by Greg Wilson
A blast to drive but manual shifter is disappointing
Scheduled to go on sale in October, Nissan’s new high-performance 175 horsepower 2002 Sentra SE-R will replace the 145 horsepower 2001 Sentra SE sedan. Prices for the SE-R have not yet been announced, but they’re expected to be between $20,000 and $24,000. The 2001 SE sold for just under $20,000.
2002 Sentra SE-R models will come in two versions: SE-R and SE-R Spec V. Both have a new 2.5 litre DOHC 16 valve four cylinder engine but the SE-R Spec V model has 10 more horsepower and 5 lb-ft more torque due to a tuned exhaust system and a variable capacity muffler. SE-R engines develop 165 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 175 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm while SE-R Spec V engines offer 175 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 180 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm.
The new 2.5 litre engine uses technology from the well-known and award-winning VQ V6 engine found in the Maxima sedan. The SE-R engine features micro-finished crank journals and cam lobes, molybdenum coated lightweight pistons, electronically controlled throttle and continuously variable valve timing. To smooth out vibrations common to large four cylinder engines, the SE-R’s 2.5 litre engine features a silent chain drive and compact balancer system.
Other differences between SE-R and SE-R Spec V models: Spec V models have a standard 6-speed manual transmission while standard SE-R models have a 5-speed manual transmission – and a 4-speed automatic transmission is available on the SE-R but not on the SE-R Spec V.
While all SE-R models include a front MacPherson strut suspension with stablizer bar and front tower brace and a rear semi-independent ‘Multi-link Beam’ suspension with stabilizer bar, Spec V models also include high-performance 215/45ZR-17 inch tires, increased spring rates, and a limited slip front differential — this is a mechanical differential that is torque sensitive, locking up for increased traction when one front wheel slips.
Four wheel disc brakes are standard on all models, but curiously, ABS is optional.
On the inside, all SE-R models have metallic-look gauges with orange illumination, an overhead console, and leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. Standard equipment on base models includes air conditioning, 180 watt AM/FM/CD stereo with seven speakers, power windows, power locks, power mirrors, an 8-way driver’s seat and split folding rear seats.
SE-R Spec V Sentras have a unique charcoal-coloured interior with body-hugging front sport seats with bright red ‘Lava-coloured’ seat inserts, red dash trim, and red-stitching on the leather covered steering wheel. However, for some reason, the rear seatback in the Spec V is fixed rather than folding. Optional on both SE-R Spec V and SE-R is a custom-designed 280-watt 9-speaker Rockford Fosgate audio system with in-dash 6-CD changer, an 8-inch subwoofer, rear coaxial speakers and front door speakers.
Standard safety equipment on all SE-R’s includes dual ‘next-generation’ front air bags, child safety rear door locks, 3-point seat belts in all seating positions, front seat belts with height-adjustable shoulder anchors, front seat belt pretensioners with load limiters, front and rear crumple zones and pipe-style steel side-door guard beams. Front-seat side air bags are optional.
Compared to the standard Sentra, SE-R models have an aggressive front fascia with mesh grille, large front fog lamps, body-coloured side sills, a rear spoiler, and chromed exhaust tips.
I spent about an hour driving a SE-R Spec V model with the 6 speed manual transmission, and another hour driving an SE-R with the automatic transmission. I drove over some particularly winding, bumpy, hilly secondary roads — a good test of the suspension, body rigidity, steering responsiveness, transmission capabilities, and engine and braking performance.
The SE-R’s body is tight — remember, it’s based on the new Sentra bodystyle which was redesigned last year. With its relatively short wheelbase, compact dimensions, light curb weight (1244 kg/2743 lb.) and quick power-assisted rack and pinion steering, the Sentra SE-R is nimble and fun-to-drive in tight, twisty situations — attributes that apply equally well to crowded city streets where an inch here and an inch there makes a satisfying difference in getting around town.
The SE-R’s 2.5 litre engine is the biggest four-banger in its class, and its generous displacement accounts for its generous torque: 180 lb-ft at 4400 rpm. Compare that to a 1.7 litre Honda Civic Si which has 114 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm or a 2.0 litre Mazda Protégé MP3 which has 135 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm. With class-leading horsepower and torque, the SE-R Spec V does 0 to 100 km/h in under 8 seconds – but more than that, its lugging power provides plenty of throttle response without having to gear down every time you approach a grade. Unlike other smaller displacement engines, it’s not necessary to wind the SE-R’s engine up to its redline to achieve decent acceleration.
Subjectively, I couldn’t detect much difference between the 165 horsepower engine in the SE-R and the 175 horsepower engine in the SE-R Spec V. There is probably a slight difference in straight line acceleration, but as the Spec V weighs slightly more, it’s probably not much. The 2.5 litre engines in both models are not particularly noisy, but neither do they sound very sporty � I’d expected the engines to sound a little more racy than they did.
I found the SE-R’s rack and pinion steering firm with direct, positive steering response that allows quick, nervous-free high-speed driving. The suspension is also firm, but well-damped so that sudden bumps don’t send a shockwave through your spine. Cornering is flat and confident, particularly in the Spec V due to the its sticky, low-profile 17 inch radials. I’m not fond of the Sentra’s non-independent beam rear suspension when it comes to uneven, pitching road surfaces, but on everyday streets and freeways, it provides a comfortable ride and stable cornering, and its compact size helps free up rear seat and trunk space.
My only major quibble with the Spec V was the 6 speed manual transmission. In my test car, shift action was clunky and a bit noisy. On the positive side, the shifts were fairly short in length and required minimal effort. I had no problem with the 4-speed automatic transmission in the standard SE-R model which provided quick, smooth automatic shifts. I didn’t try out the 5 speed manual shifter.
For an expected price between $20,000 and $24,000, the Sentra SE-R provides more horsepower and performance than its rivals, and arguably, better value. Its four-door sedan bodystyle is more practical than two-door coupes like the Civic Si, but perhaps not quite as practical an many of the sporty hatchbacks coming onto the market, such as the Hyundai Elantra GT, Mazda Protege5, and Ford Focus ZX5.
The 2002 Sentra SE-R is built in Aguascalientes, Mexico.