ot hatches like the Volkswagen GTI and Ford Focus ST have long been regarded as a perfected blend of daily usability and accessible performance, but for some, they’re excessive both in performance and price. Lucky for them, automakers have stepped up and now offer sporty-ish compacts that are easier to live with – and easier to afford — and we recently spent a week with the segment’s freshest face, the 2017 Nissan SentraNismo.
Visually, the Sentra Nismo is as subtle as a depth charge. Nismo went to work on Nissan’s popular compact, adding aggressive protrusions on the lower front fascia and sharp folds on the rear bumper. Thin red accents slice down the lower rocker panel portions of the doors, extending to larger crimson sectionals on the front and rear bumpers.
You can’t mute these accents, either – this Sentra is only available in contrasting white, black, silver, and gunmetal. Nismo-exclusive black/silver wheels and a fat single-exit exhaust hanging beneath a faux rear diffuser round out the boy-racer design. It’s not the handsomest compact we’ve seen, but it provides a healthy heap of the go-fast aesthetics the warm hatch crowd is looking for regular Sentra trims as well. Most notable are the fat-sided cloth sport seats that wouldn’t look out of place in a bone-stock R32 GT-R, and trust us, that’s a compliment. The steering wheel is still that of a standard Sentra, but in the Nismo, it’s wrapped in alcantara and sports a bright red Donohue stripe at the top. Aside from these Nismo affects, it’s still very much a regular Sentra – hard, scratchy plastics and all.
Power comes from the same 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder found in the Sentra SR Turbo, putting down the same 188 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque. Peak torque is accessible from 1,600 to 5,200 rpm, but peak power doesn’t arrive until 5,600 rpm, just in time to smack into the 6,500 rpm redline.
That torque figure is surprising – most modern boosted four-bangers have a glut of torque in place of beefy power figures — and when the Sentra Nismo is prodded, this deficit is noticeable. You have to wring it out to access the power and it disappears just as things get interesting. It isn’t painfully slow, with 0-60 mph arriving in 7.3 seconds, according to Motor Trend, but it doesn’t match up to expectations set by the Nismo’s angry mug.
Power is managed by either a six-speed manual or CVT. Ours was the stick, almost certainly better for it. Surprisingly, belying the econobox roots, the Sentra shift isn’t a sloppy, long-throw affair. Gear engagements are relatively tactile and I was never left hunting for a shift even as I worked to stay in the narrow powerband.
Although the engine was left alone, Nismo did work over the suspension and steering, providing noticeable improvements over the regular car. The steering is light and moderately devoid of feedback, but that is to be expected, given the segment. The suspension, however, is perhaps the greatest improvement offered by the Nismo package, a substantial upgrade over the standard Sentra’s soft and wallowy ride. The Nismo’s damping settings are perfect for around town driving, effectively blending comfort and poise. There was still a fair bit of body roll when we pushed it around California’s canyons, but once it dug in and evened out, it felt more composed than most compact sedans we’ve wheeled.
This brings us to an interesting conclusion. Easy, inoffensive steering, comfortable ride, cushy seats, intuitive shifter, adequate power – this feels exactly how every Sentra should drive. From the basest of base to the fully kitted-out SR models, each should arrive with this suspension and steering, at the very least. Which is odd, considering this is supposed to be the most compromised, least-livable trim of the bunch despite retaining usability.
It’s only when matters turn to dollars and cents that matters get dicey for the 2017 Nissan SentraNismo. Its starting price is a considerable $25,855. That’s roughly $3,000 more than the Hyundai Elantra Sport, $1,000 more than the new Honda Civic Si, and just $1,000 shy of a base VW Golf GTI, to pick a few potential alternatives. Comparing the Sentra and the Elantra Sport, the differences are clear. The Sentra offers just one package that includes premium sound, navigation, and infotainment options, whereas the Elantra arrives with leather-trimmed seats and steering wheel, standard infotainment with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, and a multi-link rear suspension, all for much less.
Bundle this comparatively steep asking price with the fact that the Nismo’s warpaint writes performance checks the Sentra certainly can’t cash and you’re left with a head-scratcher. Is this a sport compact that’s priced too high or a flawed performance sedan that can’t keep up with the competition?
If you’re looking purely for classic JDM-style peacocking, go for the Sentra Nismo. It’s got the ridges, color, and angles everyone else is afraid of offering and provides an inoffensive drive that’s still usable outside of backroads blasts. That being said, if you’re looking for a clean blend of performance and daily usability, consider the other options.
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