suspended, four-door sedan.

Both models have a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine. The base SE-R engine produces 170 horsepower while the exhaust-tuned V Spec engine delivers 175 horsepower and a respectable 180 lb.-ft. of torque at 6,000 rpms.

It is built to handle that power well.

There is only a slight hint of the torque steer that often plagues snappy front-wheel-drive cars. And while understeer is noticeable in very hard cornering, it's easily controlled. Notable for its presence in a pocket rocket, and a car at this price ($16,999 base), is a limited slip differential, which keeps the inside front tire from slipping and spinning while accelerating in hard turns.

The stiff suspension in the Spec V features front and rear antiroll bars, with independent front struts and a multilink beam rear setup.

The result is a stable, nearly neutral ride in many situations: flat in lane changes while passing on the highway, giving only the slightest sense of body roll in aggressive backroad cornering.

There are some cars that you toss into corners at speed, and you subtly fix the results. Fun. With the Spec V, I'd describe the approach more as one of carving as you add a steady input of speed. Fun, as well.

For a car this light (2,771 lbs.) it offers a heavy feeling of stability. Even in an emergency stop at 60 miles per hour, there was no nose dive, no rear lift, and the optional (make it standard, please) antilock brake system kept the car pointed straight ahead.

The six-speed manual transmission, available only on the Spec V, was very stiff (maybe too tight in its throws for some people), and I sometimes found it hard to smoothly find sixth gear.

To differentiate this from other Sentras, Nissan has added mesh grilles up front and a wing above the rear deck. I like the lowered nose of the car, but wish the rear didn't look so much like a round, raised butt.

Inside, it is a slickly appointed ride for something in this price range. Black and red bucket seats are well bolstered, holding thighs and torso tightly in hard cornering. Their color scheme is matched in the rear seats, in the black dash, door panels (with red inserts), and even in the steering wheel - black leather-wrapped and stitched in red.

Nissan says the car seats five, but that's only with a big squeeze of three in the rear. The rear seat is split 60/40, with the larger portion folding flat and allowing through-seat access from the trunk.

A particularly sporty touch to the interior is the gunmetal gray shift knob, shaped like the head of a small fairway wood. I also liked the raspberry glow of the lettering on the gauges and the fluorescent orange needles on those gauges.

There are good and bad features about the central controls. All in a pod at center dash, the audio controls are easy to read and use and the climate control system is remarkably compact considering it consists of three large knobs and three good-sized, stacked buttons. What baffles me is why the climate controls, in a three-layer stack, are between the standard audio system (on top) and the optional six-CD changer. That makes for some focusing and refocusing that wouldn't be necessary if the sound pieces were grouped one atop the oter.

Stand rd features in the Spec V include an eight-way adjustable driver's seat, leather-wrapped steering wheel, sport gauges, remote keyless entry, power door locks, power windows, air conditioning, cruise control, dual 12-volt DC power outlets, dual front air bags, and 17-inch alloy wheels.

The price of the tested Spec V climbed to just over $20,000 with an upgraded audio system ($549), power sunroof ($699), in-dash six-CD changer ($399) and a package that includes side air bags and ABS ($749). I love side air bags, but please don't tell me that the only way someone can get ABS is to pay $749 for the combined package.

This is a car meant to run with the Honda Civic Si, the Ford SVT Focus, and the new Mini Cooper. Depending on your needs, it's worth comparing it to these when you go test driving. It offers a lot of bang for the buck.

Nice touch: The covered bin on top of center dash. Deep, wide and useful.

Annoyance: The ashtray. It sits below the central control pod and if removed (as most people could do) would leave a great little bin for coins or other goodies. Problem is, the back of its housing is open, so it is useless in that regard.

2002 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V

Base price: $16,999

Price as tested: $20,014

Horsepower: 175

Torque: 180 lb.-ft.

Wheelbase: 99.8 inches

Overall length: 177.5 inches

Width: 67.3 inches

Height: 55.5 inches

Curb weight: 2,771 lbs.

Seating: 5 passengers

Fuel economy: 23.8 miles per gallon

Nissan Ltd: fuel economy from Globe testing.

Nice touch

The covered bin on top of center dash. Deep, wide and useful.

Annoyance

The ashtray. It sits below the central control pod and if removed (as most people could do) would leave a great little bin for coins or other goodies. Problem is, the back of its housing is open, so it is useless in that regard.