Let me begin by explaining something to our younger readers: There was a time when compact cars were universally awful. Back in the days when Oldsmobiles were still considered pretty nice cars, most compacts were underpowered, stripped-down, ultra-cheap penalty boxes. Their most endearing trait may well have been their lack of crashworthiness: They were very good at putting owners out of their misery.
And then the 1991 Nissan Sentra SE-R came along, and everything changed. See the 1991 Nissan Sentra models for sale near you
Now, I’m not saying the Sentra SE-R was the first compact car that wasn’t completely miserable. There was a handful of other small cars that were good to drive, but most were expensive specialty models. For those of us on a budget, our motoring lives were pretty bleak.
And then the SE-R came along, and it was… I was going to say "awesome," but that word doesn’t do the car justice. Understand that we were still reeling over the basic B13 Sentra, new for 1991, with its 16-valve engine that broke the 100-horsepower barrier (by 10 hp, no less!) — a feat all but unheard of in a small, cheap car. (Just before it came out, a friend bought a brand-new ’90 Sentra with 90 hp and a 4-speed manual. Suckah! We’re still friends, and I’m hoping he doesn’t read Oversteer.)
The SE-R was magic: 140 hp, a 7,500-rpm redline and 0 to 60 in less than 8 seconds. And it was built like the proverbial brick outhouse. Such things were unheard of in a compact car. Sure, you could beat the SE-R in, say, a turbocharged Dodge Shelby Charger, but that required walking back along the path of the race to pick up the half-shafts and bits of the turbine wheel.
Car and Driver put the Sentra SE-R on their 10Best list for 1991. To give you an idea of how dire things were that year, the Mercury Tracer and the Mazda MPV were also on the list.
The SE-R’s reign was short: Automakers soon figured out that compact cars need not be penalty boxes. In early 1994, Chrysler introduced the Neon, with 140 hp in the base model and a cavernous back seat, and everything changed. Suddenly, compact cars were nice cars. When Nissan redesigned the Sentra for ’95, there was no SE-R on the menu.
Things were never quite the same for the Sentra SE-R. The next iteration came in 2002, with 165 hp (175 hp in the Spec V), but it wasn’t enough. By then, we had cars like the Subaru WRX and the Honda Civic Si (though admittedly 2002 was not a great year for the latter), and the SE-R’s magic was gone. Nissan tried again in 2007 — and this time, the "base" SE-R had a continuously variable transmission (CVT). I’m not a CVT hater like most, but still… the less said about that, the better.
I recently took my first drive in the Sentra NISMO, and it brings me back to those heady days of the first SE-R. The new Sentra NISMO has that same mischievous attitude. Unlike the B13 SE-R, it may not be the best, but it sure as hell is a lot of fun.
And if you want to relive the glory days, why, you can do that, too — search the Autotrader classifieds for B13 Sentra SE-Rs.
If you find one, can I drive it? Find a 1991 Nissan Sentra for sale