When a regular Sentra is too blah and a proper hot hatch is too intense, pick this car.
– Greensboro, Georgia
Three years ago, some engineers at Nissan’s Arizona Technical Center put together an automotive Frankenstein’s Monster: they found the turbocharged powertrain from a Juke crossover and stuffed it into a pre-production Sentra sedan. The story might have ended there, with a one-off toy that eventually went to the crusher, but the engineers convinced other people to drive their mash-up. Eventually, product planners and executives agreed a turbocharged Sentra was fun and made a business case for it. The result, called the Sentra SR Turbo, goes on sale this fall.
The SR Turbo looks basically the same as the previous Sentra SR trim level (which accounts for about 15 percent of sales), but it hides the Juke’s 1.6-liter direct-injection turbocharged engine under the hood. Compared to a regular Sentra, the front suspension springs have been stiffened, the dampers retuned, the front brake rotors enlarged by 0.7 inch, sportier brake pads fitted, and a thicker windshield cowl piece installed to stiffen the chassis. Nissan officials are eager to caution that the SR Turbo is not a sort of Civic Si or Jetta GLI rival, and they’re right. But as a medium-spice variant of the bland Sentra, it’s a welcome addition to the range.
- The turbo engine is lively and feisty, scurrying the Sentra SR Turbo to speed far more aggressively than the regular engine. With an extra 58 horsepower and 49 pound-feet of torque over the non-turbo Sentra, for totals of 188 hp and 177 lb-ft, the result is a car that’s noticeably quicker. But it’s still no rocketship. As is the case in the Juke, the engine doesn’t exactly whack you back into your seat with forward thrust. Yet it never lacks for boost or an eagerness to rev; on the whole, it’s a fun little engine.
- The chassis upgrades provide enough handling competence to match the straight-line oomph. Not all of the Sentra’s suspension flop and softness has been excised, but there’s enough damping control and front-end stiffness to keep the car in check on a quick hustle down some back roads. The dampers do their darndest to resist body roll, and the brakes, despite a horribly squishy pedal feel, reliably scrub speed.
- There are few downsides in terms of civility or price to picking the SR Turbo. Yes, it’s the costliest Sentra, but the Turbo still rings in under $22,000. Bulking up the car’s performance hasn’t diluted its signature soporific isolation, either: things are mostly hushed and plush out on the road. The only real negative is at the gas pump, where you’ll have to use premium and will get about three miles per gallon fewer combined (official numbers are not yet available) than a non-boosted Sentra.
- A limp, numb clutch pedal makes driving the six-speed manual version less fun than I hoped. The transmission, which comes from the Juke, has nicely spaced ratios and mostly viceless shift action. But it’s tough to shift quickly with an economy-car clutch. For this reason, I almost prefer driving the SR Turbo with its no-cost-extra CVT. Flick the shifter to the left and you can effect up- and downshifts through seven simulated gears, though there are no paddle shifters. Choosing Sport mode also holds revs higher and sharpens the throttle response.
- When you push hard, it becomes readily apparent that a sportier Sentra is still a Sentra. The SR Turbo’s steering is lifeless and overly light, its chassis gives up early in a shriek of all-season tire, and there’s no confusing this for a hot hatch. The feisty engine lulls me into driving faster than I should, only for the chassis to let me down when I reach a bend.
Photos: Jake Holmes / Motor1.com