Nissan has a history of giving BMWs a run for their money. Back when they were going by Datsun, the 510 was a capable facsimile of a BMW 1600/2002, but cheaper. Performance cred attained, Nissan continued to pump out various capable performers over the years. In 1991, the Sentra was due for a makeover, and Nissan managed to splice some 510 DNA into the SE-R. Car and Driver admonished 12-year olds to save the review so they'd know what to buy in 1998 for a screaming bargain and a hell of a good time. I saved the review, but failed to heed the stellar advice about picking one of these little screamers up in the late '90s. They're a lot more rare now, and finding one that's either inexpensive or unmolested is tough. It's the darndest thing – people know what these cars are.
Read on for more.
The 1991-94 Sentra is the B13 evolution of Nissan's compact line, and the SE-R was more interesting than the Clarence Thomas hearings when it debuted in 1991. Previous generations of the Sentra had been available in a wide range of body configurations, from a 2-door coupe that shared very little bodywork with other Sentras, to wagons. For the B13, choices were limited to two doors or four. If you wanted a coupe, the same basic platform underpinned the NX2000, a Japanese egg with moves from Weissach.
The Sentra's platform was solid for the time, and weighed in around 2,500 pounds – a good basis for the flingable two-door SE-R. Underhood was Nissan's SR20DE two-liter DOHC four cylinder, providing 140 horsepower and always happy to rev out to the 7500 RPM redline. Backing up the zingy powerplant was a five-speed manual transaxle with an acceleration-friendly 4.18:1 final drive ratio. Performance was sprightly – quarter miles were dispatched in the high 15's and the SE-R attained 60mph in the mid-seven second range, all the while returning 24/32 miles per gallon city/highway.
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The SE-Rs were not just about the engine. These days, those power numbers are eclipsed by all but the lowliest of penalty boxes, anyway. The SE-R was a sweet handler. In fact, even though it has a horespower advantage over the lesser Sentras, the most endearing aspect of the SE-R was the way the chassis performed, not the meager horsepower bump. There was nothing fancy about the underpinnings, struts all around, but the tuning made it special. Stiffer springs and anti-roll bars kept the wheels buttoned down, and rolling stock was upgraded to 185-60-14s for extra stick. Prices started around $13,000, and even when optioned up a bit, they were still in the teens. Unfortunately, Nissan lost its way with the SE-R when they rolled out the B14 Sentra in 1995. Oh, there were SE-Rs, but they didn't have the mojo. The latest SE-R Spec-V is getting close to what it once was, but emissions and safety standards ensure it will never be the same.
Nowadays, good SE-Rs are increasingly difficult to find. People knew what these cars were when they bought them, unlike some of our other Future Classics. The Sentra SE-Rs were lauded in their time, making everyone's best lists and channeling the attitude that made the 510 so much fun. There was plenty of mention of the SE-R and the BMW 2002 in the same sentence, as well. Because they were so widely praised, SE-Rs have been sought out on the used market. It's also worth remembering that the newest B13 is 13 years old. Subcompacts tend not to age gracefully, and the SE-R will have the added likelihood of mods, two factors that will confound you on your quest. When all is said and done, the SE-R is an early '90s economy car, with all the good and bad that goes with it. The upside is that the Sentras were pretty good in their day. The trunk was accommodating, the seats were decent, and the passenger volume was respectable, if a little tight on legroom.
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There are still good ones out there, and even a modded one can be a worthwhile purchase provided the upgrades are well executed. It's the same thing you run into when looking at used ponycars; some are hack jobs, others are beautifully turned out. The NX2000 had an upgraded braking system that's a popular swap over to the SE-R, along with the NX's wider wheels. The SR20DE was in several Nissan and Infiniti models, and it's well regarded by enthusiasts. There are swaps-a-plenty documented on the Internets, our favorite is the fitment of the turbocharged SR20 variant. The cylinders can collect an overabundance of carbon, and the '91s had cranky electric fuel pumps, but you were going to pull the engine, add that turbo and upgrade the fuel delivery system anyway, right?