Why the 2017 Nissan Sentra SR Turbo is Better Than a Mustang Shelby GT350R

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Fittingly it made a grand entrance into my life. There I was, standing alone at an abandoned desert warehouse taking photos of a BMW 330e while on a street drive loop at this year’s MPG Track Days press event, when a colleague of mine sees me, and yanks the handbrake to waltz the 2017 Nissan Sentra SR Turbo into the warehouse parking lot. Grinning from ear to ear, he says, “Dude! You’ve got to drive this next.”

I was already excited. Several Midwestern colleagues of mine got a chance to drive the new boosted Sentra a few days earlier, and they were raving about it. Now my handbrake-yanking colleague could barely contain his excitement. “It’s like a rental car with a turbo and a stick,” he exclaimed.

As we’ve learned from Lord Clarkson, the fastest way between two points is via rental car, but what about a rental car with a turbo and a six-speed manual transmission? Would this be the first vehicle to successfully fold time-space? No, but it can achieve something just as logic-defying. Despite the fact this car is unremarkable at just about everything it does, over the course of two days of caning remarkable cars like the Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R, Ford Focus RS, Jaguar F-Type SVR and Mercedes-AMG C63 S, the car with which I fell deepest in love was the Nissan Sentra SR Turbo.

Can’t believe you just read that? Let me pour salt into the wound. It’s been eight days since I first grasped the Sentra SR Turbo’s 370Z-inspired wheel, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I think I’m in love.

I can hear your cries now. “But the Mazda 3 is sharper to drive, and the Ford Fiesta ST, which undercuts the Sentra SR Turbo’s $22,825 base price by $1,365, is better to drive than the Sentra SR Turbo. Have you lost your mind?” Well, yes, love tends to make you do that. But when you consider the Sentra is one size class above the Fiesta, and that you get copious standard goodies in the Nissan’s base price because it already has all of the SR’s upper-trim-level niceties, this actually adds up to being a performance bargain once you crunch the numbers.

And if you want to add luxury features with the yet-to-be-priced SR Turbo Premium package, which includes leather, Bose audio, blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert, you’re looking at paying in the low- to mid-$25,000 range. That’s still pretty good when you consider that’s less than the similar-performing, fully loaded Kia Forte5 SX at $26,335. But hold on. For $25,000 to $27,000, can’t you put a bare-bones WRX, GTI or Focus ST in your garage?

Yes, however, I’d advise against that and hold firm on spending $23,000 on this car or $25,000 on a loaded one, and here’s why. This car has a better sense of humor than any hot hatch or sport sedan on sale today. All cars today are trying so hard to be good. They take themselves too seriously. Sure, that leads to good products, but I’m bored with everything in the marketplace being good and blemish-free.

The Nissan Sentra SR Turbo isn’t afraid to show you its blemishes. Its interior is good enough, but not best in class; it’s not the best proportioned or most handsome compact car; it has a generous amount of body roll; the clutch pedal, when depressed, meets the firewall in an awkward way that angles your left foot uncomfortably forward; the shifter is rubbery and lacks precision, and with 188 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque lugging around 3,000 pounds, this Sentra’s seven-second 0-60 time isn’t going to set your pants on fire.

So with all those shortcomings, why has it set my heart ablaze? It’s the shortcomings.

Let me ask you a question. Would you have more fun with a bunch of stuffy Ivy League professionals, or a group of down-to-earth community college graduates? This car doesn’t care you only scored 1010 on your SATs. This car doesn’t care you have a zit on your nose. This car wants to trade zit-popping stories with you.

Its laid-back attitude surfaces most prominently on the track. The Sentra’s 205/50R17 Continental ContiProContact tires grip adequately, and are progressive at the limit, which give the chassis more room to show off its character. Lift-off oversteer is very controllable, and the car loved maintenance braking on Big Willow’s transition from turn eight to turn nine by rewarding my inputs with a friendly rotation that set me up for hitting nine’s apex and carrying my momentum onto Willow’s front straight. My personal best on the front straight that day was 107 mph, but my aforementioned handbrake-yanking colleague reported 113 mph. Not bad for an economy car, but the takeaway after a few laps around the racetrack is that the Sentra SR Turbo’s inviting track demeanor lets you focus more on having fun than cracking off the fastest lap time.

Most importantly, the Sentra Turbo reminds me of my favorite car I’ve driven all year: the 2015 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution GSR. The Evo is officially dead now, but it feels as though its Four Loko-infused economy car quirkiness is living on though the Sentra SR Turbo’s flaws, and that’s magnificent.

According to my heart, it’s more magnificent than a Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R. A tally of laps around Willow Springs International Raceway will attest to this. Total laps I completed in the GT350R? Three. Total laps in the Nissan Sentra SR Turbo? 19.

You can’t help who—or in this case what—you fall in love with, but I’ve fallen hopelessly in love with the 2017 Nissan Sentra SR Turbo. It’s like my personal Dacia Sandero, and every time I think about this quirky little Sentra, I can hear James May shouting, “Good News!”


infographic via [Jake Stumph]

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