COAL: 1993 Nissan Sentra SE-R – Kismet

1993 Nissan Sentra SE-R front-side view

The time had finally come.  I’d been dreaming of having a classic car pretty much my entire life, but either finances, circumstances or both had gotten in the way.  Over the last couple of years, it’s been something we needed for our new-to-us house.  Whenever I would start talking to someone at a car show, I started to feel like this guy.  In 2022, it was a new deck.  We’d been diligently putting money aside to cover roughly 150% of the estimate because, well, that’s how construction projects usually go.

Around September, our general contractor informed us that due to continued supply chain shortages, he was behind on his current project and would not be able to begin until the Spring.  While that kind of news might be a sour note for some, it was a beautiful Aria to my ears.  Based on how well we were managing to save for the deck, I knew that I could pull out a small chunk and replace it before construction started.

1993 Nissan Sentra SE-R Front View

Having spent so many years “dream shopping” for an inexpensive classic, I knew just where I wanted to start: AutoTempest.  My feeling is that I might find one of the obscure cars I’m looking for at a price I can afford on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace.  AutoTempest, however, does include listings from, Hemmings, eBay and several other sites as well.

I’ve always had fond memories of my father’s 1979 Dodge Omni, which I only got to drive once before trading it in.  Even with its numerous maladies, it was a smartly designed and fun-to-drive car.  There are very few Omnis and Horizons left out there, and even fewer examples from the car’s early years. That day, fortunately, there was a white-on-red 1980 Plymouth Horizon TC3 with 80,000 miles, a 4-speed manual, and a red interior like Dad’s Omni.  The owner was asking only $3,500 to boot.

1982 Plymouth Horizon TC3

Dad was seriously considering the identical Omni O24, but decided on the sedan because he felt the back seat was too small for my sister and me.  Ironically, he bought a car with almost the identical profile four years later when we were both teenagers and a lot bigger.

I texted the owner to see if the car was still available, which it was, and he immediately cut the price by $300.  As appealing as that sounded, I asked how long he’d owned the car and why he was selling it.  “Three months and I need the money.  $3200 takes it!”  After refusing to divulge the contact information of the previous owner unless I bought the car, I ended things right there wondering what horrible discovery he’d made.  Cracked engine block, anybody?

Back to the drawing board, I looked for a first generation N-car – specifically a Grand Am or Calais with the Quad4 and 5-speed (I had a friend with one), BMW 318Ti or E30 318is, Mark I GTI, Etienne Aigner Cabriolet (preferably blue) or first-generation Neon R/T.  As you can see, my tastes tend toward the eclectic.

My final search was for a B13 SE-R.  It’s not that they’re not out there, it’s just when you do find one, it usually looks like this:

While I tend to limit my searches to 150 miles, that day I decided to go country-wide just to see if there were any at all out there and stumbled across the beautiful black picture at the top with the headline, “1993 Nissan Sentra SE-R, 27 year original owner, no rust – $8,500”.  Why so cheap?  Then I saw the mileage: 171000.  Yikes.  However, the car looked impeccable in pictures and was in my price range, so I started reading the description.  I was hooked after the first paragraph:

Purchased in the summer of 2020 from the original owner of 27 years. The car was in southern California its entire life until I had it shipped here as a father/son COVID downtime project. The Carfax report reflects the ~27 yr original owner and accident-free history. There is no rust. Since its move to the Midwest it’s been stored in a heated and dehumidified garage.

This was followed by an unusually lengthy description of all the parts that were either repaired or replaced.  In discussing the exterior, where the bumpers and roof were professionally restored after fading from 27 years in the California sun, the owner makes clear that this is a driver’s car and not a show car.  Most importantly, he wanted it to go to another enthusiast so it didn’t end up looking like the car above.  The only real flaws were that both the antilock brakes and air conditioning were non-functional.

1993 Nissan Sentra SE-R Rear-Side View

As a refresher, the B13 SE-R was the first true performance Sentra.  While the hatchback coupes of the previous generations may have looked the part, they had the mundane powertrain and suspension of lesser Sentras.  By 1991, the sport compact craze was in full swing, and Nissan wanted to build on the performance image it was nurturing with the 300ZX, 240SX, and the 4DSC Maxima.  Leaving the NX2000 – the replacement for the innovative but unloved Pulsar – to take on the hot hatches, Nissan set its sights on the 318is for the SE-R.

Starting with the already handsome exterior of the 2-door B13, the surprisingly peppy 1.6-liter was supplanted by the mighty SR20DE 2.0-liter, 140-horsepower four from the Nissan Primera Infiniti G20.  This engine, designed for the Autobahn, could wind all the way to 7,500 RPM without breathing hard.  The SE-R also came with other un-Sentra-like hardware such as four-wheel antilock disc brakes, larger front and rear anti-sway bars, a limited-slip differential, a short-ratio 5-speed manual transmission and 14-inch aluminum wheels.  A chin spoiler with integrated fog lights and a rear wing with third-brake light were added to the outside.  The changes inside included sport seats, leather wrapping of the standard steering wheel, and a leather shift boot in place of the rubber accordion found in other Sentras.

1993 Nissan Sentra SE-R SR20DE Engine

Nissan either spent all the development money on the good stuff or was trying to ape the subdued look of the 3 Series because it takes an experienced eye to tell a SE-R from a lesser Sentra.  To add to the confusion, Nissan also offered the 2-door SE, which was a standard Sentra mechanically but nearly identical visually to the SE-R except for the 13-inch slotted alloys from the 4-door GXE and the badge.  This, plus a relatively high price, is likely why the SE-R was never a strong seller despite making Car & Driver’s 10 Best list for all four years of the B13 generation.  Today, very few people remember it.

The 2-door Sentra became the 200SX for the B14 generation.  While there was still a SE-R, its less intriguing SR20VE engine and Ford Tempo-like styling didn’t move the enthusiast community like its older brother.  There have been other SE-Rs and sporty Sentras since, but none of them have ever been as compelling as the original.

1993 Nissan Sentra SE-R Interior

I was sold, but this transaction wasn’t going to happen unless I could get my wife on board.  Luckily, the first car we bought together was a 1994 Sentra LE that we happily owned for 10 years.  I sent her the link to the ad, and her response was, “Hello, friend!”

With that encouragement, I connected with the owner.  Steve didn’t want to sell the car, but with the COVID threat receding, his son was busy with school and sports, and his wife didn’t want her Telluride to spend another Chicago winter in the driveway.  This was his 3rd SE-R, and he was cautious about who it went to.  Fortunately, I was able to prove my Sentra creds with the above link (Thank you Paul & CC).

After a little more back-and-forth, he asked if I wanted to make a deposit because there were now six other people interested in the car.  It may have sounded like a high-pressure line, but I had already decided I wanted the car anyway.  I also felt Steve was a straight shooter, so I was OK with him arranging the pre-purchase inspection, which resulted in no major findings.

1993 Nissan Sentra SE-R Instrument Cluster

When it came to how I was actually going to get the car, my first thought was an auto transport service.  It became clear immediately that Steve wasn’t comfortable with this, and told me the horror story of transporting the car from California to Chicago (the truck was over 30 days late, and the original owner was convinced it was a scam even though he had both the money and the car during this time!).  I started researching transportation services and found even worse stories.

I couldn’t just fly out to Chicago, could I?  My wife asked me why not.  I then asked Steve if he thought the car could make it from Chicago to Connecticut, and he assured me it would.  It turns out that there was an early-Saturday-morning, non-stop flight for only $70, and I could be home by Sunday afternoon.  I’d also save hundreds over a transport service in the end.  Steve offered to pick me up at the airport, and I offered to buy him and his wife breakfast.

View of Chicago from the airplane

Chicago, here I come!


After a delicious breakfast at Al & Andy’s Restaurant near O’Hare, I handed Steve the money, and he handed me the keys.  Since in Illinois, the license plate goes with the car, he let me keep it so I could legally drive the car home. He did ask for the first right of refusal if I ever decided to sell.

In the listing for the car, Steve had mentioned that it smells like a ‘90s Nissan.  It had been 15 years since I’d been inside a ‘90s Nissan, but the minute I sat down in the car, it all came back.  There is a distinct, but pleasing, odor.  What really blew me away, however, was the low beltline and tall, airy greenhouse.  In this age of gunsight windows and thick pillars – even in some SUVs – it was quite refreshing.

I got on the road and immediately got caught in a traffic jam going through downtown Chicago.  After about 40 minutes or so I was out on the open road, impressed by how well this 30-year-old car drove.  While the short-ratio transmission meant that 70 MPH equated to 3,500 RPMs, it kept the car near its peak power, so passing only required pushing down on the accelerator, and the car took off.

1993 Nissan Sentra SE-R at a Rest Stop

Grabbing Popeye’s somewhere in Ohio.


I stopped for a quick lunch at a rest-stop Popeye’s, then made it to central Pennsylvania for a relatively restless night at a Red Roof Inn fearing someone might try to steal the car or that the car wouldn’t start in the morning.  Fortunately, there were no issues when I took off before dawn and was home to Central Connecticut by 1 PM and in time for my daughter’s soccer game.  Of course, we took the Sentra.

The first thing I did was join a local car club (Valley Collector Car Club) – something I’ve always wanted to do but didn’t feel right about until I had a car worth joining for.  They were wondering why a “young” guy like me would want to join their club but were happy to have me, even if I did get a bunch of blank expressions when I told them what I owned.  It turns out they desperately needed someone to update their website, a skill I happen to possess (at a very basic level).

The Author Autocrossing

One of the members convinced me to try my hand at autocrossing, something that “Nelly” is pretty good at.  I improved my time by four seconds from the first pass to the last, but the experience reminded me of a busy day at an amusement park:  Two hours of waiting for 40+ seconds of fun, then another two hours of waiting.

However, what the car truly excels at is zooming through tree-lined mountain roads at supra-legal speeds.  I am fortunate that there happen to be roads like this very near my suburban home.  It’s hard to keep a smile off your face when you’re driving it like it’s meant to be driven.  Everyone who’s driven the car is completely blown away by how much fun you can have with only 140 horsepower.

The Author's Kids in Front of Nelly

One of my other goals for the car is to teach my children how to drive a stick shift.  Even though manuals are disappearing left and right, I still feel it’s a valuable skill.  I had my son driving around the neighborhood before winter came, and my 14-year-old daughter convinced me to let her try as well in a big local parking lot where I kept running into friends and neighbors teaching their kids to drive.  None of them are learning on a stick, though!

Unfortunately, it’s time for the fun to come to an end.  I promised to give my son my Sonic if he graduated high school with honors, which is happening this June.  Well, you can’t make that offer to one child and not the other, so I made a similar offer to my daughter that if she met certain targets, I’d give her a car when she gets her license, which is likely happening in the middle of next year.  Therefore, I need to buy a car to ultimately give to her, then my wife wants an EV because she hates gas stations, where I then will take her high-mileage (131k and counting!) CX-5.  Too many cars, not enough money or space.

I kept my promise and let Steve know I was selling, but his kids are about the same age as mine, and he’s in the same boat.  I’m going to miss Nelly, but I wouldn’t have traded the experience of owning a dream car for anything.