2017 Nissan Sentra NISMO First Drive: A modest performance proposal

It seems like only a month or so ago that I was behind the wheel of the new 2017 Nissan Sentra SR Turbo, the first forced-induction version of the Japanese brand's volume-selling compact sedan. Flash-forward to the eve of the 2016 L.A. Auto Show, and here I am again, hand on the six-speed shifter of yet another turbocharged Sentra – this one bearing the NISMO badge.

Just how different is the 2017 Nissan Sentra NISMO from its SR Turbo sibling? It's honestly a matter of perspective. Mechanically, the NISMO (an appellation that denotes the Sentra is near the pinnacle of Nissan's performance ladder) is identical to the SR Turbo, with only a few tweaks made to the programming of its optional continuously-variable automatic transmission to set it apart. That means that it features the same 1.6-liter four-cylinder turbo putting out 188 horses and 177 lb-ft of torque, with the enthusiast gearbox of choice being its standard six-speed manual.

Visually, and in terms of chassis tuning, however, the 2017 Nissan Sentra NISMO stands apart from its line-up mates. The compact sedan's styling has been made that much more aggressive by way of a full body kit that includes a faux-diffuser at the rear, a molded trunk lid spoiler, beefy side sills, unique exhaust time and mirror caps, and a revised front end. This goes along with thickly-bolstered sport seats inside the Sentra NISMO's cabin, special gauges, and red accents and NISMO badging within and without the car.

Suspension-wise, the Sentra NISMO one-ups the SR Turbo in several areas, including the adoption of monotube shocks to help corral its rear torsion beam and stiffer springs at all four corners (along with re-tuned front dampers). The car comes with all-season Michelin Pilot Sport rubber wrapped around 18-inch rims, with Potenza RE-71R summers from Bridgestone available on the order sheet as well. Finally, the electric power steering has been reconfigured to improve feel and response.

If you're a fan of performance cars like I am, then you've probably already noticed a couple of unusual things about the Sentra NISMO. The first is the lack of a power bump between the SR Turbo and the sportier, and more expensive (with pricing starting at just under $25k), model. It's been proven in the past that the 1.6-liter engine sitting in the Sentra can churn out over 200 horsepower when found in the Juke, so why not at least give buyers 10 extra ponies to play with as a reward for stepping up to the NISMO? Or perhaps swap over the Juke's all-wheel drive system, too, and create something truly unique in the Nissan line-up?

I was also somewhat disappointed to learn that the Nissan Sentra NISMO wasn't going to be getting a multi-link rear suspension in order to further improve on the good, but not quite exciting handling chops offered by the SR Turbo. When I asked Nissan representatives about these three points, I was reminded that the brand was looking to keep the Sentra 'affordable,' and as such did not pursue more boost or better geometry under the car. It's an understandable philosophy, but it's not one that's likely to endear the NISMO to those shopping in the suddenly hot compact performance car segment. With mightier models like the recent Hyundai Elantra Sport and the 2017 Honda Civic Si prowling the streets, alongside luminaries like the $26,695 Subaru WRX, the Sentra is in tough to impress.

This feeling was reinforced by the short amount of time that I spent piloting the NISMO on the briefest of city routes. I had no real opportunity to explore the changes made to the Sentra's underpinnings, as no matter what The Fast and the Furious might have taught us, L.A.'s streets aren't exactly designed for spirited driving. There's nothing inherently upsetting about the Sentra NISMO out on the road, but try as I might, I wasn't able to tap into a level of performance that could stir my soul.

That could change, of course, were I given the opportunity to flog the new NISMO on a deserted stretch of twisting two-lane asphalt. Until then, it's difficult to judge the Nissan on anything more than its spec sheet and a general first impression, and while this small sedan might look the part, it seems like it might be doomed to the role of understudy in a crowded pocket rocket market – at least until the NISMO RS model hits the scene.