In the crowded field of overpowered compact cars, the 2009 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V faces heavy competition from the Honda Civic Si, Volkswagen GTI, and Mazdaspeed3. So what can the Nissan bring to stand a chance against these tuner stalwarts? The answer is displacement. Rather than use a turbocharger or insanely high rev limits, the Sentra SE-R Spec V gets a 2.5-liter engine, bigger than the other cars it faces.
In keeping with the bad-boy image it strives for, Nissan makes a Rockford Fosgate audio system available in the Sentra SE-R Spec V, with a subwoofer powerful enough to shake the doors. But that's the extent of the car's tech, as Nissan doesn't seem to think the young crowd this car is aimed at wants iPod integration, or even a Bluetooth phone system.
On the road
If it was just a 2009 Nissan Sentra, we wouldn't have been anticipating quite so much fun before driving this car, but appending SE-R Spec V to the model name had our eagerness high. Getting into the car, we weren't surprised at the lack of an LCD, as the Sentra is pretty low in the model line-up to offer navigation. There is a large, orange, monochrome display, with big, oversize readouts for the stereo and trip computer.
A large, monochrome display shows trip computer and audio information.
Turning the ignition, the engine played heavy bass notes in our garage, and the shifter for the close-ratio six-speed-manual transmission came easily to hand. The high mounting point for the shifter looked a little too similar to that of the Honda Civic Si, so points off for lack of originality.
A good thing about the engine's big displacement: power delivery is very even and easy to modulate, making low-speed cruising through a parking lot undramatic. Dropping the clutch with the gas pedal down makes for a satisfying start, the front tires screeching but retaining enough grip to pull the Sentra forward. Surprisingly, torque steer isn't much of an issue.
Taking the Sentra SE-R Spec V on the roads it was made for, twisting highways through the mountains, its optional, limited-slip differential gets a workout. Approaching 30 mph corners at 60 mph, the brakes proved a tad light for this type of driving. And in the turns, the front- and rear-stabilizer bars felt like they were fighting with the bulky Sentra body. Lean was minimized, but understeer became a problem, especially in the longer turns.
The shifter for the six-speed manual is mounted high, similar to the Honda Civic Si's.
At speeds between 50 mph and 70 mph during this mountain driving, third gear kept the engine above 5,000rpm, but it didn't complain. Fourth proved a sporting gear at these speeds, too, delivering pull when the revs crept too high for third.
Back in the relative sanity of normal freeway driving, the Sentra's suspension wasn't too hard, delivering a ride similar to the more pedestrian models down the lineup. The Sentra SE-R Spec V doesn't broadcast its hyped-up nature to the world, merely sporting a subtle trunk lid spoiler and SE-R Spec V badge on the back. If you like flying under the radar, this is the car for you.
In the cabin
The cabin tech in the 2009 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V is disappointing. Where the Sentra SL comes standard with Bluetooth, it isn't an option on the SE-R Spec V. A navigation option would also be a little too much to wish for with this car. There are dashboard kits for the Sentra, so an aftermarket head unit with Bluetooth isn't out of the question.
For its audio sources, the stereo is unimpressive. The in-dash, six-disc changer will read MP3 CDs, and XM satellite radio is included with the Premium Audio package. After a little fumbling, we figured out how to get song titles and artist names to appear on the big, orange display. An auxiliary audio input sits dead-center on the stereo faceplate, which turns out to be very poor placement, as the patch cable for an MP3 player drapes right over the shifter.
A patch cable for an MP3 player interferes with the shifter.
The only notable cabin tech in the Sentra SE-R Spec V is the optional Rockford Fosgate audio system, comprised of a 340-watt amp and eight speakers. With two 8-inch subwoofers, this system won't make your Beethoven violin concertos sound perfect, but you will feel the canon fire in Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture." We were blown away when a track with moderate bass started playing, the low frequency waves shaking the car and pounding our ears. It's obnoxious when you're standing outside the car, and exactly what we love about Rockford Fosgate audio.
Choosing the upgraded audio system forces you to take the sunroof and smart key options, more than doubling the option price.
A unique feature for the SE-R are two driver-focused gauges set at the top of the stack, one showing oil pressure and the other g-forces. In our testing, the g-force meter seemed to show only acceleration and braking force--lateral movement didn't seem to be represented.
Under the hood
The 2009 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V's engine is a 2.5-liter four cylinder, the same engine also used in the Nissan Altima. But where the Altima only gets 175 horsepower, the SE-R Spec V's engine uses higher compression to produce 200 horsepower at 6,600rpm, with redline at 7,000rpm. Torque is 180 pound-feet.
Put on the road, that power is very satisfying, with the Sentra SE-R Spec V delivering solid acceleration from a start, or when the engine speed is already high. Of course, the six-speed manual transmission helps keep the power on. It doesn't snick into gears as quickly as the six-speed in the Honda Civic Si, instead offering a more solid feel.
Fuel economy proves particularly good in the Sentra SE-R Spec V. The EPA gives it 21 mpg city and 29 mpg highway. Even as we worked the gas pedal hard in the twisties, we still saw 26.3 mpg.
The rear stabilizer is visible in the trunk.
Front and rear stabilizers come standard in the SE-R Spec V, but a limited-slip differential is a required option when you take the upgraded audio system. These upgrades help the Sentra in the corners as much as possible, but the general body design keeps the car from being really good.
The 2009 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V has a base price of $21,160, which mainly gets you an upgraded power train over the standard Sentra. The Rockford Fosgate audio system added $850, and forced the selection of the $750 sunroof, a $400 limited-slip differential, and $140 splash guards. $165 floor mats and a $695 destination charge ran the total up to $24,160.
In our ratings, the Sentra SE-R Spec V did best in performance, with its capability to provide a thrilling ride and also get decent fuel economy. But handling brought that score down a little. The lack of Bluetooth, iPod integration, and navigation options hurt the cabin tech score substantially, forcing us to call it poor in that category. As for design, the car is pretty average, with unassuming looks and a reasonable dashboard interface.