words: Wes Grueninger

Anyone who is versed in the inherent awesomeness of the Isuzu Stylus or Mercury Tracer LTS or Toyota Corolla FX-16 understands the concept of the Nissan Sentra SE-R. Take a big four-cylinder engine, stuff it into a small sedan, tune the suspension to within an inch of its life so that it runs rings around most sports cars, make it cheap, and then sell it to a few — and we do mean few — geeked-out enthusiasts.

It was a formula for success back then, but with horsepower figures and curb weights swelling with each subsequent generation, we had to wonder: Would the formula still work today? Nissan has a new Sentra SE-R on the market, so we arranged for 2008 Sentra SE-R Spec V and a 1991 original to see if it still held water.

The story of the original SE-R begins in 1960s Japan, with a fresh-faced graduate of the Tokyo University of Art and Design named Teruo Uchino, and a growing Nissan Motor Company desperate to build the kind of car that would make the company a player in the United States. Having gotten many earfuls about the demands of the American market over the course of many long-distance phone calls from Nissan USA president Yutaka Katayama, Uchino set about to design a car that, from the ground up, would appeal to Americans. The result was the iconic Datsun 510. Springboarding Nissan into the arena of unitized-body rear-drivers, the 510 mated Uchino's buttoned-down conservative design to Nissan head designer Kazumi Yotsumoto's self-described "German" driving dynamics, and arrived at a price that obliterated the competing BMW 1600.

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The 510 was an instant success, moving over half a million cars during the course of its production run. One of which ended up under the stewardship of Kouichi Yasui, a young designer who bought it in the early '70s as a reward for landing a job at Nissan. For Yasui, it wasn't just any car; it was his first car — and promptly took on the mantle of adoration that all first cars do. Yasui worked his way through the ranks of Nissan's design corps, and in the late 1980s he was given the opportunity to design the car that had been gestating in his mind for over a decade. Working under Teruo Uchino, who had been promoted to head of Nissan's design studio, he was assigned to one of the products that would round out Nissan's portfolio of high-tech, fun-to-drive cars like the 300ZX and original 4DSC Maxima. A car that management decreed should hark back to the 510 both in spirit and styling.

So imagine, if you will, the kind of car that would be spawned from the former designer of the Datsun 510, overseeing a former Datsun 510 enthusiast, being given a mandate to create a car that recreates a modern Datsun 510. Think the resulting car might look somewhat like a 510? Enter the S13 Nissan Sunny, sold here as the Sentra from 1991 to 1994. Both the Sentra and the 510 would be endowed with the same subtlety of proportions: The long hood to the short deck, the rake of the windshield, the size of the greenhouse. Then there was the familial styling cue with what Nissan called the "supersonic line" — a scalloped crease that ran across the length of both cars' shoulder lines.

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Nicely proportioned as they were, the 510 and the Sentra could be anycars. They were street salmon. The only way to pick the homely SE-R out of schools of traffic was to squint carefully and look for the front and rear spoilers or the short decklid wing. The SE-R may have looked like the box that a sporty car was shipped in, but that was part of its allure — Nissan kept the car's price down by spending upgrade money exactly where it was needed. Disc brakes and a sophisticated limited slip differential with a viscous coupling were standard on the $11,370 Sentra SE-R, but cruise control wasn't even on the table. The seats sported larger bolsters and more supportive foam, yet the stock radio made do with two crappy little speakers. Dunlop SP Sport tires on 14-in alloy wheels were included on every SE-R that rolled down the line. Power windows were not.

The pièce de résistance was the engine: The SE-R got the 2.0-liter, twin-cam aluminum SR20DE engine that was used in the Infiniti G20. Compared to the lumps being stuffed into other sporty cars at the time, the SR20 would wind out to 7500 rpm. Its thirst could be slaked by regular unleaded. Its 140 naturally aspirated horsepower beat out everything that didn't have a turbo. Feats that weren't just impressive, they were unheard of in its class. Car and Driver predicted the future accurately when they wrote that "poems will be written about this engine [and] ballads will be sung."

Did the Sentra SE-R win over enthusiasts? You could say that. It was named to Car and Driver's 10Best list every year of its production, and made the cut as an Automobile All Star in 1993 and 1994. Writing about the SE-R was an excuse for auto journalists to have a superlative orgasm, alternately referring to the car as "pâtá performance at chopped-liver prices" or "required course material for Performance Driving 101," and noting that the SE-R "kicks butt for just pennies a day" and was "on the road to cult-car status." Automobile summarized the SE-R as "a compelling combination of speed, efficiency, and price, a melange of more-for-less that we find irresistible."

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So why the ragged-out, moth-chewed example you see here, then? Found on a local car-dealer's lot, this SE-R is, for half the country, the only kind of example you're likely to stumble across today. The SE-R's coldly sexless styling cut both ways: Cops couldn't tell the SE-R from a Hertz rental, but neither could average shoppers. It resonated with non-enthusiast buyers in exactly the same way as the Isuzu Stylus, the Mercury Tracer LTS, and the Toyota Corolla FX-16 did, which is to say "not at all." The SE-R sold in similar numbers to the Buick Grand National, itself a car you don't see every day.

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Driven year 'round — it was just a Sentra, after all — the cars were run hard and put away wet. Wet, and salt-caked. Not helping matters was that early '90s Nissans were assembled to the highest of Japanese standards, none of which apparently included galvanizing. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Sentra bodies may have actually been dipped in saltwater before assembly. The survivors that hadn't reverted to their base elements met a worse fate in the hands of amateur racers and autocrossers prowling used car lots for cheap thrills, and the examples that weren't held together by prayer or undercoating have been stripped down and converted to racecars.

Despite needing a tetanus shot just to look at it, our clapped-out 1991 SE-R was still damn fun to drive. We love a car with a bit of spirit; one that puts up a good fight. And fight our car did. A rear taillight is held in place with packing tape. Halves of the rocker panels are missing. The wheel wells leave bits of themselves on our studio floor that require brooming flakes of Nissan up after its photo shoot. The A/C, horn, and dome light all decide not to work, and unless the car has been running for at least half an hour, turning the steering wheel sharply in any direction kills the engine. The tires do their best to imitate cubes cast in vulcanized rubber. The license plate fell out during our time with the SE-R, and when we retrieve it there are two mounting screws still poking out the back, threaded into their little plastic inserts. Inserts which themselves are surrounded by little sand-dollars of iron-oxide corn-flake that used to be part of the tail panel.

And none of that matters, because the SE-R's base competency manages to shine through the weatherbeaten facade. Even with 135,000 miles behind it, the brilliant little engine still runs up to its 7500-rpm redline. The shifter still works as an extension of the anatomy. The seats have since succumbed to seventeen years of cheeseburger-fed owners, but the driving position is still classically upright, low in the chassis, and with a greenhouse that let drivers see if they're in the lines without popping the door open — which is a good thing, since getting the door to actually close again requires four hands to lift it so it latches on the peg.

The current Sentra SE-R, available exclusively as a sedan, shares its platform and some of its basic proportions with the Renault Mégane, a car that's weirder than any vehicle has a possible need to be. Nissan gave sexing up the Sentra's goofy lines — as upright as a telephone pole and with the glass-to-body ratio of a 737's cockpit — the old college try, with 17-inch wheels, different front and rear fascias, and a rear spoiler. It will never blend into the sea of vehicles on the road in the same way that yellow snakeskin pants will make you stand out New York foot traffic, proving that anonymity might not be all that bad.

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The new SE-R cribs its larger engine from the Nissan corporate catalog as well, but in this case it's the 2.5-liter QR25DE four used in the Altima. There's even a model above the SE-R in the new Sentra lineup — the Spec V — that refits the engine with unique connecting rods and pistons to bump its compression higher than the regular SE-R's. It's a move that gives the Spec V a healthy 200 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque, as well as a penchant for premium fuel.

Behind the 17-inch wheels on our Spec V are 12.6-inch rotors, which prove useful when stopping 3048 pounds of Sentra. If that seems a bit beefy compared to the 2538-pound 1991 SE-R (that's Nissan's official weight; ours checked in a few obvious pounds lighter), consider that the new Spec V needs to haul around three fewer pounds per horsepower than the old car. The Spec V also offers an optional helical limited-slip front differential.

The 2.5-liter mill settles into a quiet (dare we say Altima–esque?) idle, its exhaust happily burbling but never being obtrusive. We've always been of the mindset that Nissan's 2.5-liter engine, built in Decherd, Tennessee, got it ass-backwards; it could have had Japanese refinement with American power output, but instead got the opposite. It will run up to its 7000-rpm redline and sit there happily nudging against its soft limiter, but it does so with all the grace of an old Quad 4. Trust us; you won't want to have that fling more than once. The short-throw six-speed manual in the Spec V has gear ratios picked so carefully, allowing the engine to land at exactly its target speed when changing cogs, that their spacing borders on a black art. But the shifter itself has a notchy action borrowed from Muncie.

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The cheekiness of the original SE-R came through in its handling, and the Spec V doesn't fall far from the tree. It's still a great machine to learn about trail-braking and late-apexing, with enough fudge factor built in to keep aspiring Marios from worrying about preserving their line, their sheetmetal, or their selves. The Spec V's suspension is bolted up to harder bushings and sports more aggressive strut and damper tuning. Its ride height is 10 millimeters lower than the "normal" Sentra SE-R, and the front sway bar is replaced with a larger, solid 25mm piece. There's a strut-tower brace up front, and a V-shaped chassis brace across the rear seatbacks, eliminating the folding rear seat. Yet the Spec V is only $600 more than the SE-R. So does that make the Spec V a loss leader, or is it another example of Nissan keeping spending in check? Consider this: Special to the Spec V are red seatbealts, but only the front two spools get the crimson webbing. The rear seats get lowly black. We're all about reining in costs wherever possible, but damn.

Both models are parts-bin projects, then, but for 2008 the bin's been moved to the bargain aisle. On paper, yes, the Spec V not only has more horsepower and bigger brakes and better performance numbers, but it does so without a sense of the designers putting one over on accounting. Where the SE-R borrowed from higher up the food chain, the Spec V makes lateral grabs from other entry-level Nissans.

When the first SE-R arrived, there was precious little that would — or even could — dance with it and not trip over its feet. With an unflappable and eager chassis, a nearly telepathic shifter, and a party-animal engine, the SE-R pushed back the barriers of price and performance like none other. Today we're awash in competent cars. Given an empty two-lane and a lazy Saturday, the 2008 Spec V will still put a smile on your face, but the grin won't be any broader than if you'd been piloting a Volkswagen GTI, Honda Civic Si, or Chevy Cobalt SS sedan. And in that sense — of running with the pack but not being out in front of it — the little Sentra has lost its magic. The Spec V is a better car than the 1991 model, but it's not a better SE-R.