Test Drive: 2017 Nissan Sentra SR Turbo

Introduced in late 2016 for the 2017 model year, Nissan’s Sentra SR Turbo is simple enough in concept: take a reasonably powerful turbocharged engine and stuff it under the hood of an otherwise staid, practical and inexpensive compact sedan. Give the car bigger brakes to match the increased power, tweak the suspension a little to improve the handling without sacrificing ride comfort, and add exactly one Turbo badge on the back to differentiate it from its plebeian siblings. Keep the starting price under $22,000 and the fully optioned price under $26,000.

Cars like the SR Turbo prove just how much joie de vivre a row-your-own gearbox can instill into an otherwise fairly tame car.

Whether or not you consider the transplant a success depends on what you were expecting.

If you were expecting a four-door competitor to hot hatches such as the Volkswagen Golf GTI and Ford’s Focus ST then you may be disappointed, but you’re also barking up the wrong tree: Those cars both have starting prices significantly higher than a fully loaded Sentra SR Turbo, and they’re hatchbacks, after all. A better comparison might be the Jetta GLI and it has a much steeper price tag, starting at $34,995.

If you were expecting a second coming of the fabled B13-generation Nissan Sentra SE-R of the 1990s, the SR Turbo may again leave you wanting, but you might want to remove your rose-coloured glasses. Sure, you could get cheap performance in the 1990s, but it came with crappy factory audio systems, no airbags, no onboard technology, and in the case of the SE-R, notoriously flimsy bodywork.

If you were expecting a significantly improved Sentra that’s actually fun to drive, then the SR Turbo is a total success, especially with the available six-speed manual transmission. It’s admittedly unlikely that manual transmissions will ever manage any significant comeback – we’ll probably all end up riding around in self-driving transportation pods before that happens – but cars like the SR Turbo prove just how much joie de vivre a row-your-own gearbox can instill into an otherwise fairly tame car.

Because yes, aside from its 1.6L turbocharged four-cylinder engine, which was lifted from the Nissan Juke and develops 188 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque (versus 124 hp and 125 lb-ft in the base car), the Sentra SR Turbo remains relatively tame and practical under its mini-Maxima bodywork.

And this isn’t a bad thing: it means you get a quiet and comfortable ride; it means you can carry an impressive 428 litres worth of cargo in the trunk; and it means you can fit fully grown adults comfortably in the roomy back seat. And unless you start really thrashing it, they’ll likely have no clue that you’re driving a wolf – no, wait, make that a Shiba Inu – in sheep’s clothing.

Driven casually, the SR Turbo has an easy-going demeanour, and thanks to its low-inertia turbocharger the engine pulls willingly enough from low revs, with no discernible turbo lag. Peak torque doesn’t come on until 5,200 rpm and peak power at 5,600, so you have to rev the motor out to access its full potential, but it pulls to redline eagerly, with an exhaust note that’s just snorty enough to be enjoyable without being raucous.

My 20-year-old former self would argue that the exhaust is actually too quiet, but then my 20-year-old former self would probably be waiting hopefully for the rumoured Sentra Nismo RS edition.

The run from zero to 100 km/h can be dispatched in about 7.5 seconds, and fuel economy clocks in at an officially rated 9.1 L/100 km city, 7.3 highway with the manual transmission. Despite my somewhat heavy-footed driving style, my own results weren’t too far off this, at 10.2 L/100km city and 8.0 highway, and the test car showed a long-term mixed average of 9.2 L/100 km. Premium fuel is recommended, however.

The upgraded brakes offer plentiful stopping power to match the engine, though I found that their initial bite is a little over-enthusiastic for my taste (I like powerful brakes, but the SR Turbo’s are sensitive enough to make heel-and-toe downshifts tricky).

The SR gets different shocks and a quicker steering ratio compared to the base Sentra, with 10 percent stiffer front springs, but in other respects it’s the same setup, with MacPherson struts up front and a somewhat low-tech torsion bar suspension at the back. Wheels and tires are the same 17-inch alloys as used on the non-turbo SR, fitted with 205/50VR17 all-season tires (the tester in the photos had winter tires, however).

On the road it delivers competent handling, with nicely weighted if somewhat numb steering, decently quick turn-in, and good levels of grip. With its basic rear suspension setup, the SR Turbo isn’t likely destined to be an autocross champ, but it’s engaging enough when tackling serpentine backroads, and Nissan’s Active Understeer Control system keeps things composed in tight city corners.

The six-speed manual transmission, as fitted in my test car, shifts crisply and easily. It has moderate throws, but the shift gate is on the narrow side, making it possible to mix up third and fifth until you get used to the shifter’s feel. The bottom five gears are reasonably closely spaced, and then there’s a wider jump to the highway-oriented top gear. The clutch has a light and easy-to-modulate action, although you need a certain amount of revs to get car off the line quickly, so if you’re trying for a fast launch it’s easy to overcook things and spin the front wheels.

Overall, however, both myself and my wife found the manual-equipped SR Turbo easy and quietly entertaining to drive.

A sport-tuned CVT automatic is available at no additional cost, but having driven several Nissan products with the CVT (including the Juke, which provides the engine here), I’d opt for the manual transmission. The CVT isn’t a bad gearbox, and the SR Turbo’s sport tuning gives you pre-programmed “gears” to allow virtual shift action when operating in manual mode, but it’s the manual transmission that really gives the SR Turbo its sporty appeal – otherwise it’s just a slightly more powerful Sentra. The manual is also what sets the Sentra SR Turbo apart from competitors such as the Honda Civic EX-T and Kia Forte SX, whose upgraded engines come with a no-choice automatic (look to the Hyundai Elantra Sport if you want to cross-shop a turbocharged competitor with an available stick-shift).

Inside, the Sentra SR Turbo is by no means a compact penalty box. There’s a fair amount of hard plastic around, as expected for the segment, but soft-touch materials are used where it matters (the dash topper and armrests), everything is well fitted together, and the look is clean and modern with nicely finished surfaces. Sporty touches in my leather-upholstered test car included blue sport trim reminiscent of carbon fibre (I quite liked it) with matching blue contrast stitching. A leather-wrapped steering wheel fills out the driver’s experience, though both my wife and myself found that its smallish diameter meant it somewhat blocked the view of the tachometer when set in our preferred driving position.

The front seats are decently comfortable, although I found the non-adjustable headrests a little overstuffed for my taste (my wife agreed, noting that they certainly weren’t designed by anyone who wore a ponytail). I liked the hidden pocket at the front of the seats (very convenient for storing small items you don’t want in your pockets) but I’d have liked to have a height adjustment for the passenger’s seat, which is somewhat too high for my taste (I’m 5'11"). The back seat is remarkably spacious for a compact car, and earns high marks.

In terms of equipment, the base Sentra SR Turbo gets cloth upholstery, manual air conditioning, intelligent key with push-button ignition, power locks and windows, cruise control, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, heated front seats, rear-view monitor with fixed guidelines, LED low-beam headlights, fog lights, heated power outside mirrors, and a six-speaker AM/FM/CD audio system featuring Bluetooth phone connectivity, USB plug, auxiliary jack, and speed-sensitive volume.

Safety and security is taken care of with the expected array of six airbags, anti-lock brakes with brake assist, vehicle dynamic control, tire pressure monitoring system, vehicle security system, and a stout structure that gets good mark in all IIHS crash tests (earning the Sentra a Top Safety Pick award).

My test car’s $3,400 premium package added a power sliding sunroof, perforated leather upholstery, six-way power driver’s seat with lumbar support, great-sounding eight-speaker Bose audio system, 5.8-inch colour display screen, NissanConnect with navigation and mobile apps, voice recognition for audio and navigation (I found this seamless and easy to use), auto-dimming inside mirror, blind-spot warning system and rear cross-traffic alert. It’s an expensive package on a $21,598 car, but it raises the Sentra’s level of creature comforts well above its mainstream compact roots, and makes it feel like a much more expensive car, so in that sense it’s money well spent.

All in all, the Sentra SR Turbo represents an interesting option in the crowded compact field. Buyers looking for a little more all-out sportiness might want to check out the recently debuted (and more expensive) Civic Si sedan, and Hyundai’s comparably priced Elantra Sport is also certainly worth cross-shopping. But if you’re looking for a quietly entertaining and thoroughly practical compact with a little added zip and a plenty of added creature comforts, the Sentra SR Turbo fills the bill nicely.

2017 Nissan Sentra SR Turbo
Engine Displacement: 1.6L
Engine Cylinders: I4
Peak Horsepower: 188 hp @ 5,600 rpm
Peak Torque: 177 lb-ft @ 5,200 rpm
Fuel Economy: 9.1/7.3/8.3 L/100 km city/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space: 428 L
articles_PricingType 2017 Nissan Sentra SR Turbo
Base Price $21,598
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,600
Price as Tested $26,998
Optional Equipment $3,700 – Premium Package $3,400; three coat paint $300
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 7.7
7 Styling
8 Powertrain
8 Quality
7 Comfort
9 Practicality
8 Drivability
8 Usability/Ergonomics
8 Fuel Economy
7 Features
7 Value