First Drive: 2017 Nissan Sentra SR Turbo

Article updated with pricing information.

Born of a 1990s passion for proving that small cars could be quick too, the Nissan Sentra SE-R and the even-hotter SE-R Spec V that followed, gained a cult following in the world of high-performance tuning thanks to their robust four-cylinder powerplants and affordable pricing. Although ceding the hot import market to the Honda Civic Si when the Sentra was redesigned after 2012, renewed interest in pocket rockets like the Ford Focus ST and the Volkswagen Golf R has lead Nissan back to the well in an effort to recapture some of the market that was lost with the elimination of the SE-R model.

It makes Nissan’s entry-level car relevant again in a segment that’s gone absolutely bonkers for turbocharged power.

Enter the 2017 Nissan Sentra SR Turbo. You’ll notice that there’s a letter and a hyphen missing from the brand’s latest compact sedan nameplate, and that’s because this isn’t a replacement for past glory. In fact, it would be a push to label the SR Turbo “sporty” in any traditional sense. That being said, while the Sentra SR Turbo might not light any fires on the drag strips of the world, it does something much more important for the company: it makes Nissan’s entry-level car relevant again in a segment that’s gone absolutely bonkers for turbocharged power.

It’s not like Nissan had a lack of forced induction motors in the family, it’s just that for whatever reason, none of them had ever made their way under the hood of the Sentra. In the end, it was an organ donation by a close relative – the Nissan Juke SUV – that made the Sentra SR Turbo possible, as the cute ute coughed up its 1.6L turbocharged four-cylinder engine for the compact four-door. Output in the SR Turbo remains the same as it was in the Juke, which translates into 188 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque, and perhaps most impressively, the Sentra SR Turbo also benefits from the same choice between a six-speed manual or a continuously-variable automatic gearbox as the Juke does.

A manual transmission and a turbo seems like a recipe for fun right off the bat, and when you throw in the fact that the 2017 Nissan Sentra SR Turbo also offers bigger brakes, a stiffer chassis, and a “retuned” suspension system, it’s hard not to get at least a little excited about the car’s potential. Once behind the wheel, however, it’s clear that the new Sentra isn’t an ode to parking lot burnouts gone by. Rather, this is a car that is aimed squarely at similar turbo four-doors like the Chevrolet Cruze, the Volkswagen Jetta, and the (non-Si) Honda Civic.

I’m not saying this simply because the Sentra SR Turbo is 12 horses shy of the Spec V’s final rating. It has more to do with how the vehicle’s powerband has been tuned, and the way the transmission and clutch in the six-speed model prefer to be treated. The 1.6L unit isn’t in a rush to get you to redline, preferring to let the revs build gradually – try to shift the car too quickly and you’ll encounter a third pedal that would really rather you tone things down, please. Shift throws are also somewhat long, which is acceptable in an SUV like the Juke, where the mere presence of a manual box is reason enough to celebrate, but not something that stirs the soul in a sedan (with the same to be said about the car’s muted exhaust note).

Where the 2017 Nissan Sentra SR Turbo shines brightest is in comparison to its naturally aspirated stablemate. The Sentra has long stood out for its fuel efficiency, comfortable ride and simply enormous interior (especially the trunk and rear seat). However, with its 1.8L motor producing 60 horsepower less than the SR Turbo, the vehicle has been in tough times competing in a market where 150 ponies feels like the bare minimum amount of skin an automaker needs to have in the game. The SR Turbo transforms the Sentra from pokey to pleasant at all speeds – a more useful accomplishment than turning in eyebrow-raising lap times.

The Sentra SR Turbo also manages to not lose the sedan’s pleasing ride comfort in the quest to improve handling. Shock absorbers check in 23 percent firmer in the front and 50 percent firmer in the rear, but the springs have barely been touched, and the power steering unit’s electric assist didn’t betray any dart-y behavior resulting from its revised spec. The outside of car adds a little eye candy in the form of LED lighting at all four corners, and inside you get spiffy cloth seats that make the vehicle feel a little more special than the standard version of the Sentra.

Is there a true high-performance edition of the Nissan Sentra on the way? We’ve been teased with a NISMO model more than once, although no drivetrain details have been released, which would seem to indicate at least a few product planners are staying up late to try and build a business case for a return of a fun-to-drive four-door in the original spirit of the Spec V. Until then, the Nissan Sentra SR Turbo does a solid job of stepping into the gap that had widened between the base Sentra and the rest of the small sedan pack.

The 2017 Nissan Sentra SR Turbo starts at an MSRP of $21,598 for the 6-speed manual model, and with the CVT, starts at $22,898, before the $1,600 freight fee.

Turbo upgrade adds relevance, rather than spice, to Nissan’s spacious sedan 11/24/2016 5:57:24 PM