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SEE ALSO:Nissan Buyer's Guide

The Sentra SE-R is Nissan's bread and butter sports car. In a lineup that includes the performance-oriented NX, 240SX and the 300ZX models, the SE-R offers a very practical and affordable package for the budget minded sports car fancier, just as the legendary Datsun 510 did in the early '70's. The SE-R 2-door sports sedan is specifically designed for the American market, and is assembled in Nissan's modern Smyrna, Tennessee facility, down the road a piece from Nashville.

The Smyrna plant has been producing vehicles for ten years. Since opening its production and assembly lines have been continually been updated and enlarged to the point that there are now almost 118 acres of factory space under one roof.

Nissan commenced pickup truck production in 1983, and in 1985 added the Sentra. Last year body panel stamping facilities for the Quest minivan were placed in operation, as was the subassembly and complete production line for the new Altima sedan. Engine assembly for the Sentra commenced in 1989, and this year Quest engine production started up. Nissan may be a Japanese nameplate, but a major percentage of its automotive products are now researched, designed and built in America.

My week behind the wheel included a trip to the mountains plus regular city and country driving and was highlighted by an unexpected opportunity to drive the SE-R for a few laps around a tight, flat road test course to experience the real performance potential of this pocket-rocket.

APPEARANCE: "Don't mess with success" is a good credo to follow, and that's what Nissan has done with its sporty Sentra SE-R two-door sedan. Except for a mild facelift in front and back this understated, but potent performer is basically unchanged since it introduction three years ago. Its conservative lines reflect an earlier era, and display a real grille, a deep front air dam wit h driving lights, definite bumper lines, side rub strips, rocker panel extensions, a rear spoiler and alloy wheels.

COMFORT: Supportive, bolstered, manually adjustable front seats comfortably keep one in place on long or short drives. Rear seat access is enhanced by a slide-forward front passenger seat and assist handles. Instruments and controls are conveniently located, and the optional AM/FM/cassette filled the cabin with crisp, clear sound, while the air conditioner adequately cooled it down in very warm weather. A low-liftover trunk offers lots of flat storage space. Only the side mirrors and sun roof are powered, but there are remote releases for the trunk and fuel door. It's a roomy subcompact.

ROADABILITY: The Sentra SE-R suspension has been specially set up to deliver nimble and positive handling. Its front wheel drive configuration is augmented by a firmer sports-tuned four-wheel independent suspension layout that includes larger stabilizer bars, limited slip front differential, four-wheel disc brakes, power rack-and- pinion steering and the optional anti-lock braking system. The result is a firm, well-managed and controllable ride offering positive road feel and safe stopping. All that is missing are front seat air-bags. Vision is excellent, wind and road noise are minimal, and the exhaust is tuned to match its sporty image.

PERFORMANCE: The SE-R is powered by the same 2.0 liter engine used in the NX2000. It is a twin-cam four cylinder with 16 valves and sequential multiport fuel injection that develops 140 quick horsepower, which is delivered to the front wheels via a short-throw, slick-shifting five-speed manual transmission. On a straight steep grade it can accelerate in 5th gear while climbing, and on twisty byways, particularly in third gear, the SE-R is also very responsive. In secure driving conditions there is plenty of reserve power for merging and safe passing .

SUGGESTIONS: Improve the front seat belt arrangement. Add air bag as standard equipment.

ECONOMY: EPA averages are 24 city/32 highway. My overall average was 28.6 mpg.

CONCLUSION: The Sentra SE-R is Nissan's affordable, entry-level family sedan with the sports car flare of its predecessor, the still- popular Datsun 510. It offers crisp performance, very good handling, reasonable passenger and luggage space, plus above average fuel economy. A great package!

PRICE AS TESTED: $ 15,890 including air conditioning, radio/cassette, ABS and sunroof.

BASE PRICE: $ 12,645 with SE-R special equipment.


Base Price               $  12,645
Price As Tested          $  15,890
Engine Type              I-4, dohc - 16 v, smpfi
Engine Size              2.0 liter/122 cid
Horsepower               140 @ 6400
Torque (ft/lbs)          132 @ 4800
Wheelbase/Length         96"/170"
Transmission             five-speed manual w/od
Curb Weight              2480
Pounds per Horsepower    18
Fuel Capacity            13
Fuel Requirement         Unleaded regular (87 oct)
Tires                    Dunlop SP Sport 185/60HR14 D87M
Brakes                   anti-lock optional  disc/disc
Drive Train              front engine/front drive


EPA Economy - miles per gallon,
  city/highway/observed    24/32/28.6
0 to 60 mph                7.8 sec
1/4 mi (E.T.)              16.0 sec
Coefficient of Drag  (Cd)  .35