COAL: 1991 Nissan Sentra SE – Transitions

Same color, though this is the coveted SE-R. Mine had no fog lights and the smaller alloy wheels.

In the summer of 1991, gasoline was selling for $1.50/gallon in California – equal to $2.79/gal today, with inflation. This was a budget buster, as the Trooper and P’up we owned were no longer either practical or fuel efficient enough to keep in the family. It was time to downsize. The Trooper and P’up were both sold privately, and we were in need of replacements…

The P’up was sold first, so J. was able to choose her replacement. I don’t remember if there were any other cars in contention, but she chose the Mazda Protégé. Dark blue with a light blue interior, LX trim. It looked like a scaled down E-Class and was positively luxurious compared to the truck.

The Trooper sold not long after, so it was my turn to choose. I knew I wanted a few things: 1) a stick shift; 2) 2 doors, either a hatch or a sedan; and 3) something fun to drive. I had been a subscriber to Car And Driver magazine since the mid to late 70s, so each monthly edition opened my eyes to the possible choices. Two quickly rose to the top of the list – the Honda Civic Si and the new Nissan Sentra SE-R, with the 140HP SR20DE engine that every enthusiast magazine sang the praises of.

I test drove both, and liked them equally well. However – and, this is a repeating theme in these stories – the budget reared its ugly head. The SE-R was a couple thousand dollars too much, so I was “encouraged” to look at the Sentra SE. The SE didn’t have the up-level engine, but it had most of the looks of the SE-R – alloy wheels, rear spoiler, deep front fascia (without the fog lights, however).

There was one other choice available – a duplicate to J’s car, only in light blue instead of dark blue, and a stick shift instead of the 4-speed automatic. In retrospect, it was the car I should have chosen, but the thought of having two of the exact same cars in the garage at the same time seemed, well, weird.

A call to my insurance agent revealed that the Civic Si was going to be more expensive to insure, so that left the Sentra SE. What color, then? The dealer had a red one on the lot, which I wasn’t completely thrilled with. The dealer said they could do a dealer trade for one in black. The day came to negotiate the deal and sign the paperwork, and I had a chance to look at the black car they brought in. The other dealer decided that pinstripes would ‘classy’ up the black exterior, but it turned me off. Red it is! I believe the MSRP was just a touch over $10K, and we negotiated a decent discount, and I brought it home.

The SE did have a 110HP engine, a slick shifting 5-speed manual transmission, and a 7000 RPM redline. No AC, but a decent 4-speaker stereo system was available. No power windows or mirrors, either. In 1991, airbags were not yet standard equipment, and many manufacturers took one of two alternatives to passive safety – either the dreaded motorized belts, or a three point system that attached to the door frame and was meant to remain attached to the latch on the inside portion of the seat. The Sentra was equipped with the latter, which I never used in its intended fashion. A coal black interior completed the interior theme, with seats that were more comfortable that I realized.

One other difference between the SE and the SE-R was the wheel and tire size – the SE-R had 14” wheels with 185 aspect rubber, while the SE was fitted with 13” wheels and only a 175mm width tire. Despite that, the handling was still pretty fun, and I used the available power and transmission to entertain myself on the twisty roads around town.

The back seat was pretty decently sized, certainly large enough to accommodate the car seat I was using. The trunk, too, was larger than the car size indicated. On Sunday mornings, my cousin, uncle, dad and I would get up at the crack of dawn and hit the golf course at the local Navy base (my uncle was retired Air Force, and had privileges). We’d arrive right when the sun was peeking over the horizon, play 9 holes, then pay for 18, play the next nine and be home before noon. The four of us, and our golf bags, fit into the Sentra nicely.

There were no mechanical issues with the Sentra, though the CHMSL that was embedded into the rear spoiler stopped working. I never tracked down the source of the failure, but I figured 2 out of 3 brake lights would be sufficient. I had to replace the tires once, which didn’t cost all that much, given the size. I was involved in one accident with it, when someone made a left in front of me (seems to be a theme, apparently).

The end of 1992 and the beginning of 1993 were dark days, personally. First, J. was involved in a pretty serious accident (another T-bone), where she broke her wrist and suffered a mild concussion. The Protégé was totaled, and we replaced it with a 1993 Honda Accord LX. Then I learned that the employer I had been with since graduating college was, um, “encouraging” me to find another position. Last, J. and I decided to separate, ending 5.5 years of marriage. I moved back in with my folks, and tried to figure out my next steps.

The job opportunity in Denver practically fell into my lap; I had been working with this company on a project with my current employer, and I casually mentioned to my contact if they had any openings available. A few weeks later I got a call from one of their managers, one thing lead to another, and I was offered a job. While it was tremendously difficult to move 1000 miles from home and my family, I knew that it was the best thing for me, at that time. I shipped most of my belongings, packed up the Sentra with the items I needed immediately, and hit the road.

The drive to Colorado took me the better part of three days – day one took me to Mesquite, Nevada, hard on the border with Arizona on I-15. Day two ended with me in Grand Junction, Colorado. The Sentra was a champ on the road, despite the lack of AC and cruise control. I had a box full of cassettes that kept the boredom at bay, and the scenery through Utah was just spectacular. The last day was the shortest, as it’s only about a 4 hour drive from Grand Junction to Denver, through the heart of the Rockies. I got settled into my new apartment and job, which would have me traveling once or twice a month.

The pull of a new car to celebrate this new chapter of my life was very strong, so not long after arriving in Denver, I started to casually start car shopping. Eventually, I was able to find something that was more mature than the racy Sentra, but still retained some of the fun to drive elements I wanted.