Nissan Sentra SE-R has racy gear for street-legal hot wheels

2008, Nissan, Sentra SE-R

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Waves of heat ripple off black asphalt in Pit Lane at Homestead-Miami Speedway stretched across marshes south of Miami, where the high-revving engine of a racy SE-R Spec V edition off Nissan's sporty compact Sentra sedan purrs at idle as we strap into the contoured driver's bucket for some hot laps on Homestead's spaghetti-wiggly infield course.

It hunkers low on seemingly huge 17-inch alloy wheels capped by W-rated 225/45R-17 low-profile summer tires below a wedge-shaped package that tips forward to suggest swift movement, even when parked in the pits.

The smooth front fascia cradles a black mesh grille and round foglamps. Body-colored sills stretch toward the pavement along each side, while at the tail a modest spoiler flies off the trailing edge of the trunk deck.

Beneath its sleek painted shell, the souped-up front-wheel-drive (FWD) Sentra conceals special suspension tweaking with sport-tuned struts and strut tower braces, plus a limited slip differential aboard, which enables this car to rip quickly out of a curve without spinning the inside front wheel.

Big disc brakes -- with vented 12.6-inch front rotors and 11.5-inch rear rotors -- link to a four-channel anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution (EBD).

Steering, through a direct rack and pinion system, draws power assistance through an all-electric device. It eliminates the conventional hydraulic apparatus along with the power losses of an engine-driven pneumatic pump, but also pares excess pounds.

The engine -- bumping up from the standard Sentra four-pack at 2.0 liters to 2.5 liters -- for Spec V produces 200 hp at 6600 rpm with torque skewed to 182 lb-ft at 5200 rpm.

And to handle that muscle, the Spec V version adds a tight but pliable six-speed manual stick shifter.

Actually, Nissan builds two different versions of the souped-up Sentra -- SE-R and SE-R Spec V.

Both tote the 2.5-liter engine, although more power points apply to the Spec V performance variation.

The SE-R issue nets 177 hp at 6000 rpm and torque numbers of 172 lb-ft at 2800 rpm.

Further, the six-speed manual gearbox only works with Spec V.

SE-R edition gets Nissan's Xtronic continuously-variable transmission (CVT).

The CVT never shifts from one gear to another because it eliminates step-ratio gears of a conventional automatic transmission as well as the resultant shift shock. Instead, two variable diameter pulleys and a strong steel belt work to match the engine's output with the vehicle's speed, ultimately producing seamless acceleration.

But still you can work manual shifts - sort of -- with the CVT, thanks to shift paddles mounted behind the steering wheel.

Using the Xtronic CVT, SE-R achieves frugal fuel consumption numbers like 27 miles per gallon for in-town driving and 33 mpg at speed on a highway.

For Spec V with the manual stick, the fuel economy figures diminish slightly to 24/31 mpg city/highway.

As a whole, SE-R Spec V adds racy gear to the already sporty Sentra, transforming it into a street-legal little ripper but with a bottom line that won't break $20,000.

MSRP for Spec V is $19,900. SE-R lists for $19,400.

SE-R and SE-R Spec V spin off the expanded structure of Sentra, which for 2007 marks a sixth generation for Nissan's compact sedan and shows revisions in all aspects, from the structural system of the platform and sheetmetal styling to powertrain and interior fittings.

Compared with the previous model, Sentra's body stretches 2.3 inches longer and the width expands by more than three inches, with the roofline rising four inches higher.

The result is a substantially larger vehicle -- particularly in the five-seat cabin, which adds up to class-leading interior space. Sentra's expansive cockpit contains stylish materials and cargo space in the trunk exceeds 13 cubic feet.

Cockpits for SE-R and SE-R Spec V contain special features, like sport bucket seats adding red seat stitching and embroidered SE-R seatback logos.

There's a leather-wrapped steering wheel and bright aluminum pedal pads, plus two additional gauges (oil pressure and g-force acceleration/deceleration) mounted on top of the dashboard center stack.

Also, there are plenty of air bags concealed in the passenger compartment. The collection includes dual-stage frontal air bags plus side-impact air bags for front seats and curtain-style air bags mounted in the roof above front and rear outboard seats.

Optional gear concerns a powerful Rockford Fosgate audio kit, Sirius or XM satellite radio service, a sunroof, splashguards and (for SE-R only) a keyless entry device.

Since Nissan developed these special Sentras as affordable street racers, it seems only fitting to test them on the unfettered 2.21-mile infield loop at Homestead.

So our Spec V charges out of pit lane on the finish-line straight as we wind through gears and build speed in a run to the first left turn of a serpentine course.

A second left comes quickly and we tap the brake while setting up a line to hit tricky double apexes through a third left kink, where we downshift and note a fast throttle response for the rev matching.

Now charge the next brief straight but wait to apply more throttle as we slip around a right sweeper which leads into the loop's longest straightaway.

We're approaching triple-digit speed by the end of that section, so shut it down fast by braking and downshifting to whip hard through a hairpin right.

One more straight shot, another double-apex hairpin and we're accelerating to enter the back section of Homestead's 1.5-mile oval circuit -- and Spec V flies into Turn Three as the banked track's high wall flashes past, looking like a speeding stream of concrete moving at more than 100 mph.

Our SE-R Spec V transforms the demanding Homestead loop into a playpen as the traffic-free track allows a forceful driver to extract every point of power for fast lap times.

On real-world streets, you can't get away with such heavy-footed accelerations or tire-screeching turns. Yet all of the racy components aboard this vehicle are waiting for those moments when traffic, road conditions or law enforcement officials won't squelch your playtime.

By Bob Plunkett

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Images of the 2008, Nissan Sentra SE-R

2008 Nissan Sentra SE-R front view
2008 Nissan Sentra SE-R front view
2008 Nissan Sentra SE-R interior shot
2008 Nissan Sentra SE-R interior shot
2008 Nissan Sentra SE-R head lights
2008 Nissan Sentra SE-R head lights
2008 Nissan Sentra SE-R rear view
2008 Nissan Sentra SE-R rear view