Curbside Classic: 1985 Nissan Sentra (B11) – A Fish Out Of Rodeo Drive

(first posted 7/27/2011)    Do you ever step out of a store, stumble into the parking lot, and absentmindedly head for a car that you owned in the past? Even twenty five years ago? It looks so familiar, you can practically feel the Nissan key in your pocket. And you know exactly how it’s going to feel, as you slide in on that mouse-fur upholstery, and slam the seat back as far as it will go. Start the little 1.6 L four, slip it into gear, and head for…oops; that’s where the imagination, memory and reality collide.

Back then, every perpetually sunny early morning I’d head for downtown Beverly Hills, and drive past the still-closed jewelers and boutiques on Rodeo Drive. A Sentra on Rodeo Drive? A fish out of water indeed. But I was headed for Coldwater Canyon Road, for a little early morning fun on the way to work in Glendale. And the Sentra did its best to supply some of that, despite its modest provenance. In the early morning, I fit right in with all the cleaning ladies and other domestic workers heading to work in the mansions up in the hills.

But I did take a different route home in the evening; did the Sentra’s Kmart image have something to do with that? I can’t remember for sure, but like most early thirty-year-olds, I was a bit image conscious. Especially on Rodeo Drive.

No, I’m not in Beverly Hills anymore, by a long shot, and quite thankfully. And I’d better stop standing there gazing at this Sentra before someone gets suspicious. My motivation in shooting an old Sentra is a bit harder to explain to folks than a vintage Cadillac.

Our collective memories tend to congeal around certain cars in the past that stand out as the best in class. The Honda Civic clearly dominates its category, during its glory decades. But the all-new for 1982 Nissan Sentra was a surprisingly strong competitor, and a huge sales success. After dawdling too long with its venerable rwd 210/Sunny (CC here), Nissan unleashed a little giant killer with its new Sentra. Of course, the timing was perfect, coming in the midst of the 1981-1982 gas price run-up.

The Sentra posted some best in-class EPA numbers, which sent the masses running into its embrace. Or is that vice versa? But it wasn’t just killer economy that made the Sentra’s appeal. It knew how to scoot right along, thanks to a brand new OHC hemi four (E-Series) that felt like it had more than the 67 or 69 horsepower rating it carried.

My memory banks has this little nugget stored away under the Sentra file: in a car magazine test I read at the time, I seem to remember them gushing over the Sentra’s zip, noting that it was the first car in its class they had ever tested that managed to break the ten second barrier in the 0-60 test. Did I dream that? I don’t think so, and that would still be a credible number today, for a low end econobox. Of course, testing standards and driving techniques vary, but the fact that the Sentra was a significantly brisker economy car than average is pretty undisputable.

And its handling was decidedly better than average too. Admittedly, the number of mornings on my commute when I could push the Sentra to its limits wasn’t exactly very often, although going against the main commuter flow meant that Coldwater Canyon was remarkably lightly trafficked, and there weren’t Prii then hypermiling downhill through the switchbacks.

The Sentra’s upholstery was just as grippy as its skinny little tires, if not more. And the visibility out of these cars was just superb; better to see the smog forming over the Valley as I crested the mountain and crossed Mulholland Drive.

The Sentra quickly soared in the sales charts, and was the number one import in 1982 (well, that’s what wiki says). And I believe it, given how common they became. And after Nissan’s Smyrna, Tennessee plant came on line, an almost unbroken gusher of Sentras flowed from its portals for decades. A highly efficient plant, Nissan has been able to constantly keep the volume going by keeping prices very competitive, regardless of the price of gas.

The B11 platform was replaced by the slightly longer B12 and B13 Sentras, and although I’m not an expert on them, I suspect that other than an increase in wheelbase, these successors weren’t all that different otherwise, except for the constant improvements in safety and other details. And the B13 is still rolling off the lines in Mexico, as the beloved Tsuru, as well as in certain other countries. A classic platform indeed.

I didn’t own this Sentra; it was an extended-term rental, my “company car” for a few months after I left my former employer to help start up a new tv station which was located on the grounds of the former Glendale Airport. The fact that I had to turn in my ’83 T-Bird Turbo Coupe when I left made leaving a bit harder. And it would be some months yet before the new station was solid enough that I would risk my job by signing a company lease on a brand new W124 300E. So in between, there was the Sentra. Thank god it was a manual, back when rental fleets still (barely) had them. For some reason that is now lost on me, the rental company made me turn in the Sentra in exchange for a Dodge Reliant. Now that sure killed the fun. I started taking other routes to work.