Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V (2002)

"Its hard to enjoy what is otherwise a nice, little sporty sedan with all that torque steer."
Good: price, power
Bad: torque steer, wimpy cupholders


The Nissan Sentra is a very decent, small, four-door sedan. It's reasonably priced, reliable and is Nissan's most affordable vehicle. The SE-R Spec V -- yes, it's a mouthful -- is the testosterone-laden edition of Sentra. It puts a 175-horsepower engine in this little economy car, and adds a stiffer suspension, bigger wheels and an "I'm trying to compensate for something" spoiler.

What's it like driving an economy car that's been tuned up to be a sports sedan? Not bad, actually, with one significant exception.

The SE-R Spec V has a target price of $16,402, or about $4,400 more than the least expensive Sentra, the XE.


The two things that set the Spec V apart from the run-of-the-mill Sentra are a stiffer suspension and a powerful engine. The Spec V is equipped with a 175-horsepower version of Nissan's 2.5 liter, four-cylinder engine -- the same engine that powers the much larger Nissan Altima. That's 49 horsepower more than the base Sentra's 1.8 liter engine. There's no automatic transmission available on the Spec V. The only transmission is a six-speed manual.


This is a powerful engine in a little car, which makes it all the more unfortunate that the Spec V is afflicted with a vicious case of torque steer.Torque steer (for those of you who dozed off during that semester of physics), is the phenomenon that occurs when the twisting power -- or torque -- is delivered to the front wheels unevenly, causing the vehicle to pull in one direction of the other when you step hard on the gas. The torque steer on this little baby is scary. Hold on tight when you step on the accelerator.


Unfortunately, it was hard to enjoy what is otherwise a nice, little sporty sedan with all that torque steer. When it wasn't a factor, however, the car's suspension proved to be capable of good handling. The Spec V stayed flat in corners and had a lot of grip, helped by nice, fat tires. We couldn't help thinking that this would be a very nice car if they had been able to engineer out the torque steer, or tone down the engine to where the car could comfortably handle it. Our producer, Dougie Berman, speculated that without the torque steer, this car would be reminiscent of the old BMW 2002 he still loves to zip around town in--fun, cheap and practical. Alas, too much power and not enough control of the front wheels under acceleration made this just speculation.



The Spec V starts with the advantage of being based on the Sentra, which has a nice, clean, simple interior. As befits a vehicle with sporty pretensions, the Spec V adds cloth seats with side bolsters on the back and the bottom cushion, to keep your tuchus anchored firmly in place at all times. We thought the seats were both comfy and supportive.

Inside, there's a decent amount of space both front and back. Rear leg room is limited, though, -- in fact, it's about two inches less than in a Honda Civic -- making that space best for children, pets, houseplants or adults you don't care for. Trunk space is adequate.

What isn't adequate are the wimpy cup-holders. Point A, anything that's in them will block access to the CD changer, and, Point 2, they're only about an inch and a half deep -- way too shallow to hold even a tall (that's the smallest size, remember?) cappuccino from Starbucks. We imagine they'll be redesigned as soon as the first lawyer gets his Salvatore Ferragamo loafers filled with steaming hot latte on some freeway on-ramp.

In general, storage space is adequate. There's a convenient little drop-down compartment in the ceiling for your favorite pair of Ray-Bans, and a handy bin atop the console between the front seats.

If you want anti-lock brakes, you must also take side-impact airbags, for an extra 750 bucks. Consider it the, "yeah, I'd like a better chance of surviving" package. Otherwise, the Spec V is well-equipped. Standard features include air conditioning, cruise control, power locks and windows, an AM/FM/CD player and 17-inch alloy wheels.


All of the controls are pretty much where they ought to be, as they are in the other versions of the Sentra. The Spec V follows convention with controls on stalks, cruise control buttons on the steering wheel, and three big knobs by which to adjust the heating and cooling. The audio controls are simple for the most part, except that there's a separate CD changer in addition to the regular CD player.

We thought the Sentra SE-R Spec V was a very good-looking car, even if the spoiler and other add-ons are a rather obvious effort to appeal to the more youthful male buyer. The Sentra, without the do-dads, has an understated simplicity. We like it.

Nissan is a quarter of a step behind perennial leaders Honda and Toyota in reliability, but they're still significantly better than average. Those of you who own Sentras and filled out our Car Talk survey seemed to like your cars well enough, and offered no major complaints. (For the record, all of those surveys were filled out before the Sentra's 2000 redesign.)

We'd expect the Sentra SE-R Spec V to be relatively straightforward to maintain and repair...with one major caveat. We'd anticipate higher than average service costs on this engine as it ages.

Here's why. Rather than simply going with a larger, V6 engine in the Spec V, Nissan opted to tweak the existing four-cylinder engine, by adding a "free flowing" exhaust system. So what? Well, this means that the engine has been tweaked to run at its limit. As a result, there is more stress placed on the engine.

Furthermore, then Sentra SE-R will, by its very nature, appeal to the testosterone poisoned among us, who will place greater demands on the engine by accelerating quickly and driving fast. All of which means, what? Yet more wear and tear on the engine. You get the picture.

In all other respects, we'd expect the Sentra to be generally easy to repair and maintain.

There's not an awful lot to choose from if you're looking for a sporty four-door sedan in this price range. Ford offers the Focus ZTS, which is less powerful but larger and fun to drive. Unfortunately, we're not recommending the Focus until some NHTSA investigations are resolved. If and when they are, the Focus may be a better choice. The Honda Civic Si is a two-door. Toyota offers the Matrix in SRX trim with a 180-horsepower engine, but that's quite a bit more expensive.

Oddly, competition could also come from Nissan's own Altima sedan, a vehicle we drove recently and liked very much. If you pick the Altima 2.5 S, and don't go wild with the options list, you could wind up with a very nice sedan for about $1,300 more than the price of a Spec V. It'll be less quick and edgy, but quite a bit larger, more comfortable and better behaved.


If it weren't so muscle-bound, and didn't have such a serious case of torque steer, we'd be happy to recommend the Sentra SE-R Spec V as a nice economy sedan with some extra kick. After all, it does offer strong acceleration, good handling, the promise of reliability, and the practicality of four doors and a good-sized trunk. But the constant wrestling with the steering wheel spoils all the fun. This is such a nice car otherwise that we'd suggest checking out a nicely equipped Sentra GXE, with its more reasonable horsepower and a sticker price that is $3,000 lower.

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