Cohort Sighting: 1987 Nissan Sentra – Falling Behind

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Last week’s post on the Ford Tempo brought up a long running debate: why disparage a car not made with enthusiasts in mind?

If a car does its job of transporting owners from point A to point B as promised, who are we, as “car people,” to criticize it?  It’s certainly a valid question, one which I often find myself having difficulty answering.  Thankfully this car, posted to the Cohort by triborough, helps me respond much more decisively.

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A high quality interpretation of a “car built for people who don’t care about cars,” the second generation Nissan Sentra (sixth generation Sunny) debuted in 1987 wearing unfashionably boxy styling, accompanied by the equally conservative 1987 Stanza.


If I may be so bold, it’s cars like these which destroyed Nissan’s standing in the American market.  As we know, flagging fortunes resulted in a takeover by Renault, but just as today, the company’s product line-up was wildly inconsistent, with high-tech, well developed sports cars and high end sedans sold alongside profoundly unambitious, dull cars in the heart of the market.

But this isn’t a story about Nissan, per se.  There are many successful cars which were designed with the  assumption that shoppers in the lower to middle end of the market would be undiscerning.  More than being cynical or disdainful, it’s a defeatist approach to car design, conducted with the expectation that the products delivered to dealers won’t be first in any category.

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Did such an approach sell Sentras and Tempos by the boatload?  Sure.  But it helps explain why that Nissan had to be rescued, and why Ford doesn’t sell anything named Tempo today.  In the case of both the Ford and the Nissan, succession by the polished Contour and sporty 1991 Sentra implied their makers’ awareness of a bruised reputation, but a failure to move these new models without substantial discounting revealed the extent of the damage done to their nameplates.

So the next time the question is posed as to why it’s necessary that a mainstream model meet standards owners themselves would never demand, consider the example of the Sentra and the Tempo.  For better or worse, the car market is highly image conscious, and when shelling out five figures, most buyers want to get their hands on something with an enviable reputation, even when it takes them a long time to get hip.