You never get a flat tire when it’s sunny out. At least not here in Vancouver. Be that the result of Vancouver’s endless monsoon season or a man named Murphy and his oft-touted laws, the sad reality is that anyone driving in Vancouver long enough will inevitably find themselves at the side of some godforsaken stretch of overburdened highway, knee deep in a puddle, marveling at the ingenuity of the modern tire changing apparatus.
And so it was that I found myself crouched at the side of a wet road, contemplating the Nissan Sentra that lay crippled before me. Even listing to one side as it was, there was no denying the car’s handsome looks. Of the SE-R Spec V designation, the little red Sentra possessed of a variety of go-fast goodies, including a much lower stance, aerodynamically shaped valances all around, and a set of very nice, machined-face wheels wrapped in aggressive low profile summer performance tires measuring 225/45R17. Of course, by now, one of those was of a significantly lower in profile than the other three.
But prior to that right rear tire’s failure, the Sentra SE-R Spec V had made a compelling argument for itself. Although powered by the same 2.5 litre four cylinder found in the SE-R model, the Spec V designation cranks the output up to a far more respectable 200 horsepower, with torque rising from 172 pound feet to 180 pound feet by virtue of a 10.5:1 compression ratio (the standard SE-R makes do with just 9.6:1). Obviously, saddling such a powerplant with even the best CVT transmission would be an injustice, so Nissan’s engineers fitted a close ratio six speed manual gearbox and helical limited slip differential. And that’s just the beginning of the Spec V’s transformation. Out front, you find brake discs that measure nearly a full inch larger than the standard SE-R brakes (12.6” vs 11.7”), along with sport-tuned springs, shocks, and a larger front stabilizer bar, all imparting cornering forces upon a body structure that’s impressively stiffened by the addition of a front cowl brace and trunk-mounted V-brace not unlike what you’d find in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution.
And it all works stupendously well. Although not quite as precise as Honda’s Civic Si, the Sentra SE-R Spec V impresses with a confident ride that's second only to Volkswagen’s nearly-Audi-esque GTI. Delivering ample amounts of grip, it corners with verve, but proved somewhat disconcerting in abrupt maneuvers as a result of its relatively tall and narrow stance and upright seating position. Although leaving the car's actual performance unhindered, tossing the Sentra from side to side through transitions felt slightly more awkward than in comparable vehicles since the forces at work on the human body seemed magnified by how high up the driver sits. However, once I’d gotten used to it, I could appreciate how much mechanical grip the combination of the aggressive tires, well-sorted suspension, and limited slip differential proffered. Although I’d prefer a bit more communication through the steering wheel, it’s a pleasant car to drive fast, and an easy one. Producing an impressive amount of power without the use of a turbocharger or ridiculously high redline, the Spec V’s motor has a fantastically lazy attitude that’s entirely the result of a prodigal amount of torque down low. Left in third or fourth for the majority of my extralegal driving excursions, it covered ground with the relaxed ease offered by a paddle-shifted gearbox, but still offers more control when you need to make that well-timed shift.
Of course, none if this mattered much, as I lay my vest down on the gravel shoulder to administer some much-needed reparations. Having previously fought with the trunk’s lack of folding seatbacks during a trip to the local trap and skeet range, I now appreciated its wide opening and low liftover height, as I carried the dripping wet 17” wheel, still shod in a useless summer tire, to the car’s rear. Lifting the undersized spare out of the wheelwell and resigning myself to the 80 kilometer per hour limit imposed by the garish yellow sticker adorning it, I came to appreciate the car’s expansive interior, as I shuffled my personal belongings out of the trunk and into the car’s cabin in order to make room for the flat tire. One of the largest interiors in its class, the Sentra’s bubble-like silhouette certainly affords plenty of headroom for all its occupants. Although far less visually stimulating as most of its competitors (you’d think Nissan’s interior designers were working in grayscale when it came to design the Spec V’s), it’s very practical, with a logical layout and comfortable seating. With a spartan dashboard and minimalist centre console, it’s a whole different animal than the spacey, wrap-around interiors of many new cars. To put it simply, there’s just not very much around you when you sit in the Sentra. The centre console and armrest is position low, the centre console is abbreviated and short, and the door panels down sweep inward to meet the dash. Giving the car a much airier feel than most, it also ekes every square inch of available room out of the interior, which comes in handy when it comes time to move those oddly shaped packages that won’t fit in the trunk.
Forced to spend my final day with the Sentra SE-R Spec V at a significantly slower pace than I had previously enjoyed, I found myself musing about the car’s position in the quick econocar market. While the 370Z and GTR both enjoy exalted positions within their own markets, the Sentra SE-R Spec V has slipped into relative obscurity in a market dominated by the Civic Si, Mazdaspeed3, Impreza WRX and Mitsubishi Lancer GTS Volkswagen GTI. And yet, in its own way, it’s a real standout. Significantly more comfortable than most and carrying a bargain basement price tag, it’s sort of a jack of all trades when it comes to driving fast; not quite as powerful as the turbocharged cars, not quite as committed as the naturally aspirated Civic, not quite as refined at the GTI, and quite not as flashy as the Lancer GTS. But make no mistake, although it might not go to the same extremes as any those cars do in their own specialties; it encompasses many of the best traits of all of them.
And it’s got a great lug wrench.