Test Drive: 2018 Nissan Sentra Nismo

Folks: we need to start this review of the feisty little 2018 Nissan Sentra Nismo with a little context about what this car is, and what it is not.

An ideal setup for a driver who wants a sporty sedan that rides really, really well.

After all, some confusion is possible. The Sentra Nismo isn’t the first hopped-up Sentra in existence, but it is the first one to wear the NISMO (Nissan Motorsports) nameplate: a badge typically reserved for the highest-performing versions of Nissan’s highest-performing cars: track beasts – like the GT-R Nismo; hot-rod coupes – like the 370Z Nismo.

Hardcore performers.

But that is not what the Sentra Nismo is.

Think Nismo as in Nismo-inspired upgrades, not a total Nismo-tuned overhaul, and you’re in the ballpark.

Here’s the important bit: what the Sentra Nismo is, is a higher-performing, cooler-looking alternative to the standard Sentra. What the Sentra Nismo is not, is a fully prepped, all-conquering speed-beast track car. It’s a little quicker, a little sharper, a little more aggressive-looking, and a little bit better-equipped. And, it’s a way for the fans to capture some of that Nismo magic, if a GT-R Nismo isn’t in the budget.

She’s a looker, guys and gals. With a recent facelift and the Nismo body kit applied, the Sentra Nismo has a scowling face that clears the fast lane in a jiff, an athletic stance, and a look that seems to shout “baby hopped-up Maxima”, and this is a good thing. Unique, too – the use of red and white accents on the body, and pulling some colour down into the side sills, give it a distinctive touch.

On styling, it hits the mark.

Ditto some of the driving dynamics and performance, but disappointingly, not a few of the important ones.

The good news? Power. The engine has torque and horsepower closely matched – meaning plenty of response at low revs, and strong pull at mid to high revs. Delightfully, the turbocharger breathes strong and hard towards redline, so acceleration doesn’t fall off as the tachometer maxes out. The pull is strong and robust, especially in the upper half of the rev range. There’s a little sense of rising action to the power curve, which adds some excitement. This is a little workhorse of an engine, and once you get it breathing, it scoots along real nice.

Budget for an aftermarket exhaust though: when you open it up, the Sentra Nismo just sounds like a Ford Escape. There’s nothing much sporty about the sound effects, and if you listen closely, you can even hear the throttle body whistling at high revs, over the too-quiet exhaust.

Steering-wise, drivers feel little detail about what’s happening between the tires and the road, but with Sport mode engaged from a button on the console, the feel at the wheel is on the quick and heavy side, and set up nicely for the way the suspension is tuned. It’s a sporty, quick, and slightly mischievous steering calibration that doesn’t feel hyperactive or nervous, or like it’s too quick for the chassis.

Handling? The Sentra Nismo leans far towards the more comfortable side of athletic. There’s a good bit of body roll, initially, when you fire it around. This all happens early, and then the suspension sets, and feels stable. Translation? It’s far from the flattest, sharpest, tidiest-handling little sports sedan going by a long shot, but there’s big-time redemption in terms of ride quality. All said, it’s entertaining, not exhilarating, to fire around some fast corners. Here’s a sports car that impresses with ride quality more than handling – and, if you like, an ideal setup for a driver who wants a sporty sedan that rides really, really well.

Braking? Very nice. Some fine-tuning has been applied here, and the feel at the pedal is bang on. A touch of numbness at the top keeps the brakes from feeling too touchy, and from there, stopping power and precision build up proportionately. Braking feel is excellent once you get the clampers working a little, and panic stops happen hard and fast. From speed, Sentra Nismo gets stopped in very quick order, and in emergency stops, drivers will appreciate how hard the car feels like it’s working to get stationary.

Shifter and clutch and changing gears? Oh dear.

First, the shifter is tall, sort of lanky, has little weight, is topped with a cheap plastic cap, and has gears that feel inconsistently spaced between their gates. I had to learn to hang my right elbow outwards a little, to load the shifter up towards the right-hand side of the car, to avoid frequent accidental shifts from fifth to fourth, instead of fifth to sixth. On the plus side, the lightness to the shift lever makes it easy to shift quickly and with little effort.

Stick shift veterans might feel left out in the cold, mainly because of throttle programming that numbs and smooths and delays many of your inputs, very aggressively. It’s like the throttle is attached to a pail of melted cheese, and then the engine: revs hang and surge at weird times, small throttle inputs are nearly ignored, and this tends to muck things up when you’re trying to shift during sporty driving. You have to train yourself to adapt to the smoothing over and delay on the throttle a little – and once you do, you find out you can shift smoothly, or quickly, but not really both. It’s like cancelling Christmas.

This also causes frustration during heel-and-toe shifting. Give the throttle that little poke while you’re on the brakes, and the blip happens so slowly, and after such a delay, that I just stopped bothering.

The clutch, further, is light and on the vague side – which makes it easy to use in busy traffic and to drive smoothly when you’re not in a rush, though enthusiast drivers may wish for more bite and feel at the leftmost pedal.

All said, Sentra Nismo shifts and responds well enough in gentle driving, or through traffic, though it simply lacks the fine-tuning and authentically-sporty feel to the shifter, clutch and throttle you’ll experience in a comparable Civic Si or Elantra Sport when driving with some fire in your trousers.

Ultimately, some of the driving feel and dynamics are appreciable, but if you like shifting your own gears, this may leave you wanting. So, here’s the first time I’ve ever committed sacrilege and said that this is a sports car that might be better with the automatic (CVT) transmission.

Here’s something telling: many of Sentra Nismo’s best attributes have nothing to do with its performance.

The cabin, for instance. Mandatory boy-racer trim bits, including some carbon-fiber looking accents and thickly-bolstered sports seats are on board, as is a fantastic suede-trimmed steering wheel. Control placement is largely rational, at-hand storage is plentiful, and the instrument cluster is big and bright and wouldn’t look out of place in a much costlier car. But here’s the great bit: inside, Sentra Nismo is fairly huge, by small-car standards. It’s easy to get in and out, the substantial back seat has room aplenty for two adults, and the trunk is deep, wide and massive.

Ditto the feature content. A Bose stereo system, push-button start, Bluetooth, heated seats, a full suite of connected car apps with text-message assist, Navigation, a back-up camera, automatic lights, and plenty more were all in attendance. That’s a great collection of features for the less than $27,000 Nissan wants for this top-dog Sentra.

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And the ride quality – which, in a word, is excellent, for two reasons. First, it rides like a bigger, pricier car. Even on the sport suspension and the thin tires, Sentra Nismo rarely feels like it’s crashing into bumps, and the suspension feels durable and solid, not flimsy and delicate. It’s a lot more comfortable than it looks like it should be. Second, even up to speed, noise levels are kept very nicely in check, too. This might be the quietest, roomiest, and most comfortable hopped-up compact I’ve ever driven.

Still, I think the Nismo badge and the look of this machine set my expectations too high. Sentra Nismo is a shifter, an exhaust note, and a good bit of electronic throttle calibration away from being a much better car for the driving enthusiast, and if you’re one of those, after the ultimate sports sedan under $30,000, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere.

Should you happen to be after solid all-around feature content bang for the buck in a very comfortable and bigger-than-you-think compact with a good bit of punch and some feisty looks, it remains worthy of consideration. Just be sure you drive all key competitors, too.

2018 Nissan Sentra Nismo
Engine Displacement: 1.6L
Engine Cylinders: 4
Peak Horsepower: 188 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Peak Torque: 177 lb-ft @ 3,600 rpm
Fuel Economy: 9.4/7.6/8.7 L/100 km city/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space: 428 L
2018 Nissan Sentra Nismo
Base Price $25,698
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,600
Price as Tested $27,698
Optional Equipment $300 – 3 Coat Paint $300
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 7.9
8 Styling
6 Powertrain
8 Quality
8 Comfort
9 Practicality
8 Drivability
8 Usability/Ergonomics
8 Fuel Economy
9 Features
7 Value