2002 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V new car reviews

The Return of the SE-R

It was a car that would have impressed even Colin Chapman, the legendary founder of Lotus and designer of some of the most fun, most bare-bones sporting cars ever. Under the hood lay a potent, 2.0-liter engine that inhaled through 16 valves spun by a pair of overhead camshafts. Red line was 7500 rpm, and the resulting 140 horsepower was sent through a close-ratio gearbox to a limited-slip differential. The suspension still gave evidence of its family-car roots, but damping, spring rates and anti-roll bars were all tuned for the enthusiast driver.

And like the Lotus Cortina before it, the original Nissan Sentra SE-R featured a practical-and very stealthy-boxy shape, perfect for dealing with life's realities while allowing the car to slip through traffic nearly undetected.

When released for the 1991 model year, the first Sentra SE-R instantly struck a chord with the performance-minded public. Not only could it accelerate from a standstill to 60 mph in less than eight seconds, it also proved it could handle when Mark Chiles used one to take the 1991 SCCA D Stock Solo II title. The Sentra SE-R's more aerodynamic sibling, the NX2000, was the one to beat in SCCA road racing competition, but the SE-R still fared well, taking its share of wins and helping many racers earn an invitation to the Runoffs.

Not only was the performance top-notch, but the price was palatable, too, with new cars leaving dealer lots for less than $11,000. The Sentra SE-R remained in Nissan's model lineup through the 1994 model year with only a few minor changes.

For 1995, Nissan replaced the two-door Sentra with the sleeker 200SX model, but the SE-R lost a little of its focus. The SR20DE-spec engine was still available in this new car-dubbed the 200SX SE-R-but several moves hurt the car's sporting potential: the engine's red line was lowered to 7100 rpm, the camshafts lost some of their edge, a 107-mph speed governor was fitted, and more power amenities were made standard equipment. The 200SX SE-R was still quick, but it wasn't quite the same.

Nissan quietly pulled the plug on the SE-R in 1997, although the SR20DE engine soldiered on under the hood of the four-door Sentra SE. By then, the Honda Civic Si and Acura Integra had become the kings of the sporty small car wars.

Nissan Comes Back

Not only did the SE-R become a memory in the late '90s, the same could almost be said for its maker. Although Nissan had been one of the most exciting car companies of the early '90s, the company had pretty much lost its way just a few years later: all sporty cars were dumped from the lineup, its trucks had become seriously outdated, and many once-successful, factory-backed sports car racing programs were killed.

Just when Nissan's future was looking the bleakest, Renault intervened, and paperwork joining the two companies was signed on March 27, 1999. Renault now owned approximately one third of the Japanese automaker; soon after, a program called the Nissan Revival Plan was implemented to stop the sea of red ink that was flowing from the troubled automaker.

The main goals of the Nissan Revival Plan were simple: return the company to profitability by cutting costs, working smarter and making cool cars. The "cool cars" part of the plan included the rebirth of the Sentra SE-R. The plan appears to be working, which is good news for enthusiasts, since car companies can't operate too long with negative numbers on their balance sheets. Nissan recently posted an annual consolidated post-tax net profit of 331.1 billion yen-or $2.7 billion to the rest of us. (Yes, that's "billion" with a "b.")

Cool Cars for Us

Now that Nissan is no longer calling us to borrow lunch money, the company can concentrate on making cool cars-like the forthcoming 2002 Sentra SE-R, one of 22 new products expected under the Nissan Revival Plan. (Ten of those 22 new products will be for the U.S. market.)

Just like the original SE-R, the new car is based on the current front-wheel-drive Sentra platform, introduced in 2000. Unlike all past SE-R models, however, the new one features four doors, because, well, that's all that Nissan seems to have available at the time. Fortunately, Nissan's recipe for creating the SE-R remains a familiar one, calling for improvements to the drivetrain, suspension and most other parts of the car.

Like many of us, the Sentra has picked up a few pounds over the years: while the original SE-R weighed only 2460 pounds, the 2002 example checks in north of 2700 pounds. That figure isn't out of line for today's performance compact segment, but Nissan astutely realized that 140 horsepower wouldn't cut it for the new car.

Enter a brand-new engine for the 2002 SE-R, code-named the QR25. As its designation suggests, the new engine's displacement measures 2.5 liters, making it one of the larger fours available today. The SR20DE was technologically advanced in its day, and the QR25 is, too, employing modular engine design, continuously-variable valve timing, electronically-controlled throttle, molybdenum-coated pistons and micro-finished crank journals and cam lobes. As most would expect, this four-cylinder powerplant uses two overhead cams to work 16 valves.

New for 2002, two different flavors of SE-R are available, each with its own final engine tune. The "regular" SE-R will feature 170 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 175 lb.-ft. of torque at 4400 rpm, while a different exhaust system helps the Spec V model produce 10 more horsepower and five additional lb.-ft. of torque. (For the mathematically challenged, that's a total of 180 horsepower at 6000 rpm along with a tire-churning 180 lb.-ft. of torque at 4400 rpm.)

We sampled the Spec V on the race track, autocross and street, and the car's engine performance is definitely strong enough to wear the moniker inspired by its big brother, the twin-turbo Skyline. Torque is strong anywhere above idle, as the SE-R's midrange will easily surprise more than a few Honda owners. Even with a 6100-rpm redline, acceleration is in the low-7-second range.

To keep the torque from producing too much tire smoke, the Spec V features a handy-and very desirable-helical limited-slip differential. Getting the power to the pavement was never a problem on our test drives, as the car would literally claw its way around tight turns. Launching the car from a stop would easily produce two matching tire marks, a pleasing sight.

Between this differential and the engine lies another neat item, a six-speed manual gearbox. This transmission, with its positive action and well-chosen ratios, is standard equipment on the Spec V. The regular SE-R can be ordered with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearbox; however, no limited-slip differential is available on that model.

Performance gains are realized under the car, too, as the suspension has been tweaked as well. No matter which flavor one chooses, both SE-R models feature Nissan's rear Multi-Link Beam rear axle and, just like so many Datsuns and Nissans before it, MacPherson front struts.

Unlike the pedestrian Sentra models, the regular SE-R comes from the factory with "performance-tuned" struts, a front upper strut brace and thicker anti-roll bars (2mm wider than the standard issue ones). The Spec V adds stiffer springs and even more aggressive strut valving. A meatier wheel and tire package joins the stiffer suspension offerings: the SE-R gets 16-inch aluminum wheels and 195/55R16 all-season tires, while the Spec V comes with 17x7-inch wheels and 215/45ZR17 performance tires.

Again like the original SE-R, the new model get upgraded brakes, with 11-inch front discs and 10.15 -inch rear discs fitted as standard equipment. Nissan lists ABS among the available options, and we found the system to be relatively unintrusive. Autocrossing the ABS- and limited-slip-equipped SE-R V Spec is so painless it feels like cheating.

The SE-R may not get name-brand components like the Mazda Protegé MP3, but we found the V Spec to be extremely competent during a full day of autocrossing. Even dozens of back-to-back runs couldn't ruin its composure, as the struts, brakes and original-equipment Continental ContiSportContact tires never faded away. If anything, the drivers burned out before the car did.

We hate to be so bitten by the new-car bug, but the new SE-R seems perfectly suited for motorsports. While the Spec V's limited-slip differential will keep the car from competing in the SCCA's Street Touring autocross class, the car still should do extremely well in Stock class autocrossing. Favorably classed, the Spec V could also be very competitive in Showroom Stock and Grand-Am Cup road racing.

A Dash of Style

In addition to the performance upgrades, the SE-R has received a host of style enhancements that separate it from the rest of the Sentra lineup. Probably the most noticeable change is the aggressive nose treatment, which Nissan says is influenced by the company's Japanese-market Skyline GT-R. Other cosmetic enhancements include the typical body-color side-sill extensions, round fog lights, rear spoiler and the previously-mentioned big wheels and tires. The interior gets sporty cloth seats.

The Spec V option adds some additional cosmetic upgrades, including Skyline-inspired front seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, aluminum-finish gearshift knob, and red and black accents.

For those who like a little audio performance, a Rockford Fosgate nine-speaker, 300-watt sound system can be ordered. This system includes a trunk-mounted, 8-inch subwoofer. Note that this setup is only available on the higher-line Spec V car, or on regular SE-R models equipped with the automatic transmission.

The Price Is Right

Nissan has yet to announce a price for the new SE-R, but they say the first number will be a 1. Even if the second number is a 9, the SE-R should be a winner at the dealerships. (An 8 would be even better, and is probably closer to reality.) Look for the new SE-R to land at dealer showrooms this fall.

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