EngineTurbocharged 1.6L I4
Power188 HP / 177 LB-FT
Transmission6-Speed Manual / CVT
Curb Weight3,037 LBS (Manual) / 3,105 LBS (CVT)
Cargo15.1 CU FT
MPG25 CITY / 31 HWY
Yes, Nissan sent us its sportiest Sentra equipped with a CVT. We have no idea why because this transmission shouldn't be anywhere near a performance car. It may be acceptable for a lower trim model, but it sucks out whatever life the 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder has. Matting the gas is met with the feeling that something is slipping, and that you're not getting power to the ground. Putting it into manual mode doesn't help either, since the pre-set ratios aren't fixed. Instead, the transmission can still adjust its pulleys as it sees fit, so you still get an odd rubber-band feeling. Long story short, it makes the car feel slower, and makes it hard to tell what the car is doing. Both big no-nos in the performance car world.
It's a real shame, too, since the engine actually isn't too bad. It's not the most responsive turbo engine out there, thanks to how the CVT exaggerates the lag in throttle response. But once it makes boost, it pulls with some gusto. We're sure that the available manual transmission would make it more enjoyable. Unfortunately, even with a manual, the NISMO would still only be working with the same 188 horsepower as its lesser SR Turbo counterpart. To be taken seriously as a sport compact, Nissan needs to give the Sentra NISMO more power. Nissan needs to give the little sedan a limited slip differential, too. Even with just 188 horsepower, it's easy to get the NISMO's inside front wheel spinning by giving it gas in a tight corner. Adding more power without addressing this would make the Sentra maddening to drive.
Where the NISMO really differentiates itself from the SR Turbo is with the suspension. The NISMO has firmer springs and dampers, and sits just under half an inch lower than its normal sibling. The result is a Sentra that takes turns with much less body roll. But, again thanks to the NISMO's unique suspension, it has a particularly firm, bordering on harsh, ride. It was bad enough that one of our editors said he would prefer a normal SR Turbo to get that cruising comfort back.
The steering is updated as well, and the weight feels fairly nice. Unfortunately, it still lacks feedback, and it isn't as precise as we would like in a performance car.
The Sentra NISMO's styling is also a mixed bag. On the outside, the little Nissan gets some more visual excitement in the form of more aggressive front and rear bumpers, deep side skirts, a lip spoiler, and new wheels. The lower bodywork features red accents. Don't worry about clashing colors, though, since the NISMO is only available in white, silver, dark silver, and black. Some of us in the office find the new look to be rather handsome, particularly in the darker hues. However, others find the new side skirts and bumpers add unwanted visual mass to an already tall and slab-sided sedan.
Inside, NISMO does what it can to liven up a drab cabin. Faux carbon fiber, NISMO badges, red accents, and suede cover most every surface. The suede is very soft and is found on various surfaces that drivers will touch frequently such as the steering wheel and the nicely padded armrests. Exclusive NISMO seats replace the standard chairs, and they're improved in almost every way, from the additional bolstering, to the grippy suede and cloth. But those improvements are overshadowed by an overstuffed headrest that can't be adjusted. This means that it's constantly pushing on the back of your head unless you lean the seat way back. This editor came back from a few drives with some tired neck muscles.
Aside from the headrest issue, other problems plague the Sentra NISMO interior. The steering wheel's telescoping function doesn't telescope enough for all drivers to find a comfortable driving position. There's no tension in the adjustment lever, so you had better have a firm grasp on the wheel when you move it. If you don't, it'll slam down to the bottom of the tilt range. The shift lever is a particularly weak point. It's one of the most chintzy-feeling shifters this editor has used, making unpleasant clunking and rattling noises when the button is pushed in, and the shift plate moves when making gear selections. The headliner and sun visors feel cheap thanks to a stiff and scratchy upholstery that's kinda of like low-grade felt. And of course, it's hard to get into a sporty mood when you sit as high up as you do in a Sentra. The driving position is on par with certain compact crossovers.
The final issue with the Sentra NISMO is that it's overpriced. It starts at $25,855, and for similar money, you could have a far more enjoyable and powerful Volkswagen GTI or Ford Focus ST. The GTI is a little less than $600 more, and the Focus ST is about $200 less. Or if you wanted to save some money, the similarly powerful Honda Civic Sport hatchback can be had for about $3,700 less at $22,175. And, unlike the NISMO, that car is legitimately fun.
In the end, the Sentra NISMO fails because it's based on an aging commuter platform that excels only at having space and a relatively comfortable ride, and the NISMO trim doesn't do enough to overcome those issues inherent to the Sentra platform. It doesn't add power, and gains in handling sacrifice one of the Sentra's few strong points. Perhaps if a future Sentra NISMO based on a completely new platform appears, Nissan will have a real competitor. But until then, the current NISMO is too much money for too little car.