2004 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V Test Drive

2004 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V

2004 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V
2004 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V. © Philip Powell

Fully modified from suspension, brakes, and steering to a 175 hp 4-cylinder engine and 6-speed manual transmission, the 2004 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V is one of the quickest small sedans you can buy. And it's still affordable, with a very competitive price tag compared to other hot numbers in this class. Base price: $17,500. Warranty: 36 mo., 36,000 mi total car; 60 mo., 60,000 mi. powertrain.

First Glance

Let's say you're a young guy with an urge to own one of those flashy modified sport compacts that your buddies are driving and – dare we say – street racing. Or, hopefully, competing in saner (and legal) autocross events. But you lack technical skills and can't afford to pay a professional to build a suitable vehicle from something off the used car lot. So how to avoid being left out of the fun? This is where a few automakers have stepped up, offering factory-built modified small sedans that include most go-fast goodies and sell for less than a home-built sport compact loaded with aftermarket parts. Nissan's 2004 Sentra SE-R Spec V may not be the fastest nor the most outlandish in appearance, but it definitely delivers pocket-rocket performance at a price well within the average young guy's, or girl's, budget. Mind you, our test car's screamin' yellow paint job got plenty of attention in Toronto, which has enough radar to make you feel like you're in a war zone, so even though I'm normally cautious on city streets, I didn't dare exceed the limit.

Not much fun in a car that begs to be driven fast and hard.

In the Driver's Seat

Front bucket seats with a firm grip are a must for any car intended to be cornered quickly. Taking a page from its legendary Japan-only coupe, Nissan refers to these as "Skyline-style," and they certainly do the job well.

The interior is a black and gray combo devoid of any brightwork except for a little faux titanium trim, although the small, leather-covered steering wheel is a nice touch, as is the leather-covered shift knob. Instruments are large enough for easy-reading and have a pleasant orange glow at night. A radio/CD player sits above the round temperature controls and although ours was not the Spec V's ultimate available sound package, a big subwoofer hiding in its trunk assured that I would enjoy rich, melifluous sounds; in this case great contemporary jazz from Toronto's CJRT. As always, I appreciated having a sunroof which, happily, does not cause buffeting if a rear window is slightly opened. Rear seat roominess is adequate and the seatback is a 60/40 -split fold-down type. But there are no extras back there; not even a pair of pockets to store stuff. The trunk is roomy enough, even if that subwoofer steals some otherwise useful space.

On the Road

Anyone who buys this baby because it has 4 doors and seats 4 is kidding themselves. The Spec V is about performance. And with a 4-cylinder, non-turbo, 175 hp engine plus 6-speed close-ratio gearbox, it delivers. Maybe not as much as the wild Subaru WRX Sti but enough to scare the pants off a driver who lacks the needed skills.

Of course, try telling the market this car is intended for that it's unskilled. Invincible would be more accurate. Balancing the power is a set of big disc brakes plus razor-sharp steering; the kind I personally like because its safer and more fun. A modified suspension system combines with (summer) low-profile tires to provide excellent handling characteristics; the Spec V is well-suited to competitive autocross events. Yet there's a price to pay for that quick steering: an absurdly large turning circle. And the 6-speed gearbox is an abomination. Several times, while attempting a downshift from 6th to 5th on the expressway, I found myself floating around in neutral until, with a jolt, the box slipped into 3rd. Thank goodness for close-ratio gears, otherwise the revs might have flown through the open sunroof.

A loose shift knob made things worse, spinning on its shaft whenever I desperately needed guidance.

Journey's End

To be brutally frank, the Sentra is long overdue for replacement. The Spec V may briefly extend its life by turning an economy car into a sports sedan though it isn't totally practical for family use unless you and your family enjoy thumping over pavement cracks or swerving to avoid deadly potholes. As for the sport compact crowd, they may get a kick out of the Spec V's acceleration and handling, yet there are quicker, more modern choices, albeit for added cash. Speaking of price-cutting, nothing marks this car as outdated more than the fender-mounted, non-retractable aeriel. I spotted it out of the corner of my eye while driving away from Nissan's offices and thought, for a split-second, someone had replaced the aerial with an old coat hanger. Nissan may find enough buyers among the under-25's to briefly keep the Sentra alive but as my friend and About tester Colin Hefferon commented, "you couldn't give it away in Europe." And one wonders how many of those kids can afford a new car, even if it instantly offers status at the corner donut shop. Fortunately Nissan is discounting Sentras like they're going out style (which they are) so with very little finagling you can drive away in a hot bargain. We'll call it, uh, cheap thrills.