Tested: 1991 Nissan Sentra SE-R


Table of Contents

From the March 1991 issue of Car and Driver.

Every time we drive Nissan’s new Sentra SE-R, we think BMW 2002. Like yesteryear’s 2002, the SE-R is an honest, upright two-door sedan with plenty of room for people and belongings. Its compact size and light weight keep it eco­nomical and agile. But best of all, Nissan gave it the biggest, most powerful engine that would fit under the hood, just as BMW did with the 2002. Yes, the Sentra SE-R is the dream of a brand-new $12,000 BMW come true.

The Bavarian maker might be uncomfortable with that characterization. After all, the cheapest two-door that BMW currently offers—the $22,000 318is—doesn’t have a chance against the SE-R in the stoplight derby. The Nissan reaches 60 mph from rest in 7.4 seconds, more than a second quicker than the 318is. The SE-R covers the quarter-mile in 15.8 seconds at 87 mph, compared with the BMW’s 16.4 seconds at 82 mph. The Nissan even surpasses the autobahn­-bred 318 in top speed: 125 mph to 123. In fact, a well-driven SE-R could probably get the drop on a BMW 325 if the latter’s driver were slow off the mark. Such performance at an 11 grand base price is the first automotive wonderment of the 1990s.

1991 nissan sentra ser

Cindy LewisCar and Driver

That doesn’t necessarily mean Nissan will sell a lot of SE-Rs. This model will appeal to a narrow audience. Want an automatic transmission? Sorry. Need four doors? Not on this car. The SE-R is a focused, specialized car, a true sports sedan. It is intended to add sparkle to the new-for-’91 Sentra lineup, which ranges from the bare-bones two-door E-model ($7999 base price) to the decked-out four-door GXE automatic ($12,750).

SE-R buyers—the few, the proud—will pay $10,970 suggested base retail for a Sentra of a radically different stripe, fitted with the engine from a bigger, fancier four-door. Nissan developed the 1998cc SR20DE for the Infiniti G20, and the 140-hp sixteen-valver pulls that 2852-pound car around with better-than-reasonable verve and civility. In the 2594-pound Sentra, though, the aluminum twin-cam runs more freely and feels substantially more spritely—as you surely would if someone lifted 258 pounds off your back.

HIGHS: Engine power and smoothness, sinful driving pleasure.

The 2.0 represents a pronounced improvement over the nice but undistinguished 110-hp sixteen-valve 1.6 all other Sentras use, and that upgrade is mirrored in other critical departments around the car. Closer-spaced ratios in the five-speed gearbox and a lower final­drive ratio (4.18:1 versus 3.89:1) keep the engine in its stride. To reduce spinning of the unloaded inside tire in tight corners taken under power, the SE-R receives an unusual (for a front-drive car) touch: a limited-slip differential. It’s a viscous-clutch type, to avoid any steering heaviness during mild-mannered driving.

Every new-generation Sentra enjoys such evolutionary chassis improvements as a stiffer front subframe, wider front track, and refined geometry in the strut suspension. The SE-R model goes its siblings a few better to further sharpen its manners. Spring rates are about ten percent higher, front damping is slightly firmer, and the anti-roll bars are stiffer, especially in back. Accurate and communicative power steering is standard, as are four-wheel disc brakes in place of the other Sentras’ disc/drum combination. Consider the $700 anti-lock option mandatory. Alloy wheels 5.5 inches wide carry 185/60-14 steel-belted radials.

1991 nissan sentra ser

Cindy LewisCar and Driver

Clean, unadorned sheetmetal dresses the new Sentras conservatively, with small fog lamps in front and a restrained spoiler in back identifying the SE-R. There is barely a glint of bright trimwork. The body shape is upright yet sleek, looking a lot like a 3-series BMW with the edges sanded round. (Indeed, the new Sentra measures within a couple tenths of an inch of a 318is in length, width, and height.)

In the complex ballet of force, judgment, and control that is twisty back-road running, the Sentra SE-R acquits itself well, feeling responsive and controllable up through middling-sporty speeds. It takes very subtle instructions through the silky steering, and the ride remains quiet, comfortable, even soft. Press on up a few levels, to the point where cornering loads get very high and transitions very sudden, and that softness is less of a blessing. Lots of flexing and scrubbing of the Dunlop SP tires make the whole car feel a little wooden as breakaway approaches. Of course, this is a front-drive car with nearly two-thirds of its weight on the nose, so it can hardly hope to feel as reactive and lively near the cornering limit as a rear-driver such as, say, that 318is.

LOWS: Having to tell everyone, “I bought a Sentra.”

On the other hand, the directional stability and protective understeer of the SE-R’s architecture keep surprises to a minimum; they protect less astute pilots from gross blunders while allowing drivers of all abilities to enjoy more of what the car has to offer more of the time. But this Japanese sports sedan can’t feel as delicate (nor as twitchy, nor as tail­happy) as a BMW driven hard. That’s part of what twelve grand doesn’t buy.

Down out of the mountains, however, in the semi-urban crush of trafficked highways and decaying boulevards where most personal automobiles earn their daily keep, the SE-R’s chassis feels supple and well damped. It handles potholes with a minimum of crash-through, settles quickly after a major bounce, and even stays reasonably calm over the juddering of concrete-slab freeways.

1991 nissan sentra ser

Cindy LewisCar and Driver

All the while, the flexible powerplant seems happy as well. It spins along at about 3400 rpm in 70-mph cruising and is always willing to crank up its tach needle. Power delivery is seamless throughout the rev scale, but the engine makes its most serious power-and acceptable noise-from 5000 rpm up to the 7500-rpm ceiling.

Driver and passengers are likely to feel happy too, especially those enjoying the SE-R’s unusually supportive, wrap­around front seats. Shoulder-high bolsters call to mind the Acura NSX’s excellent chairs and seem to cradle a wide range of anatomies effectively. The black-and-gray interior has nice design contours and an efficient, businesslike layout. Gripping the comfortable wheel, reaching out to flip a positive-feeling switch, glancing down at the legible instruments—all these natural acts of driving bring pleasure. Clearly, the details have been worked out in the SE-R.

Most of the details, anyway. Living with this cockpit turns up a couple of minor annoyances. For one, the seatbelts are clumsy. To avoid the expense and complexity of either an air bag or motorized belts, Nissan gave the Sentra those door-mounted, latch-them-and-leave-­them “passive” belts—which no one uses that way, because they are such a pain on entry and exit. But the fixed-in-place buckles and the latches buried between the seats make these belts awkward to use in the conventional fashion. As if to taunt occupants fumbling with them, the seatbelt warning buzzer emits an especially aggravating bleat. And finally, the strap hanging from the close-in B-pillar, and the pillar itself, hamper the driver’s over-the-shoulder check of the left-side blind spot.

1991 nissan sentra ser

Cindy LewisCar and Driver

Other foibles: two clocks, one in the radio’s liquid-crystal display and another set in the tachometer face, is a devilish idea, because they will never stay in sync for long. And even at this price, a two­-door sedan should have a “memory” in the seatback recline/release mechanism, so a driver’s preferred back angle is not lost with every access to the rear seat.

We’re inclined to lean a little hard on such bothersome minutia because the SE-R’s overall excellence invites comparison with more expensive automobiles. Back to that well-worn 318is: for little more than half the BMW’s price, the SE-R delivers stronger engine performance, different though sparkling handling, comparable comfort and utility, and leaner, more modem styling.

Sure, the current 3-series BMW has been around for about a jillion years and is about to be modernized. And no matter how slick the SE-R is to drive, its Nissan badge still doesn’t boast the showoff value of BMW’s stylized propeller escutcheon—or Mercedes’ three-pointed star, or even Audi’s interlocked rings.

THE VERDICT: A true sports sedan that just happens to be inexpensive.

Anyone trying to indulge sports-sedan tastes on an econobox budget, however, should think in terms of value for money: Nissan’s remarkable new Sentra SE-R delivers oodles of driving value for a pittance of purchase money.


I harbor an irrational sympathy for abused machinery. Not that it’s kept me up nights, or that I’ve seen a shrink about it, but the sounds a typical car makes during road testing—the thumping suspension, shuddering body, and straining engine-produce more winces of guilt on my brow than grins of wickedness. This Nissan, however, produces more grins than winces. Its suspension is light and animated. The 2.0-liter four is willing and strong, and it seems oblivious to its own redline. The plain-Jane interior is the enthusiast’s friend: the switches, controls, and instruments provided are limited only to those necessary to the task of brisk driving. Best of all, even with its light controls, tire-burning engine, and economy­-car origins, the SE-R still displays a Honda-like indifference to hard driving. After a day in the Sentra SE-R, I can walk away completely guilt-free. This is a car I could live with. —Don Schroeder

Mixed emotions boil up as I drive the SE-R. This Sentra knows a thing or two about flat picking ’em up and putting ’em down, but when I pick up my throttle foot and put it down flat, my head erupts. It’s like lava hissing into sea water. The lava in me loves the engine. That’s where inner heat begins. And the seats keep the heart warm and the torso straight however crooked the road. And the cockpit ambiance could sustain the glow for any driver worthy of the term. The chassis, though, pushes my flow to water’s edge. Some people call a chas­sis fun if it’s not tamped down well at the tail. It would make them happy, and they’d call the Sentra tail-happy. Yet unhappiness lurks there. You can’t count on it to help out when all hell breaks loose out back. Tight spots can tum near-instantly into smashing pinches. And if there’s one thing that turns me to stone, it’s a road car that takes the fun out of long trips. The SE-R ain’t got no gol-dang cruise control. Jack! My heart chills as if caught and congealing in an Arctic undertow. Hot lava meets its wretch­ed match. —Larry Griffin

When America’s Nissan dealers discovered that the Sentra SE-R is the hottest cheap sedan on pavement, they clamored for a four-door version. No can get. Nissan planned only for two-door SE-Rs. I like that dedication to driving enthusiasts. The SE-R is exclusively two-door for several reasons. For one, its special 2.0-liter engine is not abundant. We’ve heard it’s not too profitable, either. And Nissan wanted to keep the SE-R cheap. The seats in the four-door Sentra GXE are not as bucket-like, to keep ingress through the smaller front doors acceptable. The four­-door weighs more, enough with the optional sunroof to upset the balance of the anti-lock brakes programming. And the four-door model doesn’t look as good. Little sedans are little sedans, and nobody who loves driving ever wished for a four-door BMW 2002. The only zanies to go bananas over the four-door Datsun 510 were the rallyists who needed more B-pillar strength so they could make Flying Wallenda moves with more confidence. The SE-R isn’t compromised to fit an extended lifestyle, and that’s what I like best. —Phil Berg



1991 Nissan Sentra SE-R

Vehicle Type: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 2-door sedan


Base/As Tested: $10,970/$14,045

Options: air conditioning, $825; power sunroof, $825; anti-lock brakes, $700; AM/FM-stereo radio/cassette, $400; floor mats, $50; freight, $275

DOHC 16-valve inline-4, aluminum block and head, port fuel injection

Displacement: 122 in3, 1998 cm3

Power: 140 hp @ 6400 rpm

Torque: 132 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm


5-speed manual


Suspension, F/R: struts/multilink

Brakes, F/R: 9.9-in vented disc/9.3-in vented disc

Tires: Dunlop SP SPort D87, 185/60HR-14


Wheelbase: 95.7 in

Length: 170.3 in

Width: 65.6 in

Height: 53.9 in

Passenger Volume: 83 ft3

Trunk Volume: 12 ft3

Curb Weight: 2594 lb


60 mph: 7.4 sec

1/4-Mile: 15.8 sec @ 87 mph

100 mph: 22.7 sec

Rolling Start, 5–60 mph: 7.2 sec

Top Gear, 30–50 mph: 10.4 sec

Top Gear, 50–70 mph: 10.4 sec

Top Speed: 125 mph

Braking, 70–0 mph: 186 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft Skidpad: 0.78 g


Observed: 24 mpg

City/Highway: 24/32 mpg


This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io

Source link

Next Post

Does Tyre maintenance matter?

Four tiny patches of rubber, each no larger than the palm of a man’s hand, are all that is holding your vehicle from careening off the street with likely lethal outcomes. Trying to keep your tyres in suggestion-prime shape is of essential worth. Approximated looking through time: 6 minutes 51 […]
Does Tyre maintenance matter?