When it comes to car lust, the yearning involved is usually equal to the size of the price tag. That means the plethora of gas-sippers now available in automobile showrooms often are low on the lust list. In this decade of cheap gas and big
trucks, it's hard for the best manufacturers to move the metal. Certainly, Nissan's Sentra is easy on the eyes -- even if it hardly stands out, styling-wise. The black honeycomb grille suggests the styling of the Maxima. For 1998, Nissan added
an SE model to a line of small sedans that include base, XE, GXE and GLE in ascending order of trim and price. The SE is the icing on the cake for this model, and probably the priciest. The biggest difference is wheel size. Base and XE models get 13-inch
tires, GXE and GLE get 14-inch tires, with top-grade SE models getting 15-inch wheels. But while other models in the line make do with a 1.6-liter double overhead-cam four-cylinder engine and 115 horsepower, the SE gets a lusty 2.0-liter DOHC
all-aluminum engine that puts out a healthy 140 horsepower and 132 foot-pounds of torque. Both 16-valve engines can be mated to either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. A curb weight of slightly more than 2,400 pounds means
this car moves nicely, although the automatic isn't really the ideal choice for this engine. But it runs to redline and produces a marvelous sound. Engineering here is rather conventional with struts up front and Nissan's multi-link rear beam axle.
As can be expected in a car without a fully independent suspension, there is some rear axle hop, and the ride overall is firm and occasionally jittery. It rarely gets punishing. Handling is good. The car has great composure in the twisties and the
somewhat heavy-feeling steering isn't overly quick. Most small cars have an abundance of road and tire noise, but in this regard the Sentra acquits itself quite nicely. Inside seat comfort was pretty good. There was a decent amount of back
support, but the seats were somewhat hard. Leg room up front was average for the class. The cabin reflected its position in the line-up, so hard plastics were everywhere. But it's all modern, nicely designed, and easy to use. The white-faced gauges
were striking. The wiper stalk mounted on the right side of the steering wheel felt thin and cheap, although the headlamps/turn signal indicator lever was of a much finer quality. The cruise control switches seem to be taken from the Maxima. If
the styling here doesn't standout, certainly the options list does, with power windows, door locks and mirrors, sliding glass sunroof, remote entry, security system and anti-lock brakes. Ordering anti-lock gets you rear disc brakes instead of rear drums.
The AM/FM-cassette-CD player was pretty good, delivering a fine, albeit occasionally tinny sound. Storage space inside the cabin consists of a small open bin in the center console, map pockets and a glove box big enough
to hold CDs. Trunk space is limited to 10.7 cubic feet, small even for this class. But the trunk is usefully shaped and has a pass-through for longer items. The sliding sunroof proved to have a booming resonance when open, so it rarely got used.
Fuel economy was quite good. The engine was driven hard, yet still returned 29 mpg. Filling a car for less than $10 is something all of us can get used to. But the sticker might raise your eyebrows. The sporty handling and goodies come at a
price. The base sedan starts at $11,499, comes only with a five-speed manual and is basically a stripper. The XE, with such commonly asked-for items as a radio, starts at $12,761. The SE starts at a mind-boggling $17,549 and topped out at an even more
startling $19,516. This isn't that far away from Altima territory. So the SE's popularity might be limited, even if it does use the same engine offered in the Infiniti G20, a car that's $5,000 more expensive. But, given its so-sol ooks, the
Sentra needs something to keep people interested. That the SE does in spades. 1998 Nissan Sentra SE Engine: 2.0-liter double overhead-cam 16-valve engine Rating: 140 horsepower, 132 foot-pounds of torque Transmissions: five-speed manual
or optional four-speed automatic Tires: P195/55R15 Standard features: Fog lamps, tinted glass, air conditioning, AM/ FM-cassette player, power windows, power door locks, power mirrors, power steering, tilt steering wheel, dual air bags,
leather-wrapped steering wheel, intermittent wipers. Major options: SE option package (100-watt audio system with CD player, power sunroof, security system, keyless entry), anti-lock brakes, floor mats. Base price, base model: $11,499 Base
price test model: $17,549 As tested: $19,516 EPA rating: 23 mpg city, 30 mpg highway Test mileage: 29 mpg