Nissan’s Nismo-fettled compact sedan is no world-beater, but it’s enough fun for the price.
– Los Angeles, California
After seeing countless spy photos of what was expected to be the Sentra Nismo, driving the actual 2017 Nissan Sentra SR Turbo was almost a letdown. Don’t get me wrong, the car’s turbo powertrain and livelier handling make for a very nice, affordable package, but the name Nismo conjures up thoughts of grand performance cars – you know, the 370Z, GT-R, and even Juke Nismo RS models – and the SR Turbo didn’t quite deliver on that premise.
But it turns out the SR Turbo wasn’t the end of the Sentra’s performance transformation, and a Nismo model really was on the way. The Sentra Nismo, introduced this week at the 2016 Los Angeles Auto Show and on sale in January 2017, takes things a small but important step forward. You don’t get any extra power from the Juke-sourced, 1.6-liter turbo-four engine, but several handling upgrades finally give the Sentra the ingredients to back up its boosted engine with real driving poise.
- This is a car that actually handles with some verve. There’s no floatiness or squishiness in the new suspension. The Sentra Nismo simply takes one set through a turn and quickly straightens itself up afterward. The ride is firm enough that you feel exactly what’s happening under the tires, but not so much as to be tiring. It’s a very VW Golf GTI ride quality, in fact: taut but not punishing.
- The retuned electric power steering is a big upgrade over the SR Turbo. It’s precise, with lots of weight that builds progressively as you dial in more lock. Whether it’s due to the new tires or improved chassis stiffness, I also feel so much more feedback and information through the suede-wrapped three-spoke wheel than in any other Sentra.
- It’s easy to simply bolt a stiffer suspension onto a car, but I appreciate that Nissan took care to make sure the body was also up to the task. Engineers bolstered the Sentra’s cowl and parcel shelf, added more bracing, and even banned the inclusion of a moonroof; cutting a hole in a car’s roof always reduces torsional rigidity. As a result, not a single squeak or rattle makes it through the car when you pound over rough terrain. And when you toss the Nismo into a bend, it doesn’t feel like the body is flexing in protest.
- Perhaps I spent too much time at SEMA the other week, but I think the Sentra Nismo looks really cool. Where the SR Turbo is just a slightly smarter Sentra with a spoiler, the Nismo’s signature red accents, larger rear spoiler, and new 18-inch wheels take things up a noticeable notch. I don’t know if I’d show up at, say, a cars and coffee gathering in the SR Turbo, but I could probably be convinced to do so in this model.
- As with the SR Turbo, this is a spunky, energetic engine with boost that comes on early and spins toward redline with some serious eagerness. But...
- ...Acceleration really isn’t that impressive for a car with a Nismo label and such a promising chassis. The new tires are so sticky that nary a chirp is possible under acceleration, and with the stiffer suspension, I often find myself coming out of a bend quickly but waiting, waiting, waiting for the engine to catch up; there’s just enough turbo lag as to be annoying. Nissan, for its part, hedges by saying adding more power would have upset the chassis and braking balance, and would have pushed the price up too high to be accessible to most potential buyers. That’s too bad, because this chassis really feels like it could handle a full 200 ponies.
- Where’s the noise? This engine just moans and thrashes, despite the new exhaust tip. Where’s the snarling or growling I expect from a performance car?
- Competition in this space is tough, and the Sentra Nismo isn’t the best performer if you’re looking for an enthusiast vehicle. Ultimately, it competes against mainstream cars with more powerful engines – Honda Civic EX-T, Mazda3 s, etc – but it can’t stack up against true sporty models. For not much more money you could buy the VW Jetta GLI or the Ford Fiesta ST; I’d pick the raucous Ford hatch any day. And let’s not forget that a new Honda Civic Si that just debuted in L.A, too...
Photos: Jake Holmes / Motor1.com