MIAMI - Ever since it hit the scene, circa 1982, the Nissan Sentra has pulled up a smidge short when it comes to wooing consumers on the make for economy rides. About a decade later, however, when the Sentra SE- R first showed up, Nissan had on its hands a winner popular with the I- like- fast- cars- but- I- don't- have- much- dough set.
Fast forward another 15 years, and Sentra, with its 2007 SE- R iteration, scores nicely again on both the refinement and performance fronts. The manufacturer has taken some deliberate steps toward keeping up with the competition, and sometimes passing it.
As part of its newfound refinement, Sentra offers Bluetooth connectivity and keyless start, and plenty of leg and headroom owing to its longer wheelbase - - all seemingly little things that can add up to a leg up on rivals.
Whipping around the vaunted Homestead Miami Speedway, quick responses produced by the ride's CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) made the spins quite the blast, particularly when negotiating sharp, hairpin turns.
For the money, there was markedly minimal lag time between paddle shifting and response. Punch a button, and the tranny's in manual mode. And what fun that was; swooping curves were handled with relative aplomb.
What's more, the variable- flow dampers - high- tech stuff borrowed from Infiniti sports- luxury rides - helped to smooth out the drive, particularly while in cruise mode. Stiffer springs made for a sporty ride, though I did notice a few bumps, and a little body roll. Not much, but it was there.
The SE- R serves up a 2.5- liter engine kicking out a solid 177 horses, plus 172 pound- feet of torque, matching up well with the four- door's primary competition, the Mazdaspeed3 and the Honda Civic Si.
The SE- R also got upgrades to its brake systems - - replacing rear drums with discs - - put to the test during pro driver- assisted (though no less hair raising) exercises 'round good ole
Homestead. Anti- lock Braking Systems are standard.
Inside, the SE- R features comfy sport bucket seats and a cool acceleration/deceleration "G" meter, should one need to measure gravity pulls. Optional equipment includes a nice Rockford Fosgate Audio System, satellite radio and power sunroof.
For enthusiasts, Sentra also offers the SE- R Spec V, featuring a 200- horsepower engine, 180 pound- feet of torque and a six- speed manual transmission. The Spec V also is outfitted with a larger front stabilizer bar.
The new Sentra's target buyer is about 25 years old, single, a college grad drawing at least 40K a year at a white- collar gig. The SE- R would be his or her's (most likely a male, Nissan concedes) first spanking- new car.
The cars are on sale now, though Nissan didn't say how many units it expects to move. Prices for the SE- R start at $19,400; the Spec V opens at $19,900. There were no street tests available for these rides on this trip, so it's somewhat difficult to measure what real- world driving would be like. Still, in my view, there's a lot of car here for not a lot of duckets.