by Jared Rosenholtz
The NISMO brand has its roots firmly planted in the motorsports industry, going back over 30 years, and serves as a synecdoche for the elite of track performance. This heritage runs alongside a 50-year legacy of compact Nissan performance sedans. Now the two bloodlines come together and give birth to the Nissan Sentra NISMO. Yet, even with such a prestigious parentage, the latest NISMO offering proves that you can't achieve excellence without innovation. The sedan performs adequately, but even with 188 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque under the hood, it doesn't do its forebears proud, with rivals like even the standard Hyundai Elantra blowing it out of the water. It's a big disappointment for Sentra fans who are looking for a sporty compact sedan to enjoy around town, especially when you consider its more substantial $25,940 price tag compared to the affordable Sentra range.
The 2019 edition Sentra NISMO sees the introduction of a larger seven-inch NissanConnect infotainment touchscreen display, which supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. There have been no additional cosmetic or mechanical updates.
The Sentra NISMO undergoes a considerable number of external changes from the base Sentra model, most of which center around enhancing aerodynamics and performance. Riding on 18-inch NISMO alloy wheels, mounted with Michelin all-season sport tires, the sporty sedan has the most aggressive stance in the Sentra range. The front and rear of the car are more angular, and the side sills sit low on the body. Rounding out the body enhancement is a rear spoiler that complements the bumper, increases downforce and reduces lift by over 30%. The NISMO dark chrome V-frame grille takes up most of the front with broad LED headlights filling out the rest. LED daytime running lights are also present while minor NISMO-branded extras can be found across the exterior.
The NISMO is a bit longer than the regular Sentra, measuring in at 183.6 inches. It maintains the same slim 69.3 inches in width and has a class-average height of 58.9 inches. Considering the body has been re-tuned to optimize performance and handling, the NISMO still manages to come in several hundred pounds above its rivals in curb weight, at 3,044 pounds on the manual transmission and 3,112 lbs on the automatic. Nissan is proud of the Sentra NISMO's drag coefficient of 0.29 even though this is on par with the Corolla, and even higher than that of the Elantra.
The color palette for the NISMO variant of the Sentra is quite limited, with only four choices available. The standard Brilliant Silver, Gun Metallic, and Super Black don't do much to stand out. So, it's not that surprising that the more popular Aspen White TriCoat, which better contrasts the black and red interior, will cost you an additional $395.
The NISMO has been specifically designed to optimize the Sentra's performance. Unfortunately, basic re-tuning, even at a factory level, can only do so much and the Nissan Sentra is a pretty disappointing sedan, to begin with. Featuring the stronger 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine option that makes 188 hp and 177 lb-ft, the NISMO only manages 0-60 mph in 7.3 seconds, which is quite sluggish for a performance-oriented sedan. That's also half a second slower than both the Toyota and Hyundai rivals. And, while it has seen its suspension upgraded and drivetrain tuned for better handling, this only manages to upgrade the mulish Sentra to the manageable NISMO. If Nissan really wanted the Sentra NISMO to feel more exciting, they might have considered giving an all-wheel-drive option and even more power instead of limiting it to the more conservative front-wheel drivetrain. Both the Mazda 3 and Subaru Impreza offer all-wheel-drive systems.
A turbocharged four-cylinder engine powers the NISMO, displacing 1.6 liters to produce 188 hp and 177 lb-ft. This power is regulated by a six-speed manual gearbox, emphasizing driver involvement. An Xtronic continuously variable transmission with a manual shift mode exclusive to the NISMO is also available. This powertrain directs power to the front wheels only to ensure responsive and reliable handling, but it doesn't offer the kind of fun that you would expect from a car bearing the Nismo moniker.
The turbocharged engine can take unpleasantly long to reach the sweet spot in its power output, needing 5,200 rpm to deliver on the promised torque. This delay is exacerbated when using the manual transmission, which has inefficient shift throws and a very grabby clutch. While a good performance vehicle should make you work a little to get it hooning down the road, the NISMO makes you work too hard for very little reward.
The handling on the NISMO is as uninspiring as its powertrain. Still, the sport-tuned upgrades to the sedan's chassis and steering are noticeable during regular driving, making the car feel responsive in town. But when you test its limits, the NISMO's weaknesses become glaringly obvious. Steering is inaccurate and tells you very little about what is going on with the wheels, which are somewhat lacking in grip, even with all-season sport tires equipped.
While the steering might not communicate well, the chassis certainly does, even if it does so in all the wrong ways. The stiff suspension means you will feel even minor imperfections on the road, and the larger NISMO-specific wheels create an alarming amount of noise. This makes it impossible to draw any real joy from an already subpar driving experience. At least the NISMO front seats offer the support you'll be needing if you try to make the sedan act as sporty as it claims to be.
On the plus side, the larger brakes on the NISMO are quite impressive, stopping the vehicle from 60 mph in just over 110 ft. But it's a bit sad that the best aspect of a so-called performance car is how quickly you can bring it to a halt. The poor ride quality and only average driveability of this compact sedan make it impossible for Nissan to compete with Hyundai, Honda, or even Toyota for sheer excitement.
The fuel consumption on the NISMO is average for the segment, but it will end up costing you more since this sedan burns premium gasoline while its rivals get the same mileage on regular gas. Achieving estimated city/highway/combined estimates of 25/31/27 mpg, the Sentra NISMO can cover about 356 miles before refueling, thanks to its 13.2-gallon tank.
The Sentra NISMO sees the interior of a rather bland sedan upgraded with some motorsports-inspired detailing. The front seats are replaced with NISMO sport seats, and racing-red trimming is visible throughout the cabin. The 370Z-inspired steering wheel gets some attention with an Alcantara-leather wrapping. The infotainment and controls within the cabin are laid out ergonomically and are easy to operate, despite being a bit dated compared to the Sentra's newer rivals. However, even with these improvements, the NISMO just doesn't feel as high-quality as its name would suggest.
While the internal dimensions of the NISMO aren't too restrictive, it can only comfortably seat four, with a fifth passenger making the rear seats unpleasantly crowded. While the relative slimness of the sedan limits the number of passengers, the height means that those passengers will not go wanting for headroom, with the front seats offering 39.4 inches and the rear 36.7 inches. Legroom is equally spacious, with the front seats providing 52.5 inches and the rear 37.4 inches. The front buckets offer marginally better comfort than the rear seats, which remain the same as the standard seats found in the Sentra SR, so don't expect rear passengers to be comfortable on long drives. Luckily, seat placement is quite high and the front seats are six-way manually adjustable, meaning visibility is good, and the doors open wide, so ingress and egress aren't challenging.
The front seats in the NISMO are upholstered in synthetic suede and feature signature red stitching, while the rear seats are similarly colored but cloth-upholstered. The carbon fiber trim around the cabin may speak of style and advanced construction, but the promises are as phony as the material. The dashboard is mostly hard plastic that looks and feels cheap, a sad fact that is repeated on the doors, center stack and console. The occasional addition of soft-touch materials doesn't offset the cheap impression by much. To make matters worse, the poor build quality is communicated to you by the cabin, which creaks and rattles disconcertingly.
The Sentra offers superior cargo capacity compared to rivals. The trunk is a spacious 15.1 cubic feet, making it a more than capable and practical car for daily use. And, if you need to move larger items, the rear seats fold down in a 60/40 split, increasing overall capacity to as much as 74.1 cubic feet - albeit through a narrow pass-through area.
However, the sedan's small-item storage is quite average. The armrest console is average in size, as is the central console, while the glove compartment is less stingy. The door pockets are adequate, but the slot under the infotainment system is barely large enough to fit a small phone.
It's a bit of a back-handed compliment, but the NISMO has almost all the features available to the Sentra range. This suite includes a rearview camera, keyless entry and ignition, dual-zone climate control, vehicle dynamic control, traction control, and six-way manual front seats. NISMO-specific features comprise heated NISMO front seats, an Alcantara and leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter knob, NISMO-tuned suspension, larger brakes, and a five-inch advanced drive-assist display between the gauges. However, the NISMO does sacrifice most of the Sentra's driver assistance features, including blind-spot monitoring and cruise control.
The Nissan Sentra NISMO has an adequate, albeit dated, infotainment setup. The NissanConnect seven-inch touchscreen display is a bit slow to respond, but Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are supported. Bluetooth is standard, with a Wi-Fi hotspot available. AM/FM radio and SiriusXM are played through an eight-speaker Bose premium audio system. Siri Eyes Free voice-activated technology is standard, and there are three USB ports in the cabin.
Sticking to its repeated impression of being average, the Nissan Sentra NISMO scores an adequate 76/100 for reliability from J.D. Power. The Sentra model has been recalled several times in the past due to faulty airbags. While the NISMO now has passing reliability, the Sentra did suffer from several complaints after its initial release. It arrives with a standard suite of Nissan warranties, bumper-to-bumper and roadside for three-years/36,000 miles, and powertrain for five-years/60,000 miles.
Safety is yet another area in which the Sentra NISMO is relatively unremarkable, receiving a four-star rating out of five for safety from the NHTSA. From the IIHS, it receives a rating of Average for headlights and Superior for front crash prevention. In every other area, it was rated Good.
While safety scores aren't spectacular, the NISMO comes with all the basic safety features available to the Sentra range. Six airbags (dual front, front side and side curtain) are complemented by three-point seat belts with pretensioners. Other standard features include an automatic emergency brake, vehicle control with traction control, a rearview camera, and automatic headlights. The LATCH system for car seats is functional and easy to use in this range.
Take this as you will, but the Nissan Sentra NISMO is a better car than the base model Sentra. It offers improved all-round performance, a unique interior, and sports-oriented body detailing that does more than just alter its appearance. It handles well on the road, but it lacks the personality to really be considered a performance vehicle. With only front-wheel-drive and a somewhat unrefined powertrain, the NISMO won't thrill performance-oriented drivers, but it will make your mundane daily commute a little more enjoyable.
However, these extra performance upgrades don't require you to make any sacrifices to the Sentra's level-headed utility. Trunk space is excellent, and the price tag is appealing. Sadly, the infotainment is a little dated, and comfort won't last for extended drives. The interior also feels cheap, despite the NISMO branding.
It's not a terrible car; but, there are many, much better options out there even when looking for a sportier everyday sedan. It may be a step up from the base Sentra, but is it really worthy of the NISMO badge? We honestly can't say that it is.
The Sentra NISMO has a starting MSRP of $25,940. This doesn't vary too much since the NISMO offers no package options and only a few standalone add-ons. This price excludes tax, licensing, registration, and Nissan's $895 destination charge.
The Sentra NISMO is the standalone performance-focused variant at the top of the regular Sentra lineup, equipped with a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and a six-speed manual gearbox as standard. An Xtronic CVT is available, but the drivetrain is limited to front-wheel-drive. However, the NISMO stands apart from other Sentra models thanks to its sport-inspired body tweaks, larger wheels, retuned suspension, and improved steering and brakes.
1.6-liter Turbo Inline-4 Gas
Continuously Variable Automatic (CVT)
The NISMO is not compatible with any of the package options available to the Sentra range. However, there are a number of standalone features that can be added, such as alloy sport pedals ($145), illuminated kick plates ($375), or a Nissan Wi-Fi kit ($450).
Since there is only one trim level available to the NISMO, there is no choice to be had here. The accessory options are limited and mostly cosmetic, so going above the base model and price is unnecessary. This means that you get the most value for money by simply sticking with the factory-issue NISMO.
The Toyota Corolla XSE is the closest thing to a competitor for the NISMO, adding sports-inspired body features and a manual transmission. However, these changes are even more skin-deep than those made to the NISMO. The Toyota's 1.8-liter four-cylinder produces a significantly lower 132 hp and 128 lb-ft, but neither vehicle offers performance that really warrants the description of sporty, nor have they made many improvements since they were first introduced. The Corolla offers a more spacious interior, but the Sentra has better cargo capacity. The infotainment systems on each sedan are dated. With similar price tags, it ultimately comes down to brand loyalty on this one since both cars are equally unsophisticated.
The Elantra Sport is Hyundai's answer to the Nissan NISMO, sporting a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that delivers an admirable 201 hp and 195 lb-ft. The Elantra seems to incorporate its sports-focused improvements more organically than the NISMO, with a more refined powertrain and better handling characteristics. The interior is also a significant step up from the Sentra, with better build-quality and leather-appointed seats. Unfortunately, the Elantra does lose some personality thanks to this refinement, whereas the NISMO tries to maintain its focus on looking sporty. Overall, the Hyundai Elantra is a punchier performer and has a more appealing interior. And with a slightly lower price tag, it is easily the better choice for those seeking an everyday car that can add a little bit of excitement to their daily drive.