Expert Reviews

First Drive: 2017 Nissan Sentra Nismo

Los Angeles, CA – For a former owner of the quirky-but-fun Nissan NX2000 coupe, the resurrection of the Nissan Sentra SE-R of the 1990s in the form of the 2017 Nissan Sentra Nismo was exciting news.

Even Nissan’s family-friendly Rogue three-row compact crossover offers a flat-bottomed steering wheel. A Rogue.

But wait, no more power than the recently introduced Sentra SR Turbo? No bigger brakes behind its larger wheels to make those callipers look a little less puny? Still a torsion beam suspension in the rear, unlike the independent setup found even in the Honda Civic’s mainstream trim levels? No polished pedals inside, or even a flat-bottomed, D-shape steering wheel?

Even Nissan’s family-friendly Rogue three-row compact crossover offers a flat-bottomed steering wheel. A Rogue.

This may be the sportiest new compact Nissan sport sedan, and a fun addition to the relatively staid Sentra line. But you, Mr. Sentra Nismo, are no SE-R.

Granted, that may be a harsh gut reaction to the car after a brief, 15-minute test drive on city streets in downtown Los Angeles. Nowhere near the ideal environment to cast the Sentra Nismo in its best light; although frankly, downtown urban areas like this are likely the Sentra Nismo’s most realistic habitat.

By true “don’t judge a book by its cover” ethos, 15 minutes behind the wheel is arguably not enough seat time to fully judge a sporty car, especially a sporty one meant to rouse the enthusiast soul. But with a car such as this, I’d argue 15 minutes is more like cracking the table of contents and finding not only a listing of the chapters, but a quick summary of each too.

While the company may be proud that this is the first mainstream Nissan product to receive the revered Nismo name (guess they don’t count the Juke as “mainstream”), the company has purposefully not gone nearly as far as other companies with their top-flight compact cars. As such, the Sentra Nismo is no rival for the Ford Focus RS or Subaru WRX STI, and arguably not even for the STI’s less extreme but still powerful Impreza WRX little brother.

That begs the obvious question why – why no more power? And the Sentra Nismo’s US product manager Brandon White knew the question was coming:

“We could crank up the power,” he said at a brief launch event outside the LA Auto Show. “but it wouldn’t be accessible [price-wise] for folks we wanted to target with this car.”  

So price sensitivity is a key consideration here, for buyers and on the cost side for Nissan. But instead of looking at what you don’t receive, there are some compelling additions to the Sentra Nismo not found on any other version of the compact four-door.

From the outside, larger 18-inch wheels complement a ride height that sits nearly half an inch lower than other Sentras. A new rear spoiler sits on the trunk edge, while lower body panels front, side and rear help to visually lower the car. Sure, hardcore tuners will want the fender gap a little tighter to the low-profile Michelins Pilot Sport all-seasons or the more aggressive Bridgestone summer tires; but overall, the Sentra Nismo looks aggressive and signals it’s out for fun, but is still fairly liveable as a daily driver – at least on LA streets unburdened by frost heaves and winter thaws.

Inside, the nicest upgrade is an Alcantara-lined steering wheel, which tacitly reminds the driver where to keep hands for best driving precision; a red top-dead centre mark on that steering wheel; as well as unique seats with extra side bolstering. You won’t forget you’re in a Nismo, as reminders abound: on the floor mats, seats, and in front of the gearshift – which can be manual or automatic (CVT), both for the same price.

The one I sampled was the automatic, and the continuously variable transmission seemed to do a fine impression of a gated automatic; although again, even an upper-trim Honda Fit will offer paddle shifters, which are absent here. Still, move the shifter over to its manual setting, drop down a couple virtual “gears”, and the CVT will do a good job of providing more revs to stay in the turbo’s sweet spot, the 1.6L engine producing 188 horsepower and an also-respectable 177 lb-ft of torque that peak as low as 1,600 rpm.

It feels like an engine worthy of an Sentra SE-R/Spec V – the Spec V being the last super sporty SE-R version. Until you look at the 300+ hp engines other automakers offer in their serious turbo fours; admittedly, those tend to be priced closer to $50 or $60k versus this one at roughly half that amount.

Handling-wise, the Sentra Nismo has monotube rear dampers that quicken the response rate to help control body movements, while special spring rates all around and a Nismo-specific tune of its electric power steering (EPS) system all help fine-tune this top Sentra’s cornering ability. It all came together well, with ride quality that seemed slightly sharper than most compact sedans, but not aggressively so.

Regarding pricing, even though the car is set to launch early in 2017, Canadian pricing has not yet been finalized. The Nismo upgrade from the identically engined Sentra SR Turbo in the US is approximately $2,000 USD, with Nissan’s announcement that the Nismo would start under $25,000 USD. If we take that $2,000 USD figure, call it closer to $2,700 in Canadian dollars, and then tack that onto the Sentra SR Turbo’s Canadian starting price of $24,625 in Canada (with the automatic, after freight charges), a reasonable estimate would land the Sentra Nismo around $27,500 in Canada.

We’ll need a longer drive to pass a definitive verdict on this compact fun machine, so we’re looking forward to spending a week with it early in the new year. But with this Sentra Nismo’s focus on “show” over “go”, it seems its greatest sporting trait is eliciting an extra side glance from onlookers with an appreciation for restrained tuner style.