Legendary motorsports heritage, a storied performance badge, revolutionary styling, and record-breaking performance. The B13 Nissan Sentra SE-R perfectly embodies none of these things, but I decided to buy a clapped-out one as my first car anyway. Does it deserve more credit than it gets though? I've conducted some very scientific research to find out...
[Full Disclosure: Nissan wanted me to drive this car so badly that they sold it to someone in Lorain, Ohio, who blew up the motor, swapped in one from an Infiniti G20, and sold it to a very shady individual who systematically ruined it before I swooped in with $2000 and made it my own.]
The first generation (B13) Sentra SE-R was Nissan's other other other performance offering of the 1990s (Remember the 90's, when companies could make more than one cool car?). Though highly sought after by literally several people these days, it was highly regarded by Automotive Journalists of its time for its use of the then new SR20DE engine, as well as featuring a limited slip diff and upgraded suspension as standard. The rev happy twin cam engine meant it was quicker than the competition, and its sublime handling made it a go-to choice for amateur racers. This excerpt from Car and Driver's 1991 10 Best Cars list best explains the appeal of it over its contemporaries-
The entire driveline, from an engine that stands out (in a big crowd) with smooth delivery of power to a shifter that finds gears as if by divine guidance, sends the driver who truly loves the act of driving closer to affordable nirvana than he may yet have come.
Jealous yet? Don't worry, it gets much worse...
Like any obscure performance car bought for two grand off of Craigslist, it's prefect from afar, but far from perfect. The previous owner had grand notions of turning it into a street-dominating racecar, but faced the perfect storm of limited funds, little mechanical knowledge, and a general lack of fucks for build quality. But I'll get into that in due time; for now, let's get to the review-ening.
Exterior - 5/10
Given the fact that it is a 90s Japanese econobox, I like to think that the SE-R makes the best of what it's got, so to speak. It is never going to be described as a styling tour de force, but its clean lines accented by an aggressive front bumper and spoiler make for a decently handsome car. From a distance, it's not even too outlandish to say it mimics some European sports sedans of the era.
That is, it did look good when it was shiny and new. But 20 years of Ohio weather and a botched rattle can paintjob bring down the score quite significantly. The hood looks like it was made of aluminum foil, and up until a few weeks ago, the headlights were dangling by one solitary bolt and the grill was AWOL. The replacement parts I found were from a dark green car, so as long as it's not in direct sunlight, it looks fine to me. That being said, it does have some of the greatest wheels to ever come from the factory. If you disagree, I'm sorry, but you're just wrong.
Interior - 5/10
Much like the exterior, it started out as an exercise in cheapness, spruced up with some slightly nicer parts, and neglected for 20 years. I suppose if the standard Sentra's interior is equivalent in interesting-ness to Train simulator, then the SE-R interior is like Train Simulator with all of the DLC installed.
The seats, which were decent at one point, are now worn and saggy; and the center of the steering wheel is being held on by nothing more than the upwards angle of the wheel. I do find myself liking the size and shape of the shifter a lot more than I thought I would though, it's kind of a cross between a normal shift knob and a pistol grip.
Acceleration - 6/10
This particular SR20DE has less than half of the miles of the car itself, but with some questionable go-faster parts and long-term abuse, it's probably putting out a little less than the stock 140hp. That isn't a whole lot, but in a car that weighs not a whole lot over 2200lbs, it's quick enough to put a smile on my face. (The previous owner liked to brag about all of the street races he'd won...ugh...) The official specs are 0-60 in 7.6 seconds, and redline is at 7500RPM, though most of the power comes around 3000. The Gearing is also ridiculously short, so that doesn't hurt either.
Braking - 4/10
Despite having discs at all four corners as standard and red painted calipers, it's nothing to write home about. I blew a brake line while driving about a week after I bought it, so those are luckily new and in good shape. New brake pads are pretty high up on my list of things to do, though.
It's not what you would call "good", or "tolerable"...
On a perfectly smooth road, it rides like a cheap car from the 90s. Except smooth roads don't exist in Ohio, so every bump both feels and sounds like being hit by a hammer. Oh, and it doesn't have a headliner, so it's pretty much like driving an empty can of your favorite fizzy beverage with an SR20 out in front.
MY CAR IS GOOD AT SOMETHING!
Whenever I would take a sharpish turn going a little faster than I should, I would think to myself "This thing handles pretty well". Then I took it to an autocross, and discovered, this thing handles really fucking well. With a new set of performance tires on it, independent MacPherson struts all the way around, a limited slip diff, and no weight to ruin the fun, it can take corners way faster than it has any right to. You have to push it unbelievably hard to even get a hint of understeer or drama. By my final run of the day, even with my lack of any skill, I was keeping up with a few Speed 3s and WRXs.
Gearbox - 8/10
All SE-Rs came with 5-speed manuals, and running through the gears you can really understand why. Even though the shifter itself is about a foot long, the throw is perfectly short and precise; impressive for an older gearbox. First can be tricky to get into sometimes, and the #becauseracecar aftermarket clutch is godawful in traffic to put it bluntly.
Toys - 1/10
It's got 140hp and weighs 2200lbs; the whole thing is a toy.
That's not what that means? Okay, well It's got a radio and one speaker that works, so I guess there's that. It's also got cruise control, but I'm not sure if it works or not, because I have no idea how to use cruise control in the first place.
Did I mention it handles well, though?
Audio - 9/10
Equipped with a new Dynomax muffler, catalytic converter, air intake, and likely a few exhaust leaks thrown in for good measure, I'm proud to say that my car sounds like a 60s Touring car. It has the raspy, twin-cam roar that today's cars can only play over the speakers. It's quite a refreshing change from literally everything else with an SR20, which all seem to have the same fart can muffler.
Myself being the responsible and mature adult that I am, I always have to downshift and get on the throttle under overpasses, naturally.
Value - 7/10
Granted, it's not the final word in reliability or luxury, but for $2000, you're not going to find much that will put a bigger grin on your face than my car.
In many ways, the SE-R is exactly what you don't want as a first car. It's loud, uncomfortable, small, difficult to drive, parts are hard to find, and it's
probably definitely unsafe. But like a true member of the great nation of Oppositelock, none of these things matter. It's my first car and it's absolutely perfect.
Also, it handles really well.