COAL: 1991 Nissan Sentra SE-R – Fun Car, SE-Rious Problems

I’m honored to submit my first COAL installment, and where better to start than with the first (and only) new car I ever signed my name to, a 1991 Nissan Sentra SE-R?

Car and Driver quite literally sold me on the car. I discovered the buff books as a teenager and consumed them cover-to-cover every month. But something about Kevin Smith’s review of Nissan’s hot new Sentra wormed its way into my brain like no review ever had. It must have been the ratio of performance/handling to MSRP. I still have snippets of that road test memorized to this day, wherein he raved about the SE-R as the second coming of the BMW 2002 and practically a front-drive clone of the aging E30 BMW 3-series. “Yes, the Sentra SE-R is the dream of a brand-new $12,000 BMW come true,” C/D claimed. Why they leaned so hard into the BMW comparisons when Datsun’s own 510 was the obvious choice is anyone’s guess. I mean, the 510 was right there. But on the strength of that one review, in February 1991 I signed the lease papers on a new SE-R without having test driven it.

My Tennessee-built SE-R came suitably equipped for a sport sedan: ABS, 15-inch alloys, limited-slip, sport seats, 4-wheel discs, a 5-speed stick, and a 16-bit ECU. Hey, that was twice as many bits as my Nintendo NES, so it had to be good, right? Rounding out the amenities list were a driver’s airbag, trunk spoiler, power moonroof and mirrors, A/C, and a pair of fog lights hanging under the front bumper like Bugs Bunny’s incisors. There were no options available other than a stereo and the choice of black, white, or red paint (I picked red). A 140HP DOHC aluminum block, 2.0-liter SR20DE engine with a 7,000 RPM redline motivated it to 60 MPH in the low 7-second range, with a quarter-mile trap speed of 15.8 seconds at 87 MPH according to that C/D road test.

I still remember the drive home from the dealer. In traffic, a young guy about my age driving a boxy, earlier-generation Sentra stopped behind me at a light. I watched him in the rearview mirror as a quizzical expression spread over his face upon seeing my car’s badge. I could read his lips: “SE…R?!”

But that poor car seemed cursed. Shortly after I got it home, a late-winter ice storm struck and a chunk of ice falling off a tree left a dent in the rear quarter panel. Later, a gross old guy driving a van hocked a thick, disgusting loogie out his window as I was passing him. The putrid yellow glob splatted onto my hood and by the time I got it hosed off the next day, it had actually cracked the paint. Was that an old man or an acid-spitting Xenomorph from Alien? Then a coworker backed the company van into my poor SE-R. I took that opportunity to get the replacement grille painted red like the rest of the car, which quite frankly, Nissan should have specced from the get-go.

The SE-R was my quickest car to date (which admittedly is saying very little). To put its acceleration into context: in 1991, it was truly quick for a cheap, normally aspirated 4-banger. It was about equal to a Mustang GT, or a Porsche 944 from a couple of years earlier, and a good deal quicker than a V-6 Camaro or an Acura Integra. A guy in a Miata tried to race me once. The SE-R flicked him off like a flea. However, I had my butt handed to me by a second-gen Acura Legend coupe. Can’t win ‘em all. Most humiliating was the mom-driven C-body Cadillac that bested me; in my defense, I didn’t know it was a race and shifted too early.

Of course, the SE-R’s strength wasn’t drag racing; it was taut handling. I learned to push deep into corners with that car, although my technique needed work. Early one morning after pulling an all-nighter at school, I got a little sloppy and learned about snap oversteer. Fortunately, I stayed on the pavement, albeit facing the wrong way, and I went back to the dorm to get some sleep, much chastened and better educated about FWD dynamics.

A 1980 Datsun 310GX in this same shade of blue had been my first Nissan product a few years earlier. The SE-R obviously was worlds better, in every way but one: reliability. As soon as warm weather hit, the SE-R developed an annoying driveability issue, bucking and hesitating and, as it is known in the business, “running like crap.” The dealer tech scratched his head for a bit and suggested the aluminum engine didn’t care for the summer blend BP gas I was using. I never figured out what the engine block material had to do with it, but I changed brands and that seemed to solve the problem.

That was to prove to be the best service I ever got from that dealer. At the 30,000-mile service, the tech somehow reinstalled the radiator overflow bottle upside down. Later, in year three of ownership, the transmission developed the habit of violently jumping out of fifth gear, as if it was trying to fling the shift knob off. The service department drove it and claimed they couldn’t recreate the problem, then admitted they didn’t actually put it into top gear. When I insisted they had to put it in fifth in order to, you know, actually test fifth, the service advisor testily replied that the speed limit on the street in front of the dealership was only 35 MPH and fifth gear was verboten below 55. Was he trying to trick me into admitting that I sometimes used fifth at less than 55 so he could claim driver abuse and deny a warranty claim? I didn’t take the bait. “Let me take your tech out to the interstate, then,” I said, and he said “No, I don’t have time for you to drive him all over the place.” Grrr. I had to involve Nissan corporate to get the dealer to take the car in, whereupon they kept it for a month and wouldn’t give me a loaner. Grrr, again. They eventually replaced the gearbox, but the replacement exhibited the same problem a year later. GRRR!

Also, the front brakes tended to seize up, overheat, and not last very long. Finishing out my bachelor’s degree with a month-long field class in South Dakota, I found the brakes tended to wash out alarmingly on long downhill stretches in the Black Hills. Imagine this view, only imagine your brakes are going to the floor as you gather speed and approach the curve:

Replacement calipers didn’t solve the problem. Going back up those same mountains resulted in hot running and a loss of power as minivans passed me. The front subframe bushings also began clunking. All this on a car that was by then only four years old and always maintained per the manual.

By the end of the SE-R’s five-year lease, the residual I would have had to pay to keep it around just didn’t seem worth it for what felt by then like a tinny little car with noisy bushings and a transmission that wouldn’t stay in gear. I let Nissan have it back and took my aunt’s 1987 Volvo 740GLE as a hand-me-down.

Thirty years on, the original SE-R is prized as a modern classic, made all the more desirable by Nissan’s failure to ever properly follow it up. The next generation of SE-R was heavier, less sophisticated and somehow slower even as it faced more competition. Here’s one in a stereotypically ’90s shade of teal:

Subsequent generations added power and Spec V trim, but because we can’t have everything, styling got a little weird.

And then it just got plain ugly. This is a sport sedan?

But after all, we’re talking about Nissan USA of the ‘90s, the people who followed a sports icon like the S13 240SX with a Japanese version of a Cutlass.

Here’s the part where I’m supposed to say I regret letting go of my SE-R and have been looking for another ever since. But here’s the thing: years later, I bought an E30 BMW, the car that Car and Driver seemed to believe was the SE-R’s spiritual kin. Even though I was its eighth owner and it had over twice the miles the SE-R had, in terms of build quality and refinement there was simply no comparison. No, it’s the E30 that I regret letting get away. My advice? Read the buff books if you must, but don’t buy based on them.