Sentra sports coupe is well-equipped for the road

January 10, 1991|By Al Haas | Al Haas,Knight-Ridder News Service

In its cheapest form, Nissan's all-new Sentra is an attractive small car with a rather seductive starting price of $7,999.

In its sportiest form, the SE-R model I tested, the Sentra becomes more fun than any car with an under-$11,000 base price has a right to be.

The SE-R coupe is a car that assumes that inside many seemingly sensible, civilized adults there is a juvenile delinquent screaming to get out. It also assumes that you'd rather not let your neighbors know about this developmental disorder.

So, the SE-R doesn't come on like a tire-torching teen toy. It manages a vaguely sporty appearance, thanks largely to a discreet decklid spoiler, but its essential demeanor is serious, sedate, almost Spartan.

What lurks in those rather cramped quarters is a new Nissan two-liter, four-cylinder engine with 16 valves and a related desire to rev forever. (The engine is redlined at a rather extravagant 7,500 rpm). When you couple that 140-horsepower coffee grinder with a vehicle curb weight of little more than 2,400 pounds, you have a fairly formidable car.

What we are talking about here is a car that will go from zero to 60 in eight seconds -- and reach that speed with only the second of the five dancing partners in its manual transaxle.

The engine's athleticism is matched by the car's braking ability and cornering capabilities. The SE-R stays flat and predictable in fast turns, and doesn't make you pay for that comforting behavior with a harsh ride.

There are reasons for a level of performance well above that of its brethren. For openers, the SE-R uses that 140-horse engine instead of the standard 1.6-liter, 110-horsepower power plant found in the less ambitious Sentras. Its superior handling derives from the fact that it is equipped with a special, sport-tuned

version of the Sentra's fully independent suspension, and uses larger wheels and considerably more tenacious tires than its stablemates. The base Sentra is fitted with 13-inch wheels and P155/80R13 tires. The SE-R uses 14-inch wheels shod with P185/60R14 rubber.

The SE-R's superior braking derives from the fact that it uses four-wheel disc brakes, instead of the front-disc/rear-drum setup found on the other Sentras.

The SE-R's interior works as well as its mechanicals. Visibility is good, and the handsome, aircraft-type instrument panel does a nice job of sharing the findings of its analog gauges with the driver. The car's sport bucket seats are comfortable and offer exceptional lateral support, an attribute that's evident when you corner the SE-R at speed.

The SE-R interior affords reasonable passenger space for a subcompact coupe. That means four people of normal size can be comfortable. With 6-footers in the front and back seats, you get airline economy-class legroom.

The sporty SE-R has a starting tag of $10,970, almost $3,000 more than the base Sentra. (With options and destination charges, the test car cost a little over $12,000.) Bear in mind, though, that the SE-R is a pretty well-equipped car in standard form. No-extra-cost equipment includes the fully independent sport suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, a limited-slip differential and tilt steering.

The SE-R is part of a seven-model Sentra line that includes four coupes and three sedans. Its base price is second only to the top-of-the-line GXE sedan, which starts at $12,050.

As you might have guessed, the SE-R's larger engine cuts gas mileage a bit. Sentras equipped with the smaller engine and a manual gearbox get EPA mileage estimates as high as 29 city and 39 highway. The SE-R is rated at 24 and 32. I got 25 in mixed driving.

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