Nissan did one hell of a job kicking off its latest product debuts at the 2016 Los Angeles Auto Show, and while everyone seemed starry eyed over all the Star Wars related vehicles on display, we were focused on a different kind of intergalactic cruiser: Unveiling a vehicle and then giving journalists the chance to drive it immediately thereafter is something no automaker has done before. So when word got out that there was going to be windshield time with the sport sedan, we were one of the first to sign up for a quick spin around the block and back in the new Nissan Sentra NISMO.
By taking what started half a century ago with the Datsun 510 and blending that spirit with some of the ideals found decades later in the Sentra SE-R, Nissan’s latest revision of the sedan aims to be the first Nissan model to offer “motorsports-inspired NISMO factory-tuned performance.” While some may note that perks are limited to appearance updates both inside and out, some larger brakes, a stiffer chassis, and tighter suspension, we found that it embodies a bit more than just these things. It may not be the car that Nissan enthusiasts were hoping for, but it also has its sights set on practical daily drivability, strong sales numbers, and a healthy foundation for aftermarket tuning.
While the loop Nissan provided did not offer the chance to test the true merits of the Sentra NISMO, it was a much welcomed respite from the typical indoor funhouses associated with auto shows. However, it was enough to discover that Nissan hadn’t done much to either the SR model’s stock 1.6-liter turbo engine or its uninspiring six-speed and Xtronic transmission to meet what many could think of as true NISMO specs.
Although Nissan’s force-fed 1.6-liter engine improves combustion, horsepower, torque, economy, and emissions, there is nothing about the NISMO version that makes it superior to the regular Sentra Turbo save for a missing baffle or two in the exhaust for a deeper note. It’s not like 188 horsepower and 177 foot-pounds of torque aren’t adequate for such a small platform, but the NISMO name generally creates expectations for more power. The NISMO-badged Juke RS, for instance, is a vehicle that houses the same engine and features 215 ponies and 210 pound-feet of twist.
But with a projected starting price of under $25,000, the NISMO Sentra is a great bargain. Instead of focusing on power gains, Nissan’s engineers decided to focus on five key areas, with handling response, grip, steering feel, body control, and ride/handling balance being the core. In order to get to this level, the Sentra had to be outfitted with a number of reinforcements, including a thicker cowl, a stiffer floor and rear parcel shelf, and a stronger transmission tunnel.
A NISMO-tuned independent front strut setup and a rear torsion beam arrangement lower the entire chassis about half an inch, and a set of monotube rear dampers compliment the custom tuned front springs and struts. The car’s electric power steering has been retuned too, and when combined with a specialized set of 18-inch alloy wheels mounted with Z-rated Michelin Pilot Sport all-season tires, cornering and grip levels are improved significantly. Bridgestone Potenza high performance tires are a summer option at dealerships for those looking for more. Attach that to a larger brake setup with 11.7-inch front discs and 11.5-inch solid rears, and you momentarily forget the car’s untouched powertrain.
This leaves us with a $25,000 sport sedan with nicely retuned suspension and steering, slightly beefier brakes, a powertrain that leaves something to the imagination, and some sticky tires wrapped around a sharp set of 18-inch alloys. The NISMO philosophy of “totally balanced tuning for high speed driving, to provide ultimate driving pleasure” makes eliminating lift and drag coefficients a priority. Featuring a 30% reduction in lift, a 3,000-pound curb weight, and bestowing a “layered double wing” design to all four sides, Nissan looks to tackle both aesthetics and performance at once with reflective red accents.
With its one-off front end, LED running lights, dark chrome V-Motion grille, NISMO badging, sweeping side sills, custom rear fascia, and hooked spoiler, there is no mistaking this Sentra for anything else in the model lineup. It also features a larger exhaust tip, dark chrome door handles and trunk finisher, black mirrors with integrated turn signals, and yes, more rear NISMO badging. The car can be had in Brilliant Silver, Gun Metallic, Super Black, and Aspen White.
Climbing inside, we were impressed by the tasteful touches Nissan has bestowed upon its sportiest Sentra. We were fond of the nicely bolstered and logo-embellished NISMO seats, the unique cloth materials and contrasting stitching, red accent touches, and beautifully balanced Alcantara/leather-wrapped steering wheel. There were also some snazzy NISMO clusters and a red tachometer, a grippy leather shifter knob, NISMO embroidered carpets, dark headliner materials, more NISMO logos, and a charcoal theme spread throughout.
We were also impressed by the Alcantara padded door inserts and the cabin’s soft touch accents, and like all modern Sentras, the backseat was spacious and easy to access for its class. Tech-focused buyers can also opt for a NISMO Premium Package at signing. This is the NISMO Sentra’s only package option, and includes an eight speaker Bose sound system, navi, SiriusXM Traffic and Travel Link, and Mobile Apps that are attached to a NissanConnect 5.8-inch touchscreen with voice recognition for audio and navigation controls.
Pros and cons are primarily driver-oriented, and even though it suffers from some of the basic Sentra’s interior faults, we’ll keep our closing thoughts performance-focused. First of all, it has some really nice soft-touch interior panels, and we like the way in which the suspension, brakes, and steering have been recalibrated in order to remove a lot of the slop we found in the regular SR Turbo. The more rigid structure also makes a difference, as both it and the grippy low profile tires made tight inner city LA traffic turns a cinch, and will surely make cornering on track a much more controlled affair.
But our biggest complaint is that there’s nothing very “NISMO” about the way in which the drivetrain engages you. The engine leaves you devoid of Juke NISMO RS’s power gains, and the manual gearbox feels like it came out of the economy car that the base Sentra is. We normally wouldn’t recommend an automatic over a manual, especially in a performance vehicle, but in this car it seems like it’s actually a wise decision to forego the stick in favor of paddles and an Xtronic CVT transmission. While these downsides may not be deal-breakers for all buyers, we have to question whether this sedan will be the game changer Nissan was hoping for, as Golf GTI, all-new Civic Si, and Subaru WRX fans weigh their 200-plus horsepower options.