Catching up to the Joneses.
– Greensboro, Georgia
The Nissan Sentra has lurked at the periphery of the small car sales race in Canada for the last few years, a competent, if unremarkable entry forced to contend with truly excellent options available from almost every other automaker. For a while it felt like the wave of high tech improvements and intriguing engine options spreading through the compact segment was going to pass the Sentra right on by - and it did, until the 2017 model year when we were gifted with the new Nissan Sentra SR Turbo.
Once upon a time the word 'turbo' could be appended to a small sedan and draw big attention from the performance crowd, but flash forward to today and forced induction has become yet another tool for car companies looking to balance power and efficiency from small displacement engines. So it goes with the Nissan Sentra SR Turbo, a car whose name might call to mind the pocket-rocket heritage of the previous-generation SE-R (and its Spec V sibling), but which is more accurately described as a solid upgrade to the Sentra's thrifty, but underwhelming entry-level engine.
The only thing missing from the Juke's drivetrain is the option of all-wheel drive.
Don't get us wrong - we like the new turbo mill quite a bit, as it's one that has long been familiar to fans of Nissan's polarizing gem, the Juke SUV. Lifted stock-for-stock from the Juke's engine bay and deposited under the hood of the Sentra SR Turbo, the 1.6-litre mill retains its 188 horsepower rating, along with its ability to generate 177 lb-ft of torque. You also get the same choice between either a 6-speed manual or continuously-variable gearbox when ordering the SR Turbo, with the only thing missing from the Juke's drivetrain being the option of all-wheel drive.
You might have already noticed that there's about a 60 hp differential between the base and SR Turbo Sentra, and you'll be happy to know that translates into considerably better straight line speed once underway in the sedan. Indeed, the transformation from pokey to proper is a welcome result from the turbocharged transplant, as it places the new Sentra model on par with similarly peppy fare from Kia (the Forte), Chevrolet (the Cruze), and Honda (the Civic). The boost in acceleration doesn't hit you too hard at the pump, either, with combined fuel efficiency for the SR Turbo listed at 8.2 L/100 km - less than one extra litre of consumption as compared to the significantly slower 1.8-litre version of the Sentra.
Taken together it simply doesn't encourage you to push you harder than you normally would on your favourite back road.
Dive a little deeper into the 2017 Nissan Sentra SR Turbo's driving experience, however, and you'll trip over the line separating an enthusiast's car from one that's better enjoyed as a comfortable and thrifty commuter. Yes, it's true that Nissan has made an effort to add a bit of extra beef to the SR Turbo's chassis, giving it stiffer shocks front and rear, the most modest of spring upgrades, and quicker steering, but taken together it simply doesn't encourage you to push you harder than you normally would on your favourite back road.
If you do start to hurry the SR Turbo, you quickly run into the limits imposed not so much by its suspension system - although body roll is definitely there - but rather the tuning of its 1.6-litre engine. The powerband is broad, which is perfect for creeping through bumper-to-bumper traffic or passing on the highway, but the motor doesn't pull particularly hard to the redline, nor are there any real rewards for keeping your foot in it other than a harsh, vacuum-like sound from the front of the car to go with fairly muted throttle response. The manual transmission's shifter also asks for deliberate cog swaps and doesn't reward rapid clutch-declutch movements from second to third to fourth. All of this is expected in an SUV like the Juke - heck, we're happy to have a manual option, period, in anything that rides tall - but in a sedan, it makes it difficult to use the word 'sporty' when describing the vehicle.
Which is perfectly fine. In fact, we didn't expect the SR Turbo to live up to our memories of the Spec V: all we wanted was a drivetrain that could keep up with the more potent fare from nearly every one of Nissan's rivals that collectively were leaving the Sentra in the dust. Happily for us, that's exactly what the Sentra SR Turbo has given us: a great daily driver that maintains what we've always liked about the Sentra (huge interior, comfortable ride) while adding a competitive level of power.
It would be great to see this unit made available across a wider swatch of the Nissan Sentra line-up
Currently, the 1.6-litre turbo is available exclusively with the SR Turbo trim level, which means you'll also get special upholstery, LED lighting, and access to most of the Sentra's options list. It would be great to see this unit unbundled from its spicier market positioning and made available across a wider swathe of the Nissan Sentra line-up, meaning those who simply want more juice without the performance pretensions would be able to add the turbo 4-cylinder to a more conservatively-spec'd car.
We're still waiting for official pricing on the car, but it's reasonable to expect the SR Turbo to perch just above the Sentra SL's $26k ask. It's tempting to think of the new Sentra as simply a fully-loaded, marginally-stiffer version of the current top-spec trim, in which case it makes a lot of sense if you're willing to spend the coin to get the added dash of go. That being said, considering that a few other compacts make turbo power standard across the board - even on base models - it's worth driving the Nissan Sentra SR Turbo back-to-back against similarly-priced sedans before pulling the trigger.