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Nissan Sentra NISMO: First Look

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author photo by Aaron Gold November 2016

Nissan introduced the Sentra NISMO at this year's Los Angeles Auto Show, and then they did one better: They let Autotrader take one home for the night.

NISMO is Nissan's in-house tuning division, and so far they've reserved their magic for Nissan's high-end sports cars, the GT-R and 370Z, though they have also NISMO-ized the quirky Juke. The NISMO Sentra came as a bit of a surprise, not least of all because Nissan just introduced a turbocharged version of the Sentra called the SR Turbo. The Sentra NISMO gets the same 188-horsepower turbocharged 1.6-liter engine as the SR Turbo and adds an upgraded suspension, a stiffened body structure and performance-oriented tires. A racy body kit and red trim inside and out round out the NISMO package.

We waited for Los Angeles' infamous traffic to subside before taking off on our late-night test drive, skipping the freeways and sticking to city streets. Our tester had a 6-speed manual transmission, and the light clutch and precise shift throws brought us back to the days when such things were exclusive to racy little Japanese cars like the original Sentra SE-R -- remember that little gem? The Sentra NISMO is quick and mischievous, and we're sure we earned more than a few shaken fists as we darted and dodged our way through Hollywood and up into the hills.

After a frustratingly slow drive up traffic-choked Laurel Canyon Boulevard, which separates the San Fernando Valley from the rest of Los Angeles, we were pleased to find Mulholland Drive relatively empty, so we punched the high-beams and cranked up the speed. Pushing the Sentra NISMO makes it easy to find points to criticize: The steering is light, but not particularly quick; turn-in is sharp but a bit lazy, and it takes quite a bit of wheel-twirling to get through a turn. (That said, with a leather top and bottom and fake suede at the sides, the steering wheel felt great in our hands.) The Sentra NISMO grips well, with much of the credit going to the Michelin Pilot Sport tires -- a good set of rubber can make a handler out of any car. Said tires will let out a nice loud squeal long before the Sentra NISMO loses its grip. Put head-to-head against cars like the Volkswagen GTI or the Honda Civic Si, we're sure the Nissan Sentra NISMO will come up short -- but we sure had a good time up there on Mulholland. We ran back and forth across the spine of the hill, grinning like idiots all the way, before reluctantly dropping down into the Valley to put our new toy away for the night.

Morning light gave us a clearer look at the Sentra NISMO, and we liked what we saw: The big wheels and bright-red trim on our white-painted tester gave it an aggressive and cheeky look perfectly in keeping with its character. Morning traffic meant we had to drive like grown-ups, and we found the Sentra NISMO more than tolerable: The ride, though firm, is not uncomfortable, though it's hard to keep one's foot off of the accelerator (and the engine out of turbo boost). We avoided most of the stop-and-go traffic and had a clear run on the freeway nearly all the way into downtown LA. When we (reluctantly) parked the Sentra NISMO and returned the keys, the trip computer showed a fuel economy of 28 mpg, reflecting both our late-night hooning and our sedate morning commute. Back at the Los Angeles Auto Show, our colleagues couldn't quite understand how we could be so bright and chipper so early in the morning. They surmised that something very good must have happened the previous night, and they were correct, though perhaps not in the way they thought.

The Sentra NISMO may not be an outstanding performance sedan; instead, it's a throwback to the days when every automaker offered a juiced-up version of their economy sedans, and we enjoyed it in much the same way we enjoy playing "retro" video games. It's not the best, but it's a lot of fun. That said, we bet the biggest smiles will be reserved for those who can drive a stick -- we don't mean to sound like clutch-snobs, but the Sentra NISMO's automatic option is a CVT, which isn't the best performance transmission. (That said, maybe Nissan will surprise us. The previous-generation Sentra SE-R had a CVT, and it wasn't terrible.)

Nissan hasn't announced a price for the Sentra NISMO; we expect it'll come in around $25,000, about what you'd pay for a base-model Volskwagen GTI. The VW is clearly the better car, but we wouldn't give up on the Sentra NISMO: It's quick, good fun and just happens to be a roomy and practical family sedan as well. Though our first impressions are based on one torrid night, we think the Nissan Sentra NISMO would make a good long-term partner.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Nissan Sentra NISMO: First Look - Autotrader