Is the new Sentra NISMO heir to the SE-R throne?
That depends on who you ask. And really, ask the right person. Why? Well there’s a lot of snobbery, and it seems to come from people who haven’t taken the trouble to even drive the car.
And they’re missing out.
From the enthusiast camp, the issue seems to be the expectations based on the NISMO name – that you should expect BMW M Division, Mercedes AMG level commitment to performance. While we think that’s true in the GT-R NISMO and 370Z NISMO, when it comes to models like the Sentra and JUKE, you need to recalibrate. But once you do, you find a very likeable, engaging vehicle.
There’s certainly plenty to love about the looks. The body kit really sets it apart from the garden-variety Sentra – and it’s functional too, reducing lift by 30 percent without increasing aerodynamic drag. (Something to talk about when bench racing).
We like the unique front fascia with LED running lights, and the “layered double wing” design in contrasting color and large lower intake. At the side, you have sills that help frame the handsome 18-inch NISMO 10-spoke alloys.
In the back, a NISMO rear spoiler and a revised rear bumper and fascia, all finished off with a fat single exhaust poking out the back.
Dropped nearly half an inch, the overall effect looks sporty and aggressive, but still tasteful. It’s an interesting contrast to the Civic Sport we recently tested, that was much more overtly designed. Our NISMO in Aspen White (Silver, Gun Metallic and Super Black are also available) was subtle enough that it didn’t get gasps, but approving glances from those in the know. We’ll take that.
If the sporty exterior tempts you inside, it’s done the job, and you’ll be happy it did. Let’s start with the seats. If we didn’t know better, we’d swear they were Recaros. In a grippy cloth with a swanky “NISMO” stitched into the backs, the seat is superbly supportive, with long seat bottoms that give real comfort for taller drivers. Even though there’s no lumbar support, you won’t miss it. This is the best driver seat we’ve found in any affordable sport sedan.
The next thing that grabs you is the leather-and-Alcantara (faux suede to you and me) steering wheel that’s soft to the touch, and brings to mind high-end Euro performance cars. The red strip of leather at the 12 o’clock position is a nice touch, too.
Being a Sentra, you get a huge interior for the class, and upright seating that gives excellent visibility. While it’s offered only in sedan bodystyle, the large trunk and split folding rear seats give plenty of cargo space.
Because it’s based on the Sensible Sentra, the gauge package is traditional – but no complaints here. There’s a huge tach (with signature NISMO red face) and speedo, and a 5-inch, Driver Assist Display in-between that relays all sorts of useful information. Clear, concise, and legible.
Our tester also had the optional Premium Package, and that gets you a premium Bose Audio system, plus a 5.8-inch touch screen display with voice recognition, XM radio, navigation and traffic. It all works very well, but in today’s climate of ever-growing screens, the 5.8” looks a bit small, and it lacks the Apple CarPlay that’s in high demand.
But frankly, if you’re looking at a NISMO-badged vehicle, you’ll be looking for your entertainment elsewhere – the drive.
First place to look, under the hood. Pop it and behold Nissan’s new, 1.6-liter Direct Injection Gas (DIG) motor, with turbo – making it the first ever factory turbocharged Sentra. It’s the same motor we’ve seen in the JUKE NISMO, and the little four punches hard, with 188 hp at 5,600 rpm, and 177 lb-ft of torque kicking in at just 1,600 rpm.
It’s a revvy little powerplant that sounds purposeful and sweet through the NISMO exhaust. Our tester had the 6-speed manual, and that would be our recommendation, it’s fun to shift and the clutch is light and easy to modulate. That nice wide torque curve makes it easy to cruise along with traffic, but enthusiasts will find themselves pushing it hard for maximum performance, which is quick, but never fast.
It’s not lost on us that the JUKE NISMO RS has the very same motor, and in its pumped-up guise makes an impressive 215 hp and 210 lb.-ft. of Torque. We’d like to see that version in the Sentra. Puhleeeease! A CVT automatic transmission is offered, and Nissan says it has been specially-tuned to give a sporty drive. We’d stick with the stick.
Nissan points out that the NISMO isn’t just putting sporty lipstick on a rental car – the enhancements run deep. Case in point; the body structure is reinforced with a thicker cowl, vehicle floor, and rear parcel shelf, allowing the suspension to work precisely.
And that suspension takes a step up from the already-sporty Sentra SR Turbo with unique tuning and monotube rear shocks. It works well – the Sentra feels solid, rides firmly but not harshly and the steering has a light touch with good feedback. The 18-inch wheels and 215/45/R18 all-season performance tires – the largest ever on a Sentra – serve up excellent grip.
Overall, it has a light tossability and seems eager to please. It’s a fun drive.
So, where does the Sentra NISMO fit in today’s market? It’s not an all-out sporting weapon like a GTI or Focus ST, (although with that 215 hp upgrade….). We think it’s closer to the Mazda 3 or the Honda Civic Sport we tested recently.
While the most basic Sentra starts at $16,990, the driver’s choice really starts with the $21,990 SR Turbo, which shares the NISMO’s engine, but lacks the styling and suspension bits. In its place, it offers more luxury items, including a power moonroof not offered on the NISMO.
To become a smiling Sentra NISMO owner will put you back at $24,990 to start. Our tester’s beautiful Aspen White was a bargain $295, while Premium Package that gives you Navigation and Bose premium audio, a reasonable $1,220. Add in destination and handling and our tester rang the bell at $27,370.
At that price, the Sentra is going to face some stiff competition. Our recent Civic Sport tester came in at just $21,000 – but certain goodies like Navigation aren’t available on a manual trans car. A loaded Mazda 3 hatch we tested recently was $29,000. Our guess is that Nissan dealers will aggressively discount the NISMOs, and in the lower 20’s, it is a very desirable car.
So, don’t listen to the snobs. We found the Sentra NISMO to be extremely likeable. We loved the looks, the interior comfort is best-in-class, and the drive is entertaining. Not GT-R or 370Z NISMO OMG entertaining, but fun in the way we remember the 1991 Sentra SE-R. A practical vehicle with that extra zing to put a smile on your face.
Ben Lewis grew up in Chicago, and after spending his formative years driving sideways in the winter – often intentionally – moved to sunny Southern California. He now enjoys sunny weather year-round — whether it is autocross driving, aerobatics, and learning to surf.