The last time I remember the Nissan Sentra being truly sporty was 2002, when the Sentra SE-R Spec V debuted with a 180 horsepower engine, six-speed manual transmission and limited-slip differential. After that, the Sentra became a rather boring and mostly forgettable Point A to Point B small sedan, but for the 2017 model year, Nissan hopes to recapture some performance magic with the new Sentra SR Turbo.
As its name implies, the SR Turbo gets a turbocharged engine borrowed from the Juke crossover. The 1.6-liter turbo four-cylinder makes 188 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque. Compared to the base 1.8-liter naturally aspirated Sentra powerplant, the blown engine brings 64 more horsepower and 52 pound-feet more torque to the party. That works with either a six-speed manual or continuously variable transmission, both tuned specifically for the SR Turbo.
Behind the wheel of a manual-equipped SR Turbo, mashing the throttle returns acceleration that proved mildly quick on my short test drive in Georgia. Power is consistent throughout the rev band, while the clutch and shifter are easy to work with, but shift throws are longish. The car definitely isn't a slouch, but it doesn't knock your socks off, either, even with the car's Sport mode activating punchier throttle response.
With respectable power under the hood, Nissan ups the SR Turbo's handling game, too, with suspension upgrades that include stiffer dampers and front springs, while the body structure benefits from a larger engine cradle and thicker cowl over the base car. Engineers also altered the electric power steering system, adding a new steering motor and software tuning in hopes of providing more steering feedback.
For more stopping muscle, larger 11.7-inch front brake discs replace base 11-inchers, and have more aggressive brake pads clamping down on them.
The chassis improvements do succeed in giving the SR Turbo slightly sharper handling reflexes. It sticks fine around gradual bends with some body roll, but when you push harder through tighter turns understeer rears its ugly head. While the 17-inch Continental ContiProContact all-season tires do a good job getting the power down and keeping the car planted for normal driving, they aren't cut out for spirited runs on twisty pieces of pavement.
Even with the SR Turbo's steering alterations, there still isn't a ton of feel available through the wheel when you toss it around. There's a large dead spot on center, which tightens up some with the car in Sport mode. If you do end up with a Sentra SR Turbo, I suggest keeping the car in Sport mode all the time for the weightier steering and quicker throttle response.
While the Sentra SR Turbo isn't a thoroughbred performance machine, it is a rather comfortable commuter car. It rides smoothly on the near-pristine Georgia roads, the cabin stays quiet from wind and road noise, the cloth sport seats are supportive and controls for climate and infotainment are simple and intuitive.
Speaking of infotainment, the SR Turbo comes standard with 5-inch color center display, satellite radio, Bluetooth and integration for Apple iPhone and Android phones. However, the Sentra's infotainment system still isn't Apple CarPlay or Android Auto capable.
For more interior goodies, an optional premium package adds a Bose premium audio system, leather seats, blind-spot warning and rear cross traffic alert that monitors for cars approaching from both sides when backing out of parking spaces and driveways. Also available with the premium package is NissanConnect, which lets you access navigation services, SiriusXM Traffic, SiriusXM Travel Link and a variety of apps using a phone data plan via the car's 5.8-inch touchscreen display.
The SR Turbo initially felt underwhelming during my drive. With memories of the old SE-R dancing in my head, my expectations were high, but after stepping back and judging the car on its own merits, you realize that the SR Turbo isn't a replacement to the SE-R. Without an SE-R or Nismo badge, it's not supposed to take on legit performance machinery like the Ford Focus ST and Volkswagen Jetta GLI, both of which cost thousands more than the $22,825 SR Turbo.
Instead, the SR Turbo shows Nissan dipping the Sentra's pinky toe back into the performance waters. Look at it as a light sport model that offers just a bit more power and handling while maintaining solid daily driving traits that appeal to the masses. It's still more of a Point A to Point B appliance, but it's a slightly more entertaining one.
As an enthusiast, I'm disappointed that the SR Turbo doesn't punch higher on the performance and looks scale, but on the other hand I'm happy that Nissan is making an effort to liven up the Sentra at all. With a little luck, maybe we'll see a true SE-R successor if there's enough demand for the SR Turbo after it goes on sale at the beginning of October.