COAL: 1993 Nissan Sentra SE-R — How Do You Define Daily Driver?

What’s your definition of “daily driver”? I don’t mean just the obvious such as “the car I drive every day”, but rather what characteristics do you require (or “demand” assuming you have a Cordoba and a luxurious Castilian Spanish accent) in the car that you get into and drive nine days out of ten? What can you not live without in a car, versus what things about a car just excite you, whether or not you actually need for them to be present? In many ways, it seems that exploring these questions forms a bit of the subtext for many of the COAL articles on CC.

For me, much of my thinking around this started to fully gel in the early 1990s.

In recent COAL chapters, I’ve discussed the various automotive compromises and realizations I had with the cars that I actually bought versus the cars that I experienced largely due to their being what my family had. The LeSabre, the Rabbit, the Bavaria all had features that pleased me, but they also all came with significant down-sides that over time worked to subdue the pleasure they offered. Mostly, these down-sides were things that were not so much faults of the cars but rather just aspects of those cars that I learned were not suited to my needs. The Rabbit was slower than it needed to be and over time the fact that it could get (at least) 40-some miles per gallon just didn’t outweigh its relatively sedate driving experience. The BMW was smooth and powerful, but frankly not the most reliable car and somewhat ponderous around town.

So when it came time to move on from the Bavaria as my daily driver, I finally had some data to work with from my focus-group of one. I wanted something actually sporty, not faux-sporty like the Rabbit or powerful yet sedate like the Bavaria. I wanted something reliable, which meant new and with decent reviews for quality. And finally, I needed a car that was relatively easy on the wallet. My job in KY was paying state university, grant-funded, wages and while this seemed perfectly ok to me, it definitely fit solidly into a career path which was already well defined as “I’m not doing do this to get rich.”.

Honestly, price was going to have to be a significant driver for this whole process.  This managed to remove all European cars from the running early on.

Notice how “radio” and “AC” are noted as features.  That’d be like noting “Bluetooth” and “tires” nowadays.

It seems from my notes that I narrowed the available field down to three cars.  Of course I still have my notes. If you’re surprised by that, you clearly haven’t been reading closely.  I based my calculations on those “new car price guides” popular at the time.  The idea was to discover dealer cost and then add an amount of dealer profit plus non-negotiable extras such as freight, and then to let that be your immutable offer on the car.  At least that’s how it was supposed to work.

I’ve always had a thing for Mazdas. I once had a friend’s first generation RX-7 for several months, while he was somewhere – I don’t recall – and needed me to hold on to his car. It was fun. But more to the point (since the 626 and the RX-7 in fact had pretty much nothing in common aside from manufacturer) the styling of the 626 always reminded me of something European. The first generation 626 actually looked from the B-pillar back vaguely like a 5 series BMW to me. Hence, my interest in the Mazda. But it was several thousand more than either of the Nissans, so that pretty much nixed it for me.

There’s really no reason I can recall for considering the Altima other than the fact that it was mid-sized (4 doors) and fell between the Maxima and the Sentra. I had a friend – actually the same guy who had the RX-7 as well as the 2002 that I referenced last week – whose wife at the time had a previous generation Maxima. The boxy one. Hers had the voice warning feature, which was a hoot (particularly after a couple of beers) when we went for rides, but beyond that it was uninspiring. And too expensive. Still, at $14,800, according to my notes, the Altima fell out of the running too.

Which brings us to the SE-R. This car checked all of the boxes. It was the least expensive of the cars on my list, evocative of the 2002 (so-said the press at the time), and plenty roomy enough – despite being a 2-door – for me and my maximum number of passengers at the time.

The boxy-ness didn’t bother me in the least. Plus, coming from the much larger Bavaria, I was ready for something smaller and much tighter. The big car, little car pendulum continued its swing.

Press for the SE-R was very favorable. Aside from comparing it to the 2002 – something Automobile magazine was certainly inclined to do, given that Automobile was founded and edited by David E. Davis Jr., of “Turn your hymnals to 2002” fame – the SE-R reaped praise for its high-revving engine, its limited-slip diff that did a great job of putting all available power to the ground (on the front wheels no less), and low price. There you have it. This seemed to be my perfect daily driver.

I bought mine across the river in Indiana. It wasn’t a common car at the dealerships. In fact, at the time I was partly living in MA and partly in KY, so at first I tried to find one in MA. No could do and I had to settle for what I could find near KY.  The fact that it was easier to locate a particular model and buy a Nissan in IN was likely due to the fact that furrin’ cars were still harder to sell at that time in the south/Midwest than in MA. I bought one of two that the dealer in Indiana had ordered that year. This one came with the optional – at the time – airbag, sunroof, and ABS. In other words, it was loaded.

Still, after haggling, I got the delivered price down to within $150 of I’d originally calculated. Yay new car price guide!

The SE-R proved to be exactly what its reviews promised. It was an extraordinarily solid performer. Not too long after I bought it in 1993, we retreated back to Massachusetts…this time to the Boston area (literally and figuratively “graduating” from a Western Mass college town into what seemed a more grown-up life). Once there, my work involved a considerable amount of driving around the northeast and so the SE-R and I racked up the miles. Aside from burning through many sets of tires, the car required little maintenance. I cannot recall ever having any significant powertrain work ever done on the car.

Well, I also went through quite a few sets of brakes given the fact that I also tracked the car and was in the lead-foot portion of my life. The track stuff was via BMW CCA track days (I remained a member from my Bavaria days). The lead-foot part earned me years of MA insurance surcharges and driver’s school at least once, mandatory at the time after two speeding tickets to avoid a license suspension.

I didn’t get the pass that Bob was afforded.

Ultimately, I put about 180K miles on this car, many of them memorable and nearly all of them a tremendous amount of fun.

As the above picture indicates, it was rust that started to get me out of the Nissan. The rust was mostly surface stuff, but my experience with previous cars told me that this was the beginning of something that I would have to deal with sooner than later…likely sooner. In the files is an estimate from a “budget” body shop for repairing the surface rust and repainting parts of the car. That was over $1100, and I questioned the practicality of doing that on an eight year old car with that many miles. Plus, I was having intermittent ABS issues and the common “5th gear pop out” common to these cars. All in all, it added up to selling the SE-R and moving on. Plus, in 2001 I had my eye on a new, even more fun, car that existed in a similar vein to the SE-R. I advertised it on an SE-R forum, and quickly sold it for $1200. The new owner came down from VT with a stack of 20s and a flatbed…and I moved on.

But back to the daily driver thing. What the Nissan offered in the SE-R was eminent practicality equally matched by an entirely impractical amount of fun. A car that can schlep you to northern Maine for business one week, and then run laps at New England Motor Speedway the next is hard to beat so far as something you want to be behind the wheel of every day. It even did a passable job carrying a dog.

And yet at the same time, a true daily driver has to be just that, dependable enough to hit the road every single day, 365 days a year; here in New England, that encompasses a lot of different conditions (the SE-R was terrific in the snow with dedicated snow tires). Once that stops being the case, I have a hard time maintaining the enthusiasm for continuing to encourage the car about its daily duties. The SE-R was a low-cost car that could offer entertainment and function and yet once it got sufficiently long in the tooth – for me and most cars, that comes around the 200K mark — it was almost too inexpensive to warrant preservation. When was the last time you saw one of these on the road? I’ve seen more 70’s Bavarias than 1991-1993 SE-Rs. Both are prone to rusting away, both were equally fun in their own ways to drive. But no one saved the Sentras.

I think that may indicate one final quality of a true daily driver. They’re intended to be consumed. I pretty much used up the SE-R doing with it what it was designed to do. That’s a different fate than some cars earn, but quite a good one nonetheless.

Automobile Magazine scans are from my 10+ year collection of those, which thanks to this article, I may have finally found a use for. Marie Kondo be damned.