PAHRUMP, Nev. -- In the Nevada desert at Pahrump a wiggly race track curls over two miles of tumbleweed-strafed asphalt, where the high-revving engine of a racy SE-R Spec V edition off Nissan's sporty compact 2012 Sentra sedan purrs at idle as we strap into a contoured driver's bucket and await a starter's signal to log some hot laps.
This new car looks hot too.
Coated in a new paint shade labeled Red Alert, the SE-R Spec V hunkers low on seemingly huge 17-inch alloy wheels capped by 225/45WR17 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 Sentra conceals special suspension tweaking with sport-tuned struts and strut tower braces, plus an optional Helical Limited-Slip Differential aboard, which enables this car to rip quickly out of a curve without spinning the inside front wheel.
Big disc brakes -- 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), a traction control system (TCS) plus Nissan's vehicle dynamic control (VDC) device which automatically checks lateral skidding on slippery pavement.
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 180 lb-ft at 5200 rpm.
And to handle that muscle, the Spec V version adds a tight but pliable close-ratio six-speed manual 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, because Nissan applies shift paddles mounted behind the steering wheel for hands-on-the-wheel finger shifts.
Using the Xtronic CVT, the Sentra SE-R achieves fuel consumption numbers like 24 miles per gallon for in-town driving and 30 mpg at speed on a highway.
For Sentra SE-R Spec V with the six-speed manual stick, the fuel economy figures diminish slightly to 21/28 mpg city/highway.
SE-R Spec V attaches racy gear to the already sporty Sentra, transforming it into a street-legal little ripper but with a bottom line that won't break $21,000.
SE-R and SE-R Spec V are based on a sixth-generation Sentra platform which debuted in 2007 with the body stretched by 2.3 inches in length, expanded in width by more than three inches, and the roofline raised some four inches.
The structure seems generous in scale and quite spacious in the five-seat passenger compartment and trunk.
Cockpits for SE-R and SE-R Spec V contain special features, like sport bucket seats adding silver 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 upgrade packages with a 340-watt and 8-speaker Rockford Fosgate audio kit, XM satellite radio, a power sliding glass moonroof with tilt feature, the Nissan Navigation System with a 5-inch color touch-screen and RearView Monitor, and (for Spec V exclusively) the limited-slip differential.
Nissan sets the MSRP for a 2012 Sentra Spec V at $20,620, while the 2012 Sentra SE-R lists for $20,120.