A Sentra for drivers with a pulse
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V – 2007 Review: At one time or another, we’ve all been faced with a dreadful date. Maybe it was his style or her personality – regardless, we envisioned a long, painful evening. And then, BAM – three hours of involuntary grins, genuine connections, and hopes for a follow-up encounter.
We took a ride on that roller coaster recently, courtesy of the 2007 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V. Having already experienced the ho-hum Sentra, promises of a snazzier look and added Spec V power left us doubtful, nonetheless. How wrong we were. Fun between the stop signs, but tame enough to greet Mom, this one’s a keeper.
By Thom Blackett
Photo credit: Oliver Bentley
What We Drove
Nissan sells the SE-R in two strengths – base and Spec V. We borrowed the latter for about 600 miles of testing, running the 200-horsepower sedan through daily commute duty as well as a Saturday filled with high-revving canyon carving. The sticker on our Red Alert six-speeder read $22,500, which included a $615 destination charge $2,065 in options. A 340-watt Rockford Fosgate sound system ($750) delivered a six-disc CD changer, an MP3 jack, and more, while a Sunroof Package ($750) added not only the power glass sunroof but also illuminated vanity mirrors. Nissan also packed our tester with floor and trunk mats ($165) and a helical limited-slip differential ($400).
Compared to its primary competitor, the Honda Civic Si Sedan, Nissan’s SE-R Spec V delivers slightly more horsepower, a good chunk of added torque (180 lb.-ft. versus Honda’s 139 lb.-ft.), and an engine more suitably designed for everyday driving. Without the peaky nature of the Civic’s i-VTEC technology, the Sentra provides linear power delivery up into the 7,000-rpm range. More low-end grunt would be welcome, but leave the smooth-shifting, short-throw six-speed manual in second or third gear and you’ll have enough power on demand 90 percent of the time. We recorded 21.3 mpg over 600 miles, during which time the concept of “gentle driving” didn’t cross our minds even once.
Couple admirable power with a relatively small front-wheel-drive vehicle, and the result is often overwhelming torque steer. Drivers of the SE-R Spec V will be pleased to find that, instead, the new 2007 version packs ponies aplenty that don’t tug violently on the reins. During routine driving, the steering feels nicely weighted but a bit jerky; the sensations morph into responsive and sport-tuned when charging through the twisties. With a bit of oversteer, the Spec V eats up corners, displaying minimal body roll as Continental SportContact 2 225/45R17 tires marry themselves to the asphalt. The suspension is set up for comfortable commuting, especially when compared to the Civic Si, and the brakes are well modulated.
With its long greenhouse, the SE-R Spec V provides acceptable visibility for the daily driver. Even the rear glass, which sits at a noticeable angle and is somewhat compromised by rear outboard head restraints, offers a decent look at what’s going on behind the car. However, the tapered, yet stylish exterior mirrors create small blind spots and the A-pillars’ thick bases make it hard to track the double-yellow when attacking aggressive corners. That’s not a serious problem in most cars, but in the sport-tuned SE-R maintaining a clear view of the twisty road ahead is key.
Fun to Drive
Wow – what a difference sport tuning, a good boost in power, and aggressive rubber can make. We drove the snoozy redesigned Sentra previously, and were unimpressed by the car’s boulevard cruiser demeanor.
The SE-R Spec V is an altogether different beast, one that’s a total hoot to exercise on winding, traffic- and pedestrian-free back roads. That little four-banger willingly runs to redline again and again, the slick manual tranny makes frequent shifts fun, and the sedan pulls through corners with surprising grip. Bumping up the fun factor is a base price around $20,000, but we longed for figures closer to the EPA 24/31 mpg fuel economy ratings.
To many manufacturers, a sporty seat translates to a stiff seat. Nissan designers, however, have managed to outfit the Sentra SE-R Spec V with front buckets that coddle while also controlling body movement during spirited driving. Spacious, well-bolstered, and thickly-padded, the supportive seats are ideal for long drives and occasional canyon carving. Comfort is also delivered via padded door panels and armrests, a tilting (though not telescoping) leather-wrapped steering wheel, a soft leather shift knob, and a rubberized center armrest. While roomy, future improvements should include a center armrest that sits closer to the shifter, and soft plastics against which the driver’s knees will surely rub during hard cornering.
If you find yourself facing extensive travel with a 2007 Nissan Sentra, SE-R or otherwise, make sure to sit up front. The flat, inhospitable rear bench seat is no place to grow achy as the miles slowly go by. Room is not the issue – there’s enough space for your head and feet, and the soft front seatbacks ensure the leggy amongst us will fare well. Padded door sills and armrests help a bit, as do the wide-opening doors that provide for easy entry. But there really is no making up for that crummy bench. The lack of any real storage, even one measly cupholder, adds to the “Are we there yet?” feeling.
Nissan has done a commendable job of allowing “good” noise to reach the SE-R’s cockpit, while keeping much of the “bad” noise out. The high-revving four-cylinder makes its presence known when its time for hammering through the esses on back roads or when slow traffic can no longer be tolerated on inner-city freeways, but the song it sings is refined. Wind and tire noise are well-isolated, as is road noise – we’re not talking Lexus-quiet here, but the cabin is rather tranquil considering its placement in a $22,000 sport sedan. If we could change one thing it would be to eliminate the few squeaks and rattles we heard after a long run though the mountains.
Those shoppers who believe that a smaller car automatically translates to lousy trunk space will be pleasantly surprised by the SE-R Spec V. A cross brace prevents the rear seat from being folded down, but the cargo area is quite spacious, offering plenty of room for a couple of large suitcases, with a duffle or two squeezed into the remaining crevices. The opening is wide, the liftover height low, and hinges are designed so as to not intrude on cargo. We’d vote for the addition of a grab handle on the lid and a few token tie-down points.
A routine inspection of our test car uncovered a few assembly issues, but nothing alarming. Inside, most bits were tight and aligned properly, with the exception of the glovebox and a smattering of trim pieces on the face of the dash – none were noticeable unless one took the time to look. However, the loose kick panel in the front passenger’s foot well was hard to miss, as was the haphazardly placed rear armrest. Exterior build quality was perfect from 10 feet away, with inconsistent hood and trunk gaps only visible upon closer inspection. The front fascia was a bit loose and didn’t sit flush against the front passenger side fender.
Nissan can be commended for using some quality materials in the SE-R Spec V, including a durable mesh fabric on the seats, a nice mesh on the headliner and visors, and a low-matte and rubberized plastic to cap the dash, door sills, and armrests. The leather on the steering wheel and shift knob has an upscale feel, too. On the flip side, there are hard, shiny plastics used in the remaining spots, the emergency brake handle has an ugly seam (and should be wrapped in leather), the grain on the A-pillar plastic doesn’t match that of any of the surrounding panels, and many of the less-visible bits have an unfinished look.
Sprayed in glossy Red Alert paint, our test car was easy to spot. Couple the lively color with an array of visual tweaks, and you’ve suddenly moved the Sentra from the visually mundane to the visually appealing. Exterior enhancements include a set of 17-inch gray alloy wheels, lower side skirts, more aggressive fascias (with integrated fog lights up front), an egg crate upper grille, and head and taillights featuring dark inserts. The interior is treated to red stitching on the seats, red front seatbelts, and SE-R embroidery on the front buckets. Collectively, it all makes for a cool look without hitting the tacky mark.
Our resident road tripper always considers cars in terms of how well they support long-distance travel. He pays special attention to the placement of cupholders and the number of cubbies and crannies for maps and snacks. The Sentra SE-R Spec V passed the test, thanks to a spacious and lockable glovebox, a large and lined left-dash cubby, a deep center armrest, multiple center console slots, and two adjustable front cupholders. A higher score would be awarded should the SE-R Spec V be treated to larger front door pockets and at least one shred of rear-seat storage (two tiny nets don’t cut it).
Decked out with a Rockford Fosgate sound system, our SE-R Spec V test car provided the best Nissan offers in Sentra audio. Situated below a digital screen, which displays radio information as well as trip computer data, the sound system head unit features a central power/volume dial, and several large, well-marked buttons for secondary functions. Buyers of this top-level Sentra might expect steering wheel-mounted audio controls to be part of the package, though, curiously, they’re not. Compensating for that faux pas, at least in part, is an MP3 jack just below the central dial. A 12-volt plug is hidden under the shifter, necessitating a sticker directing you to its placement.
The climate control system is comprised of three dials – one for fan speed, one for temperature, and one for mode. Tap the center of each dial for recirculating mode, a/c, and the rear defrost function. The grips are plastic, which offers a less refined feel than the preferred rubber texture. Placement is just OK – when the manual transmission’s shifter is positioned in Reverse, first, third, or fifth gears, it serves to block direct access to the climate controls.
Aside from power mirrors, power door locks, and power windows, all of which feature logically-placed buttons on the door panel, the Sentra SE-R Spec V doesn’t offer much in the way of secondary controls. The cruise control system adds illuminated buttons to the right spoke of the steering wheel, and the sunroof uses one button overhead, but that’s it. There’s no stability control button to hunt for (well, you can hunt for it to your heart’s content, but you won’t find anything), no heated seat buttons, and no controls for the countless other systems you may, or may not expect from a $22,000 vehicle.
There are a number of small, affordable cars on the market that look like they fall under the sport-tuner heading, but few actually provide the horses and underpinnings to back up the empty promises of oversized spoilers and GT badges. And then there are the legit rides, such as the 2007 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V. There’s one true competitor, the 197-horsepower Honda Civic Si, which starts at about $21,000. Stretch the envelope a bit and you bring the Volkswagen GTI, starting at about $22,000 with 200 horsepower, into the fold. Same goes for the 200-horse VW Jetta GLI sedan, priced from $24,000.