Too High to Handle

The numbers quantify the Spec V's main disappointments, but there was something fundamentally wrong with the driving experience, and after days and miles I finally concluded that the car is just too high to handle as well as it should. The Sentra is relatively tall and high-riding, and that has advantages in terms of interior space and ease of sliding onto the driver's seat. It even gives you a better view of the road than some small cars do and improves compatibility in crashes with higher vehicles. In the company of ground-hugging sprites like the Mini Cooper S and Honda Civic Si, though, the Spec V's dynamics just felt wrong to me. (I had a similar experience in the high-riding SRT4.)

Note that my 2008 test car had all-season tires — a no-cost option — but I've also driven a 2007 with the standard summer performance tires (both are rated P225/45R17). In both instances, the Spec V exhibits understeer but is very manageable when grip is lost — notable because the car has a theoretically inferior non-independent torsion-beam rear suspension design. The loss of grip just happens more readily and noisily with the all-season tires. The steering weight and feedback are pretty good for electric power steering, but not as good as the best conventional hydraulic type (abandoned to improve fuel efficiency). Though it's not as compliant as the regular Sentra's, the firmer suspension in the Spec V provides livable ride quality for a car in this class.

More Power

Where the regular Sentra has a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, the SE-R and SE-R Spec V have a 2.5-liter, but the Spec V's is a higher-output version: Its intake and exhaust manifolds are modified, it has different pistons with reinforced connecting rods, a higher compression ratio and revised camshafts. The maximum engine speed increases to 7,000 rpm from 6,250 rpm in the lesser SE-R. The higher displacement makes a clear difference in torque over the engine in the regular Sentra, but the difference isn't as great between the SE-R and Spec V versions. I haven't driven the regular SE-R, so my comments focus on the Spec V.

At 2.5 liters, the Spec V's engine is relatively large among its competitors, but it's normally aspirated, and the difference shows in terms of output versus its turbocharged rivals.

Just a few years ago, the Spec V's main advantage was its larger engine and low-rev torque. Compared to the turbo lag of the GTI's turbo 1.8-liter and the anemic launch characteristics of the Civic Si, which needed to rev to high engine speeds to tap into what little torque it had, the Spec V's acceleration was often more enjoyable in day-to-day driving. Things have changed. The GTI now has a 2.0-liter direct-injection turbo four with virtually no lag, and other new sport compacts — turbo and non — bring a healthy dose of torque. At the same time, the new Spec V's output characteristics changed: It gained 25 hp but zero additional torque over the previous-generation 2006 model, and the peak of 180 pounds-feet climbed from 4,000 to 5,200 rpm, with the engine's redline increase. This plus virtually the same transmission plus almost 400 pounds more curb weight equals a less spirited launch. (Though a good car overall, the Civic Si remains the torque weenie of the class.)

While I have no problem with the six-speed manual's gearshift being mounted nontraditionally on a dashboard outcropping, the shifter itself is a bit floppy. Available on the regular SE-R but not the Spec V is an optional continuously variable transmission augmented with steering-wheel shift paddles for step-gear-style feel and performance.

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