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The Nissan Sentra NISMO

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author photo by Will Kinton February 2017

My favorite segment of the automotive world is the sport compact -- cars like the Volkswagen GTI, the Ford Focus and Fiesta ST and the Subaru WRX. This segment blends affordability, practicality and performance into a single vehicle, allowing normal people to have fun cars without having to make any major sacrifices to drive a fun car. Now, Nissan has decided to get in on the sport compact game with the 2017 Sentra NISMO.

Upon hearing the news, enthusiasts rejoiced! Nissan has shown us many times that it can build fun, affordable cars -- with classics like the Sentra SE-R and the Datsun 510. An exciting sport compact has been largely missing from the Nissan lineup, so it's comforting to know they're still interested. And on paper, the Sentra NISMO certainly checks many of the boxes that we enthusiasts look for in the segment: There's a turbocharger, a manual transmission and excellent Michelin Pilot Sport tires at all four corners. But this segment is pretty crowded. So, how does Nissan's entry stack up?

Right off the bat, I think the Sentra NISMO looks great. Up front, there's an imposing splitter, which is paired with a sizable rear spoiler and a ridiculously aggressive diffuser in the back to reduce lift by up to 30 percent without affecting the coefficient of drag. This aero treatment -- along with the red side sills along the bottom of the doors and the black accented 18-inch wheels -- certainly makes the NISMO Sentra look faster than your average compact car. It genuinely looks the business.

On the inside, this Sentra gets the standard NISMO treatment. The only option for the aggressively bolstered heated seats is a synthetic suede, unique to the Sentra NISMO. The steering wheel is trimmed with Alcantara, like many of Nissan's NISMO offerings, and faux carbon fiber and red accent stitching abounds. More importantly, the interior is comfortable. During my time with the car, I drove several hours down I-95 to see some family, and the Sentra kept me perfectly comfortable the entire time, despite a tailbone injury that never properly healed. The Sentra is also very roomy in back, and it has a decently sized trunk that can swallow a good amount of stuff compared to many other cars in its class. That said, the interior doesn't exactly feel more upscale than other Sentra offerings. The faux-carbon trim looks pretty unconvincing, and the various plastics used throughout the car feel decidedly compact-carlike.

But the NISMO upgrades go further than some interior bits and a body kit. To create the NISMO model, Nissan engineers spent a long time on the Sentra's chassis and suspension by adding structural bracing, lowering the ride height and stiffening up the springs. They also gave it 14-in disc brakes, which are more than capable of making the car stop quickly. The result is an athletic car that's definitely an improvement on the standard Sentra in terms of driving dynamics. It also feels right at home on twisty roads -- but revisions don't go so far that you'd feel comfortable taking it to a track day.

The Sentra NISMO is powered by the same 1.6-liter turbocharged engine found in the Sentra SR Turbo, which puts out 188 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque. It's peppy, but that's not a lot of power -- and you really feel it. The engine likes to rev, but the party ends at a disappointing 5,600 rpm, and you end up hitting the limiter right when you feel like the engine is really hitting its groove. Admittedly, the sport mode creates an appreciable increase in throttle response, and I found myself driving around in that mode most of the time. Overall, however, you get the feeling that Nissan blew their entire development budget on making the Sentra's chassis and suspension better, but they weren't able to get to the engine.

But the engine isn't the Sentra NISMO's biggest handicap. Instead, that's its price. The Sentra NISMO starts at $24,990 plus an $865 destination fee, bringing it to a total of $25,855, and the one I drove included the only available option: the $1,220 NISMO Premium Package, which features Bose speakers, satellite radio, a navigation system and Nissan's upgraded infotainment system. To put it in context, the base-level Volkswagen GTI -- which drives better and has a large power advantage, a nicer interior and more features -- is only $440 more than the Sentra NISMO. Alternatively, you could get a Fiesta ST -- which has a similar interior feel, more power (197 hp and 202 lb-ft of torque) and a 300-pound weight advantage -- for $22,015. And that's not even mentioning the 252-hp Focus ST that starts at $25,650 or the 270-hp Subaru WRX that starts at $27,515. Simply put, the Sentra NISMO is completely outclassed at its price point, and no amount of suspension work can overcome that much of power deficit.

Regardless, I'm still happy to see that Nissan is diving into the sport-compact segment. I'm all for more affordable sporty car competition, and I'm glad to see that Nissan cares enough about enthusiasts of small sporty cars to build a car directed at us. At the end of the day, I doubt we will get to see a truly competitive Sentra NISMO until the next-generation Nissan Sentra. But until then, Nissan, keep it up. We like where your head's at.

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Certified 2017 Nissan Sentra S
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The Nissan Sentra NISMO - Autotrader