2002 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V
US Model shown, Click image to enlarge

by Haney Louka

Starting under $20,000, the 2002 Nissan Sentra SE-R packs a lot of performance into a small package. Contributor Haney Louka admires the SE-R Spec V’s large-displacement 2.5 litre four cylinder engine for its “around town driving flexibility”, and he likes the Spec V’s “totally flat cornering experience”. He didn’t like the car’s “abundance of torque steer” and “bone-jarring ride”, but he says he’d be “hard pressed to find more performance for less money.”

It seems the most telling symptom of good economic times for an automaker is the introduction of niche vehicles that are produced in small volumes and cater to the needs of a similarly small piece of the car buying pie.

In Nissan’s case, that niche vehicle is the new Sentra SE-R, and a few people will remember that moniker from the 200 SX SE-R coupe that was sold here between 1995 and 1998. But for real performance aficionados, the name SE-R made a huge splash when it was attached to the Sentra name and sold in the U.S. in the early nineties. Unfortunately, Canadians were denied the pleasure of being able to buy one. That first SE-R was an anonymous-looking no-frills econobox that combined a high-revving, 140-hp jewel of a powerplant with precise handling and a good dose of practicality.

For 2002, the Sentra SE-R brings a higher level of performance than the original, and the exclusive Spec V version delivers more yet while packing uncompromising handling that’s not for the faint of heart.

Two Performance Flavours

2002 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V
US Model shown, Click image to enlarge

The base SE-R is priced at $19,998 and equipped with a five-speed manual transmission, four-wheel disc brakes, 16-inch alloy wheels, body ground effects, fog lights, air conditioning, power windows and locks, keyless entry, cruise control, 180-watt CD audio system, and a few other goodies. Options include automatic transmission and a Sport Package.

My test vehicle was an SE-R Spec V with a list price of $21,498. Along with more power under the hood, the Spec V’s equipment list grows to include a six-speed gearbox, 17-inch wheels with 45-series Z-rated performance tires, a rear spoiler, and a “lava” interior motif. Options include anti-lock brakes and a Sport Package.

The optional Sport Package should actually be called a “luxury” package, as it contains no performance-enhancing goodies. To either SE-R model, customers who pay the $2,500 premium will add a nine-speaker, 300-watt Rockford-Fosgate audio system; power sunroof; partial fold-down rear seats; anti-theft system with immobilizer key feature; and anti-lock brakes. Strangely enough, the SE-R with Sport Package is only available on automatic-equipped models.

The Powertrains

2002 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V
Click image to enlarge
Photo: Haney Louka

Both SE-R models pack an all-new 2.5 litre four-cylinder powerplant based on Nissan’s larger V-6 VQ-series engines. With continuously variable valve timing (CVTC), microfinished crank journals and cam lobes, lightweight pistons, and electronically controlled throttle, this motor puts out 165 hp at 6,000 rpm and 175 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm.

The Spec V gets a specially tuned exhaust system to boost the output numbers to 175 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque.

Power is transferred to the front wheels via a close-ratio, short-throw six speed in the Spec V, while the base SE-R makes do with a more conventional five-speed stick or four-speed slushbox putting the power to the pavement. Spec Vs also benefit from a helical limited-slip differential that prevents one wheel from spinning uselessly in low-traction situations.

While the general arrangement of the suspension is the same as in lesser Sentras, the SE-R gets a sport-tuned version that incorporates firmer shocks and springs. Sign up for the Spec V and the components go a step further in firmness, including the front suspension bushings. Both models benefit from a front strut tower brace that reduces body flex during cornering.

Four wheel disc brakes, vented in front, are standard on both models.


2002 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V
US Model shown, Click image to enlarge

Given the rather nondescript styling approach that was used for this latest generation of Sentras, Nissan’s stylists had more than a little work to do to achieve the desired aggressive appearance. Starting with the front end, they applied a new face that incorporates a front air dam with fog lights and a mesh grille. The profile benefits from the aforementioned 17-inchers (which do great job of filling the wheel wells) and ground effects, while the rear end is spruced up a bit with the addition of a rear spoiler and dual exhaust tips.

Overall, it’s pretty obvious to the casual observer that this is not a run-of-the-mill Sentra, but it doesn’t look gaudy or gimmicky. Nicely done.

2002 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V
Click image to enlarge
Photo: Haney Louka

That’s the outside. Gaudy may, however, be one of the first words that come to mind after laying eyes on the Spec V’s interior. The “lava” seats are intended as a nod to the high-performance Skyline GT-R, sold in Nissan’s home market, which provided more than a little inspiration for SE-R designers. While I didn’t mind driving a car with red-and-black seats for the weekend, I think the novelty would wear away quite quickly. Those that agree with me can take comfort in the fact that base SE-Rs have a much more subtle interior colour scheme that’s taken from the more pedestrian GXE model.

The rest of the SE-R’s interior is borrowed from the more mainstream models, providing thoughtful touches like a covered storage bin on the dash and an overhead console with map lights. The gauges are red on black, with red lighting at night. They definitely look the sporting part, but last year’s SE came with Nissan’s classier titanium-faced gauge package, and it would have been nice to see those return in the SE-R.

The Driving Experience

2002 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V
US Model shown, Click image to enlarge

I applaud Nissan’s decision to go with a larger displacement four-banger to get the extra power for the SE-R. While Honda’s designs go the high-tech, high-revving route to achieving loftier peak power numbers, they don’t do a lot for around-town driving flexibility. To get real-world performance out of those engines, drivers have to literally rev them to within a millimetre of redline, which gets a little tiring after a while.

The abundance of torque, combined with six forward gear ratios, means that the SE-R always has power to spare. And although some torquey engines have an aversion to revving, the SE-R’s tach anxiously claws its way right up to the 6,500-rpm redline.

The only downside to transferring this much power through the front wheels of a small, 1,246-kg sedan is the abundance of torque steer that results in the driver fighting to keep the front wheels straight (or along the intended curve) on hard acceleration at lower speeds.

It is, though, much more acceptable a vice in a $22K pocket rocket than in a Saab 9-3 costing twice as much.

Cornering in the SE-R is a totally flat experience, with those 215/45ZR-17 performance tires tenaciously hanging on to the road surface, communicating every bump and crack in the process.

Shifting in the SE-R is a pleasure thanks to the short throws of the six-speed, after getting used to the slightly clunky action that accompanies each gear change.

Steering effort, clutch action, and brake pedal feel are all appropriately firm and well suited to the character of this car. The ride is downright bone jarring, again true to the purpose of providing the most bang for the buck; a concept that doesn’t only apply to the powerful motor, but the all-around level of performance that is achieved by the SE-R.

At 100 km/h, the big Sentra motor turns a relatively relaxed 2,400 rpm thanks to the tallish sixth gear. While one would expect the wide, low profile tires to hunt around following grooves and ruts in the lanes, the SE-R seems to always know where straight ahead is and feels remarkably stable at high speeds.

To Sum It Up

For 2002, the selection of performance vehicles in Nissan’s stable has increased dramatically, and now there’s serious performance to be found across the entire model range, right down to the affordable compact Sentra.

The SE-R is all about in-your-face performance, and Nissan has successfully pulled off the task of offering an affordable niche vehicle that caters to a few driving enthusiasts. I’d be hard pressed to find more performance for less money.

Shopping Around

The hot compact sport segment is an increasingly popular one that sees new entries every year, dominated by the Japanese importers:

Acura RSX (160 hp, $24,000)

Chevrolet Cavalier Z24 (150 hp, $22,475)

Chrysler Neon R/T (150 hp, $23,970)

Honda Civic SiR (160 hp, $TBA)

Mazda MP3 (140 hp, $23,795)

Technical Data:

2002 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V
Base price $21,498
Price as tested $21,498
Type 4-door, 5-passenger compact sedan
Layout front engine, front wheel drive
Engine 2.5L inline-4, DOHC, 16 valves
Horsepower 175 @ 6000 rpm
Torque 180 lb-ft. @ 4000 rpm
Fuel Premium recommended
Transmission 6-speed manual
Tires 215/45ZR-17
Curb weight 1246 kg (2746 lb.)
Wheelbase 2535 mm (99.8 in.)
Length 4509 mm (177.5 in.)
Height 1410 mm (55.5 in.)
Fuel consumption City: 10.8 L/100 km (26 mpg)
  Hwy: 7.6 L/100 km (37 mpg)
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

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