COAL: 1997 Nissan Sentra GXE – Peak Nissan?

Here’s the thing:  some of us have relationships with cars.  This is an indisputable fact, yet on the surface it makes no sense at all.  Cars are manufactured objects.  They are insentient.  They cannot return our devotion, at least until AI evolves another few degrees.  Should any friends and/or family members confess to having a relationship with their refrigerator, I would most likely edge cautiously into a far corner of the kitchen, cell phone in hand, carefully considering the proper moment to call the local mental health hotline.  At the same time, our fridge is, like our car, simply another manufactured metal box that undergoes a styling refresh and addition of features every few years.  In preserving our food it provides an essential service on par with our car’s role in providing a means to get from point A to point B.

Yet most people–correct me if I’m wrong–never become emotionally attached to a refrigerator.  What gives?

This is no doubt too weighty a question to pose in one of these short forays into automotive history, but nevertheless I have some observations:  first, automobile obsession is by no means a universal condition.  My wife, for example, hasn’t the slightest interest in cars; in fact, she barely recognizes our current vehicle in the Costco parking lot.  For her, the automobile may rank well below our refrigerator given that that our KitchenAid icebox requires negligible maintenance and doesn’t require a weekly top-up of freon to the tune of $60.

Second, auto obsession could very well be generational, as it shows signs of abating.  I have little doubt there are some members of the rising generation(s) that may be car-fixated, but proportionately their numbers seem far fewer than, for example, within my peer group.  Many factors are involved in this apparent decline, but some that come immediately to mind include the car’s implication in climate change together with the fact that there are too damn many of them and they cost too much to buy and keep.  One of our sons doesn’t own one of the culprits at all and has no desire to as he lives in the heart of the city where a car is demonstrably more trouble and expense than it’s worth.

The third, perhaps we can lay at the feet of the zeitgeist . . . humans evolve and interests wax and wane.  The automobile was once on the cutting edge of technological advancement and innovation, but that hasn’t been the case for quite some time.  I admit that the monumental push toward automotive electrification may seem to bely this assertion, but that phenomenon may be attributed to the need to address some of the underlying issues posed by the internal combustion engine that has powered many millions of cars for well over a hundred years.  Otherwise, technological and scientific focus has moved on to other arenas, including the aforementioned AI, as well as space travel and the hazily-termed metaverse, together with scientific, social, and political concerns more pressing than mere transportation.

Historically, of course, mere transportation has been a very big deal, especially on the personal level. For the past few generations the automobile has supplied a measure of freedom and mobility unknown in the vast span of human history.  The car has allowed us to see large parts of the nation and world that would have been largely beyond our reach in earlier times, together with the mobility to change life circumstances at a moment’s notice.  However, that was only part of the bargain.  My Simca, Saab, or Lancia could have provided that capability and still existed on the level of the humble refrigerator, as an appliance.

So, there must be some other factors involved.

In my humble opinion, our fascination with the automobile has come about because it exists at the intersection of technology and art.  Art, you might ask, glancing suspiciously at the aforementioned Simca, Saab, and Lancia.  I certainly could have chosen better examples, you could argue, such as the Ferrari Daytona referenced a few episodes back.  Point taken, but art is more than mere aesthetics:  as applied to the automobile, art is the totality of design applied to address specific questions, including how we protect and preserve both driver and occupants of the vehicle while at the same time providing a tactile and visual experience that allows them to interact with machine and environment in a way that is . . . pleasing.

Pleasing, of course, is a loaded and inexact word as pleasing people can mean a variety of different things in different situations and different locales.  For Detroit in the Brougham Era, it meant appealing to a contrived sense of luxury and well-being that cosseted the car’s occupants from the vicissitudes of an encroaching world.  Pleasing Germans of the same general period may have meant providing a solid platform with which to negotiate the rigors and risks of the Autobahn.  For the French it might mean an experience tangentially related to the American Brougham expectation, except it was dialed back and re-purposed:  comfort was still important, but so was economy of means with more regard for form-follows-function rather than baroque excess.

Manifestations of the National Character I: Chevy Monte Carlo–Grond, the battering ram.

Manifestations of the national character, II: Monolithic Mercedes.

Manifestations of the national character, III: Prime Peugeot.

Pleasing the Italians of the same period meant a variety of things depending on the application.  For the family berlina a fusion of French and German  standards might have been in order, with autostrada performance edging out comfort.  For the sporting machinery, outward appearance was ratcheted up as a factor; the Italians have had a keen eye for form since at least the Renaissance and the reduced necessity for creature comforts together with the need to accommodate only one or two passengers allowed designers to dial up the styling (art for art’s sake) factor.

Manifestations of the national character, IV: Alfetta. Alpha, as in Top Dog.

Like the British Empire before it, the UK auto industry of the ’70’s was all over the map.  England addressed the entire spectrum of the automotive hierarchy, from the lowliest Reliant Robin and Austin Mini to the aristocratic Aston Martin and Rolls-Royce, with entries in every niche along the way.  How did the disintegrating British car industry please its clientele in the home market?  By giving them everything they demanded until the system collapsed. Did a specific British automotive attribute exist?  It’s difficult to choose just one.  The sports car is arguably a British invention, so we could concentrate on that aspect.  Or we could choose the engineering purity of the Mini or the Lotus Elan.  Or we could tout the invention of that SUV archetype, the Range Rover, or perhaps extol the sensual qualities of uppah-class Connolly leather and burl walnut dashes, a British hallmark . . . there’s something for everyone, but it all came crashing down and British auto industry exists now only as captive divisions of foreign-owned conglomerates.

Manifestations of the national character, V: Send Rover right over.

Manifestations of the national character, VI: Lotus Elan, lightness incarnate.

Manifestations of the national character, VII: Austin Mini, form does follow function, after all.

And the Japanese?  You might argue that Japan’s auto industry’s goal was to please the world.  It was the first to concentrate on something besides its home market, although it capably served that as well, from Kei cars to the twelve-cylinder Toyota Century.  But early on the Japanese auto industry realized its future survival would rely on foreign markets, something other nations’ manufacturers seemed slow to realize.  So how is a Japanese car defined so far as pleasing its customer base?  Depends on which customer we are talking about, as soon they set out to please everyone, everywhere, and came damn close to succeeding.  Then, for good measure, the South Koreans followed in their footsteps.  Could the Chinese and Vietnamese be far behind?

Manifestations of the national character, VIII: Mid-century Toyota Century. Mirrors, anyone?

All this is a very roundabout way of getting to today’s real story, the next Japanese car to find a foothold in our household.  After two American vehicles that succeeded in fulfilling their assigned utilitarian role while inspiring minimal passion, or pleasure, as it were, the little Geo Metro from last week’s episode inched toward the pleasure principal (with apologies to but not direct citation of Herr Freud).  Did the Metro arrive somewhere in the vicinity of that intersection between art and technology?  I think it did.  As with the Mini and Lotus cited above, there was a certain purity of engineering and design that verged on the inspirational, at least in my eyes.  It was mostly in the Mini mold, but to some degree it also referenced the Lotus, whose goal had been to achieve the most with the least.  “Simplify, then add lightness,” in Colin Chapman’s words.

And so we finally arrive at today’s featured car:  a 1997 Nissan Sentra.

’97 Nissan Sentra GXE: refrigerator white in color, if not in nature.

Together with Toyota, Nissan faced the vicissitudes of the American market early on, learning as it went.  For a long time its reputation shone brightly, maybe the brightest of any of the Asian companies.  The 510 proved that the Japanese could build a world class economy car, and then the engineers added two cylinders to the 510’s OHC Four and blitzed a moribund sports car market with the 240Z, aka the Japanese E-Type.  Then for good measure in 1989 they dropped their latest SOHC V6 into a new Maxima and stormed the bastion of the heretofore unassailable Euro sports sedan.

By 1997, Nissan seemed unstoppable.  They presented a full range in the U.S., from the DOHC 16 valve Sentra to the V6 Maxima and that uber-SUV, the Pathfinder, together with the awe-inspiring 240Z successor, the 300ZX.  In response, Honda offered a SOHC 4 Civic, an underwhelming six cylinder Accord, a re-badged Isuzu Trooper, and a 2.2 liter four cylinder Prelude.  Oh, also Nissan had the bang-up-to date Quest minivan and Honda had the stopgap first generation Odyssey .  Toyota’s range may have competed more directly, but it retained a somewhat staid reputation in comparison to Nissan’s burnished performance image.

This was the background in which I chose a car to follow the Metro.  The ubiquitous Civic seemed nice enough, but appeared quite plain for what you paid, plus Honda dealers were notoriously unyielding on price.  The Corolla had a reputation for blandness, plus I was not far removed from the negative vibes of my time-less (as in refusing to stay in time) previous Toyota.  Of the the indomitable Japanese triumvirate that left Nissan.

I’d never owned a Nissan, although I’d had plenty of seat time in various models owned by friends over the years, including a couple of 510 wagons, a B-210 (or was it a B-52?  Memories fade), and a 240Z.  The Z-car was a special case as I commuted in a work carpool with four people; the catch was one of the designated cars was a Datsun two seater, which meant that on the 240Z’s appointed days two of us were relegated to the rear luggage compartment, where we lay supine.  Sounds uncomfortable, right?  Yes, but we were also close to the rear speakers, which is where I first heard Hotel California, so the pain wasn’t without rewards.

In any case, an acquaintance had recently purchased the local Nissan franchise, so when I noticed an ad in the Saturday newspaper car section proclaiming leasing deals with zero down and $110 monthly payments, I was off like a shot to check out the Sentra.  Now the previous incarnation of the Sentra included the SE-R model that had become an enthusiast touchstone, so my car geek radar had definitely picked up on that tidbit.  I consulted the oracle, in this case, Car and Driver, and found a glowing assessment of the reworked for ’95 model.  What more incentive did I need?

You had to order the GLE to get a tachometer for that high-winding DOHC 16 valve four.

Given that I knew the owner, I was immediately ushered into his office and he performed the honors.  His only concern expressed during the whole process was, “Can you drive a stick?”  Well, we know the answer to that.  A total of one hour later I was driving home in a freshly prepped ’97 GXE, refrigerator white with a 115 horsepower (more than double the Metro’s total), 1.6 liter twin-cam,16 valve VVT  and a 5-speed manual.  By my standards, the GXE came absolutely loaded, with a/c, power windows and mirrors, cruise control, a cassette stereo, and upscale velour upholstery, all for just over a hundred bucks a month–not exactly chump change in 1997, but still a pretty low entry fee for a brand new car.  The terms allowed 12,000 miles a year and provided free oil changes for the three year life of the lease.

Comfortable seats, but so-so legroom.

Obviously, the Sentra was a class up on the Metro, but it remained a very small car by American standards.  Any perceived extra bulk was minimal, so driving it didn’t require a great deal of adjustment, save for when you floored the throttle, and then, Whoa, Nelly . . . it was like being beamed up to the Enterprise.  That still-little-though-much-bigger-than-the-Metro’s four cylinder just pulled and pulled, all the way up to its 6800 RPM redline (once broken in, needless to say).  Under the hood the engine looked like something out of a tuner’s shop with a composite valve cover.  For 1997, that was pretty impressive stuff.  As for handling, C and D observed that the Sentra had “exemplary grip” (maybe limited by its its 155/80 13 inch tires); the new beam axle replacing the previous generation’s fully independent set-up was viewed with suspicion, but performance-wise it was pretty much a wash.  For an economy car, the Sentra seemed like an enthusiast’s holy grail.

Nissan 1.6 liter in all its glory.

As for the interior, it impressed.  Frankly, the dash, seats and general appearance all seemed a class above the (ahem) Civic, and more than matched the current Lexus-fied Corolla.  In objective terms, space could be a bit limited for four or five people, but it was a limo compared to our Metro. And among the superlatives with which it showered the Nissan, Car and Driver observed that “BMW’s 3-series . . . could learn something from (the) Sentra’s anti-austerity”, an observation that would come back to haunt Nissan.

Non-austerity zone.

In summary, it was an admirable package, representative of what I came to think of as ‘Peak Nissan’.  You could argue in fact that this period of the late ’90’s was ‘Peak Japan’, as the Japanese auto industry was flexing its muscle, manufacturing several vehicles that were impressive in engineering, content, and quality.  Think of the 1997 300ZX, Mazda RX-7, and the Toyota Supra, cars still regarded as high water marks, not not only for their respective manufacturers, but the entire industry.  Oh, and then there was the Lexus LS 400, which frightened and then lit a fire beneath the entire German automotive establishment, while the Acura NSX did the same for the exotic car industry.

Peak Nissan.

Peaker Mazda.

Peakest Toyota.


And then . . . and then . . .

The bottom dropped out.  As the new millennium dawned, Nissan merged with Renault and in a palace coup the cost cutters took control with their austerity programs and bottom line fixation.  Honda and Toyota also became implicated in the race to the bottom, or at least the middle, as their new models were noticeably shadows of their former glory.  The next generation Camry, Civic, Accord, Maxima, Altima, and indeed most of the new products of the Japanese titans were met with reservations by the automotive press due to a decline in features and apparent quality of materials.  And then one by one the iconic sports models disappeared, leaving a vacuum in their place.

Some time later when I drove the successor to my ’97 Sentra, I was shocked to find that most of those qualities I’d admired and extolled had disappeared in the next generation.  Granted, the car in question had a few miles on it by then, but everything was sagging:  the doors, the upholstery, the headliner, the muffler . . . you name it.  The car bore almost no relation to its predecessor.

Reputation is ultimately a fickle thing.  It thrives until it doesn’t.  Just ask General Motors.  By the end of the decade, Nissan’s rested in tatters.  The soul of the company went AWOL, victim of the good (?) intentions of those mired in the old Oscar Wilde adage:  ‘they understand the price of everything and the value of nothing’.  I’m not going to argue that engineers, designers, and stylists need always be given free rein without adult supervision (my beloved Lancia, sadly, is a case in point), but when the bean counters gain ultimate control and dictatorial powers there comes a time when the intersection between art and technology becomes so blurred that it is effectively lost.  This is why you can’t insist that a car is like a refrigerator . . .  emotions are in play, together with a hard-to-quantify something at the heart of an automobile.  ‘Soul’ may be a term overused when it comes to cars, but it may be the most useful description of that crossroads where art and technology interact.

And Nissan lost it.

Rather than leading the charge when it came to producing soulful cars, they began to regress backwards into the production of appliances.  The newfangled CVT saves some manufacturing cost and gets decent gas mileage?  Buy ’em by the truckload!  They need a rebuild in 50,000 miles?  Oops!  Our Renault partner makes a living by producing ugly, but charming cars?  We’ll make ugly, but charmless cars!  GM and Chrysler employ playskool-grade plastics that look like crap and wear even worse?  Where’s our checkbook?

I occasionally drove Nissan rentals over the following years, the most egregious example being a mid-teens Versa four door.  Its CVT drone was occasionally interrupted by an alarming moaning that seemed to indicate imminent mechanical Armageddon.  At the same time I was sweating bullets as we attempted to negotiate a steep grade, given that it seemed unlikely the car would ever reach the summit without trailing assorted gears and rubber bands in its wake.  Meantime, the Versa’s interior’s chief feature was its sheer cheapness:  in contrast to my ’97 Sentra, it seemed that every feature had been chosen on the basis of a deep native stinginess.  All told, it was a depressing and joyless ride.

Sh*tbox, redux…

A first generation Rogue of the same vintage shared many of the Versa’s shortcomings:  everything seemed to be designed with cost-cutting in mind.  Its interior, though reasonably airy, still seemed cramped and cheerless, while a good deal of the trim seemed to be plastic masquerading as chrome.  As for styling, such as it was, the little SUV had a face only a mother could love.  At least, unlike the Versa, the seats were comfortable.

Inspired by some Renault oddity?

Some years later at the airport car rental counter in Portland, Maine I was given the choice between a vast Chevy Suburban and a current model Nissan Murano. Glancing at my wallet and calculating the cost to fill the Suburban’s 28 gallon gas tank together with its 17 mpg thirst, I went with the Murano, which apparently been sent on its way from the factory carrying the lowest available trim level.  All the same, I noted that some progress in materials and aesthetics had been made, but for a vehicle aimed at the near-luxury market it still featured ample evidence of penny-pinching.  The Murano performed well enough, CVT notwithstanding, with a helping of V6 grunt, and it had those comfortable Nissan seats, but for an SUV whose list price was well above my daily driver at home, it did not impress.  Plus, what was going on with that rear quarter panel?

Nissan Murano: Is it made out of glass?



The final sample was a modest subcompact Kicks I picked up in New Orleans this spring, a model that filled a budget niche not far above and beyond the one occupied by the old Versa sedan during the previous decade.  The Kicks may be the closest thing we have stateside to the SUV category I mentioned last week, the Shoebox Economy Size, although it is a size up from the Suzuki Ignis that struck my fancy a couple of months ago.  It comes with 1.6 liters and 122 horsepower, neck and neck with the specs of my ’97 Sentra . . . not much progress engine-wise in two and a half decades, then . . . and is FWD only, so the utility part of the equation is in question.  Nevertheless, the Nissan actually had something approaching, dare I say it, a soul.  We drove the little car down I-10 to Gulf Shores, Alabama and back, a minnow amongst the domestic 4×4-gaping-chrome- grill-land-sharks.  Aside from the intimidation factor, the itty-bitty SUV held its own, and was actually fairly enjoyable to drive.  It may have even evoked a few slumbering memories of my old Sentra from 1997:  a blessing from the Lord, to quote Monty Python.

Get your Kicks on Route 66.

Will Nissan emerge from its penny-pinched and moribund state to arise from its death bed?  Stranger things have happened.  With Carlos Ghosn, the dark lord of austerity, in the slammer, things may yet improve.  The newer models, starting with the Kicks and the latest Rogue and Altima, show some promise, as does the late-to-the-retro-party Z.  Will the company ever regain its former premier position in the automobile pantheon?  That remains a tall order.  First, Nissan has to reclaim their space at the junction where art and technology meet, and pray that they might breathe a smidgen of soul back into their hapless progeny.  At the same time maybe they can remember how they once were able to connect with (and please) those customers who seek inspiration and connection with their cars.  Should they succeed, maybe they could show BMW how it’s done.