Welcome back to Holy Grails, the Autopian series where you show off some of the coolest, most underrated cars that you love. Grails are coming in sizzling hot from you lovely readers, and most of these submissions legitimately rock in their own way. Today, a reader wants to remind you that in the 1990s you could buy a BMW 2002, only it didn’t come from BMW. Nissan shoehorned a SR20DE into the B13 Sentra, making a conservative compact that was faster and cheaper than an equivalent BMW. This car continues to be overlooked by enthusiasts, which means that the Sentra SE-R might be the 1990s Japanese enthusiast car bargain you’ve been waiting for.
Last week, reader James L took us across the Atlantic to tease us with sporty English sedans and wagons with American Ford V8 power. Developed out of the ashes of BMW’s sale of Rover Group, the MG ZT was meant to be a sportier version of the stately Rover 75 sedan. But Rover didn’t stop there; i5 decided to turn its front-wheel-drive Rover 75 and MG ZT sedan and wagon into a rear-wheel-drive hot rod using firepower from America. The result is the super rare MG ZT 260 and the Rover 75 V8, cars pumping out 260 HP thanks to a 4.6-liter V8 from a Mustang.
Today’s holy grail follows a similar idea of taking a regular car and making it faster. There is always something fascinating about when an automaker sees a vehicle and decides to see how big or how powerful of an engine it can fit. I’ve written about cars like these recently with the Volkswagen Passat W8 and Volkswagen Touareg W12, both vehicles with engines so huge that repair work often requires dropping an entire drivetrain. The South African BMW 745i is another example of big muscle in a package that doesn’t look the part.
In 1990, Nissan launched the third-generation Sentra, known as the B13. An evolution of the classic Sentra formula, the B13 took the square design of the 1980s Sentras and rounded it out. There were fewer body styles too. While you could get a B12 Sentra as a wagon, hatchback, or as a coupe, the B13 simplified things.
Now you had the choice of a two door or a four door, and that’s it. Depending upon whom you ask, a notable feature of the very first B13 Sentras is just the fact that they had fuel injection, when cars like the base model Honda Prelude, Subaru Justy, and a number of American land barges still had carburetors. While notable, the 1990s did eventually see carburetors taken off of the market, and quickly. The Prelude shook it off entirely in 1991 and even seriously cheap cars like the Hyundai Excel had fuel injection.
So the best part about the B13 Sentra is not the fuel injection in my eyes, or its conservative three-box design, but the fact that Nissan made a sporty version that evoked feelings of classic BMWs and Datsuns. Launched in 1991, the Sentra SE-R took what was otherwise a regular economy car and made it something awesome. And this is the one that reader Jason L says to get. From Jason:
I wanted to suggest a “holy grail” car that is well worth looking for, and that younger readers might not be aware of: The 1st generation (1991-1994) Nissan Sentra SE-R. It was possibly the closest thing the early 90s had to the classic BMW 2002 ideal — a small 2-door sedan that looked unassuming, but had great mechanicals and was amazingly fun to drive.
I owned a 1992 SE-R inbetween a 1989 Honda CRX Si and a 2000 Honda Civic Si, and while the Hondas have become legendary, the SE-R is nearly forgotten to history. It shouldn’t be, since it drove just as good, if not better, than the Hondas. Just a lovely balance of power, handling, and practicality.The stats: 2,600 pounds, 140 smooth horsepower, a great 5 speed manual, 4-wheel discs, a well-appointed interior with supportive seats, and an actual limited-slip differential…very unusual for the time.
Nissan has a long history of bargain performance. The Z is famous for delivering heart-pumping action for prices that won’t break the bank. Look back and performance highlights also include vehicles like the Datsun 510, too. So, hopping up regular cars is in Nissan’s blood.
For the Nissan SE-R, the automaker went into the parts bin, using the 2.0-liter SR20DE four meant for the Infiniti G20. Making 140 HP and 132 lb-ft torque, it’s a decent improvement over the base 1.6-liter four that made 110 HP and 108 lb-ft torque. That was coupled to a manual transmission and it had an honest limited-slip differential. An addition of 30 horses doesn’t sound like much, but the result, as well as the Sentra SE-R’s other attributes, made it a darling of automotive media.
In a period Car and Driver review, the magazine’s testers found that the humble Nissan trounced the era’s BMW 318is in every test:
Yes, the Sentra SE-R is the dream of a brand-new $12,000 BMW come true. The Bavarian maker might be uncomfortable with that characterization. After all, the cheapest two-door that BMW currently offers—the $22,000 318is—doesn’t have a chance against the SE-R in the stoplight derby. The Nissan reaches 60 mph from rest in 7.4 seconds, more than a second quicker than the 318is. The SE-R covers the quarter-mile in 15.8 seconds at 87 mph, compared with the BMW’s 16.4 seconds at 82 mph. The Nissan even surpasses the autobahn-bred 318 in top speed: 125 mph to 123. In fact, a well-driven SE-R could probably get the drop on a BMW 325 if the latter’s driver were slow off the mark. Such performance at an 11 grand base price is the first automotive wonderment of the 1990s.
Car and Driver wasn’t alone in its wonder in just how good this car was for how little it cost to buy one. Road & Track was similarly impressed that the SE-R had all of the ingredients of a sports sedan at a bargain price.
Built in Smyrna, Tennessee, the SE-R has an exterior that belies its character. Mild aerodynamic aids, such as a front air dam and a trunk-mounted rear spoiler, give it the appearance of a spruced-up grocery-getter rather than the shark it really is. Drivers will find brisk acceleration without torque steer, and Nissan claims it’ll hit 60 mph in less than 8 seconds.
Standard SE-R fare reads like a sports-car inventory list: struts at each wheel and anti-roll bars front and rear, 14-inch alloy wheels with 185/60 Bridgestones, four-wheel disc brakes and optional ABS. These components work in conjunction with a rigid body that has a spacious interior and trunk to yield a vehicle that handles impressively, yet offers the utility needed for the next family outing. Everyday driving brings to light only slight understeer if too much speed is carried into corners.
Magazines went as far as to compare the little Nissan to the BMW 2002, with Car and Driver describing it as “[l]ike yesteryear’s 2002, the SE-R is an honest, upright two-door sedan with plenty of room for people and belongings.” It then went on to land on the magazine’s 10Best list for 1991, and Automobile Magazine put it on its list of All Stars, twice. Nissan itself notes that the car became a favorite of grassroots racers. Today, Autotrader goes as far as to call it the greatest Nissan Sentra ever. It appears no matter where you look, the raving doesn’t end about this car.
But today, it seems like the SE-R is largely forgotten. We’ve all seen the crazy high dollar auctions of contemporaries like the Acura Integra, Honda Prelude, and others. Yet, even on a site like Bring a Trailer, they struggle to sell for more than $12,345. The exception being the single SE-R that sold for $33,500 this year. Road & Track thinks a big reason why these have become obscure is because of the competition. Japanese automakers were just cranking out affordable performance cars in the 1990s, and the Sentra arguably looks the most conservative of all of them. Even with the spoiler treatment, the SE-R looks like a teenager’s first car.
Exact production numbers aren’t known, but enthusiast estimates place the number in the ballpark of 30,000 units. Whatever the number, it was enough for Nissan to keep the SE-R alive, and Nissan built SE-R versions of the Sentra until the launch of the seventh-generation in 2012. But, as those same aforementioned publications write, the newer ones don’t quite capture the magic that the original did.
[Editor’s Note: Here’s MotorWeek putting the SE-R to the test, scoring a 0-60 time in 7.5 seconds:
“The Sentra SE-R with its spirited engine and responsiveness is simply a lot of fun to drive. It’s a true sports sedan for an economy car price,” host John Davis concludes. -DT].
Unfortunately, about 30 years of time seems to have taken a number of these out of service. I found a handful of these first Nissan SE-Rs for sale around America, and all but one of them were rough. Here’s one for sale in Minnesota for $5,000, and even it will need some work. I’m not sure if these will ever be as valuable as the more popular Japanese cars from this era, but it seems that if you can find a good one, you will net yourself a proper performance car for not a whole lot of money.
Do you know of a holy grail of a car out there? If so, we want to read about it! Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and give us a pitch for why you think your favorite car is a holy grail.