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Review: 2003 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V

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SEE ALSO: Nissan Buyer's Guide

2003 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V

    Back in the late 1960s, Nissan, then known as Datsun, gained a 
reputation for performance from two cars. One was the 240Z, and 
there was no doubt that it was a real sports car. The other was the 
510 sedan, originally meant to be a small, economical, inexpensive 
family car. That it was, but its overhead cam engine and well-
designed fully-independent suspension also made it very amenable to 
tuning for both street and race track use. 510s became cult cars, and 
preserved and not-so-preserved examples can still be found today.
    The 510 lineage eventually morphed into the Sentra, and 
performance came back big-time with the Sentra SE-R in 1991. 
With a 140-horsepower 2.0-liter engine in a two-door sedan body, it 
built its own following. It was discontinued after 1994, when Nissan 
changed direction, and it was seriously mourned.
    2002 saw the reintroduction of the Sentra SE-R, and it wasn't just 
nostalgia. It built on the current Sentra's strengths and added 
horsepower and handling. The 165 horses from its 2.5-liter engine 
not only beat the original SE-R, they trumped the 240Z. And, just to 
ensure that enthusiasts knew that it was serious about sports on a 
budget, Nissan also introduced its own factory-tuned version of the 
SE-R, the Spec V. It added power - a boost to 175 horses and 180 
lb-ft of torque - and an even sportier suspension calibration. The 
Spec V name, and inspiration for the SE-R and SE-R Spec V's 
enhanced styling, came from another Nissan legend, the Skyline R34 
GTR V-Spec. 
    Nissan is not about to lose its way again. The Sentra SE-R and 
SE-R Spec V continue for 2003. Changes are few, and only improve 
already great cars. For extroverts, there is a bright yellow paint 
scheme. The Spec V gets a new close-ratio gearbox, and it's still a 
six-speed manual. I've been driving a new Spec V for the past week, 
and it'll be hard to give up. Someday, today's Sentra SE-R will go 
into Nissan history next to the 240Z, the 510, and the original SE-R. 
Right now, it's a wonderful do-everything sedan - never boring, 
always entertaining, and practical and economical, too. Few cars 
made today have such character. 

APPEARANCE: If you're only familiar with Nissan's North 
American offerings, you're excused for seeing in the front of the 
Sentra SE-R a similarity with the Frontier pickup. Yes, the jutting 
bumper looks similar, but it's even closer to that of the last of the 
legendary Japanese-market Skylines, the R34 GTR V-Spec. The 
Sentra is smaller and more rounded, but in the shape of its headlights 
and the large air intake and foglamps of the SE-R's bulldog-like 
jutting front bumper are hints of the last of the inline-six-cylinder 
Skyline supercars. Side sills and the rear bumper treatment, with a 
cutout for the twin exhausts, add to its contemporary sports look. 
The rounded Sentra tail, with a high arched character line integrating 
the tail lights, is decked with a small wing spoiler. Badging behind 
the front wheels and on the tail proclaims its identity, whether 
regular SE-R or Spec V. The normal SE-R has 16-inch alloy wheels; 
the Spec V gets 17s and ultra-low profile tires.

COMFORT: The SE-R Spec V is a Sentra, which means there is 
very good space for its size inside. Besides being a quick and 
entertaining sports sedan, it is also practical, as its four-door sedan 
body style makes rear seat access easy for passengers or cargo. The 
lava flow has ended this year - last year's red-and-black ``Lava'' 
interior color scheme has been replaced by a high-tech looking silver 
and black synthetic that almost looks like metallic mesh. It's really a 
grippy synthetic material, and helps hold the driver and passengers in 
place when cornering gets enthusiastic, and highlights interior styling 
that is more conservative than some of its competitors. The 
manually-adjustable front seats are well-bolstered and very 
comfortable and supportive. The driver's seat even has cushion 
height and tilt adjustment. Two adults can fit in the rear seat. With 
the optional ``Audio Fanatic'' stereo upgrade package, a trunk-
mounted subwoofer means that only the left side of the rear seat 
folds, but that should present few problems. Even with the well-
protected subwoofer, there is no shortage of trunk space. 

SAFETY: Like all Sentras, the SE-R Spec V has front and rear 
crumple zones and side-guard door beams. All seating positions have 
three-point safety belts. Side airbags and antilock brakes are 

ROADABILITY: Step hard on the throttle and there is no doubt 
that the Spec V is a front wheel drive car. With the engine's healthy 
amount of torque, there is more than a hint of torque steer through 
the steering wheel. But the driver will adapt to it quickly, and it's 
never a major problem. Think of it as character. And the Spec V is 
not just another transportation appliance, it has plenty of sports car 
character. But that's never at the expense of comfort. The Sentra 
SE-R Spec V successfully balances sporty handling with passenger 
comfort, and for a very reasonable price. Despite the ultra-low 
profile 45-series tires, on 17-inch rims, and stiffer springs and shocks 
than are found in the regular SE-R, the Spec V is compliant over 
less-than-perfect road surfaces. 

PERFORMANCE: Small sports sedans aren't usually known for 
torquey engines, but the Sentra SE-R Spec V is an exception. It 
makes its 175 horsepower (at 6000 rpm) and 180 lb-ft of torque (at 
4,000) not by screaming to near five-digit rev levels but by 
displacement. While 2.5 liters is nothing on an 8-liter muscle car, it is 
more than the 1.8 to 2.0 liters of most sport-compacts, and a balance 
shaft keeps it civilized. With continuously-variable valve timing, it 
pulls hard right off the line, builds in the midrange, and continues 
until the rev limiter cuts the fun at 6200 rpm. The new six-speed 
manual gearbox has very positive action, with none of the rubbery 
linkage feel that is too often found in front-drive cars. It's great fun 
to shift, but the engine has such a broad power band that shifting is 
not as necessary as in some other cars in the class. In most cases, 
either of two gears will work just fine. 

CONCLUSIONS: The Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V combines 
performance with practicality for unique character.

2003 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V

Base Price			$ 17,199
Price As Tested		        $ 19,066
Engine Type			dual overhead cam 16-valve inline 4-
Engine Size			2.5 liters / 151 cu. in.
Horsepower			175 @ 6000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			180 @ 4000 rpm
Transmission			6-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length		99.8 in. / 177.5 in.
Curb Weight			2708 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower	        15.5
Fuel Capacity			13.2 gal.
Fuel Requirement		91 octane unleaded premium gasoline 
Tires				P215/45 ZR17 Continental ContiSportContact
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc
Suspension, front/rear		independent strut /
                                 multi-link beam axle
Drivetrain			front engine, front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		24 / 29 / 26
0 to 60 mph				7.0  sec

Audio Fanatic Package - includes:
  Rockford Fosgate audio system, partial fold-down
  rear seat, immobilizer security system		$ 549
Sunroof Package - includes:
  power sliding glass sunroof, dual illuminated
  visor mirrors						$ 699
Floor mats						$  79