Car Reviews First Tests

2017 Nissan Sentra NISMO First Test: The Return of the Hot Sentra?

A (Mild) Dose of Turbocharged Power

A (Mild) Dose of Turbocharged Power

The last time Nissan offered a sporty Sentra was 2012, when the SE-R and SE-R Spec V models were powered by a 2.5-liter naturally aspirated I-4. Since the current Sentra entered production, a sporty variant had been absent—until now, with the Sentra NISMO. This time, the sporty Sentra comes with a loud exterior design with red stripes, wider lower air intakes, a different rear diffuser, side sills, a lower stance, and a rear lip spoiler. How does it compare to  the sporty Sentras of the past? Let’s find out.

Powering the 2017 Nissan Sentra NISMO is a 1.6-liter turbo-four mated to a six-speed manual (a CVT is optional), the same unit found in the Sentra SR Turbo and the Juke crossover. Unfortunately, the Sentra NISMO didn’t get a power bump and is still rated at 188 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque. At the track, the Sentra NISMO hit 60 mph in 7.3 seconds and the quarter mile in 15.3 seconds at 92.4 mph (149 km/h), putting it on par with the Honda Civic Hatchback and Mazda3 2.5. In comparison to the Sentra SE-R and SE-R Spec V models we tested in 2007, the Sentra NISMO is 0.1 second quicker to 60 mph and 0.4 seconds quicker to the quarter mile, where it was traveling 2.5 mph (4 km/h) faster than the SE-R. However, the more powerful 200-hp Sentra SE-R Spec V was quicker than the NISMO, hitting 60 mph in 6.4 seconds and the quarter mile in 14.9 seconds at 93.6 mph (151 km/h). Braking performance, on  the other hand, saw the most improvements—the Sentra NISMO stopped from 60 mph in 112 feet, thanks to its larger brake discs and high heat-resistance brake pads. In comparison, the older Sentra SE-R and SE-R Spec V stopped from 60 mph in 133 feet and 126 feet respectively.

2017 Nissan Sentra NISMO front three quarter

Like the rest of the Sentra lineup, the NISMO features MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam in the back. An upgraded suspension with monotube rear dampers,  unique tuning for the front springs and struts, and 18-inch alloy wheels shod in 215/45ZR18 Michelin Pilot Sport all-season performance tires distinguish the Sentra NISMO from more pedestrian variants. The car lapped the figure-eight course in 26.7 seconds with an average of 0.66 g and generated 0.87 g of lateral acceleration. This puts the Sentra NISMO ahead of the old Sentra SE-R, which finished the figure-eight course in 28.3 seconds with a 0.59 g average and produced 0.79 g of lateral acceleration. The more powerful Sentra SE-R Spec V did the figure eight in 27.4 seconds with an average of 0.64 g, putting it behind the NISMO; however, the older SE-R Spec V had slightly better lateral acceleration than the NISMO at 0.88 g.

After putting the Sentra NISMO through our testing regime, we took to the winding roads of the San Gabriel and Malibu Mountains to see if it lived up to the coveted badge adorning its trunk. Sadly, this was where its flaws came out. The Sentra NISMO’s 1.6-liter turbo-four isn’t like the small turbo engines from Hyundai/Kia, Volkswagen, and Honda, all of which offer plenty of low- and midrange torque. Under 3,000 rpm there’s not much power, so you have to keep it above that especially when you need to pass or merge into highway traffic. This wasn’t the case in a CVT-equipped Juke because that transmission has the ability to mask turbo lag by keeping the engine in the meat of its powerband almost all the time. The Sentra NISMO does have a Sport mode, but it doesn’t change much until you’re higher up in the rev range where the throttle response gets a little too aggressive.

2017 Nissan Sentra NISMO front end in motion

On the road, you’ll be fighting with turbo lag frequently, the opposite problem faced by cars such as the turbocharged Honda Civic Hatchback, which has a more usable powerband. The Nissan has plenty of power once you get it up to higher revs. The six-speed manual has long throws that can slow down one’s ability or desire to shift quickly.  The clutch is vague and uncommunicative, making it hard to find its engagement point. This puts the Sentra NISMO behind cars such as the Honda Civic hatchback, which has a better shifter and a clutch with an engagement point that’s easier to find.

With its upgraded chassis and steering, you’d expect the 2017 Nissan Sentra NISMO to handle well and be fun to drive when the road gets twisty. Up on the winding roads of Angeles Crest and Malibu, the car proved capable and entertaining to drive with minimal body roll; however, on the tighter bits, the car understeers a lot. The steering, on the other hand, isn’t communicative and lacks precision. Should you want better handling, Nissan offers Bridgestone Potenza RE-71R summer performance tires as an option, which should help mitigate understeer and allow the Sentra NISMO to stick to the road better.

The torsion beam rear suspension doesn’t help the Sentra NISMO’s ride quality because it gets nervous and jittery over imperfections. Go over a large pothole or big bumps, and the rear end gets jumpy, especially if you do so while taking a corner. It does smooth out on better-maintained surfaces, but it’s still a little too stiff for what it is. When you take into consideration that the Sentra NISMO’s driving dynamics fall short of other sporty compact cars, it becomes obvious that what you lose in ride comfort isn’t made up in superior handling. An independent rear suspension would go a long way in improving the Sentra NISMO’s ride and handling balance because it can soak up imperfections better and prevent the rear end from getting upset too easily over less-than-perfect surfaces. Rivals such as the Honda Civic hatchback, Mazda3 2.5, and Volkswagen Jetta GLI utilize independent, multilink, rear suspension to offer better ride and handling packages.

Material quality is a mixed bag with soft-touch material in the upper dash and a sea of cheap, hard plastics throughout the rest of the cabin, including the center stack and console, door panels, and armrests. The dash and front seat frames of our tester rattled and squeaked, making the cabin feel even cheaper. However, with a spacious interior for five passengers, a 15.1-cubic-foot trunk, and standard 60/40 split-folding rear seats, the Sentra NISMO is as practical as its more run-of-the-mill siblings. Seat comfort is average even with the sport seats exclusive to the NISMO model, but because of the high seating position, it doesn’t exude a feeling of sportiness despite its aggressive bolstering and thigh support.

Featuring a 5.8-inch touchscreen, the NissanConnect multimedia interface found in the Sentra NISMO is outdated, and touchscreen responses are slow. Controls for the head unit are simple, using buttons, knobs, and the touchscreen itself. When compared to the cleaner 5.0-inch multi-information display between the gauges, the touchscreen’s grainy graphics make the car feel even more dated . As for the optional Bose audio system, it sounds decent but could be a little more balanced because it gets a little too bass-heavy at times.

Our test vehicle with the six-speed manual checked in at $27,370 USD, putting it in the same price range as the Civic hatchback, Jetta GLI, and Mazda3 2.5, but from the 2017 Nissan Sentra NISMO’s stiff ride and suspension to its lackluster handling and laggy powertrain, it feels incomplete. Additionally, the interior’s age is amplified by an infotainment system that’s well behind the units found in competitors such as the Civic and in more mainstream compacts such as the Chevrolet Cruze. The 2017 Sentra NISMO could use more power and should handle better, but as it stands, we’re not sure the car is worthy of a NISMO badge considering its performance didn’t improve much over its predecessors from 10 years ago. However, because the current generation Sentra has been around since 2013, the NISMO might be its final hurrah before a new generation arrives in the coming years. Hopefully by then, a hot Sentra returns as better-rounded and more capable package.

2017 Nissan Sentra NISMO
BASE PRICE $25,855
PRICE AS TESTED $27,370
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan
ENGINE 1.6L/188-hp/177-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 3,030 lb (62/38%)
WHEELBASE 106.3 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 183.6 x 69.3 x 58.9 in
0-60 MPH 7.3 sec
QUARTER MILE 15.4 sec @ 92.4 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 112 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.87 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 26.7 sec @ 0.66 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 25/31/27 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 135/109 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.71 lb/mile