There has always been a secret love ferreted away in a deep, dark place in my heart. That love is for Nissan, or as they prefer to be called these days, "Ummmm, no, not Honda or Toyota, the other Japanese one. No, not Subaru..." Nissan Motor Company, who are not the owners of the website www.nissan.com (extremely Cam'ron face), make cars - yes, still. Currently, they're pretty well faded into the white noise of the car industry; It seems you either buy Nissan and ONLY Nissan, or you notice them once every 18 months. But here's the thing about Nissan: throughout their history, Nissan has made some of the best and most iconic cars in the history of the industry, across all price ranges, across many vehicle types, and while they have mostly played the dark hose role in American car culture, the name Nissan at least used to hold some weight. It used to be that Nissan showered car culture all over the world with little playful twists on cars for car people. They had love for the people who love cars, and so Nissan themselves became lovable. But that's not the way it is anymore. In the last few years Nissan has utterly abandoned people who love cars, and so I'm breaking up with them, probably forever. These next few blogs will be my somewhat long Dear John letter to Nissan, where I'll explain to them why we're breaking up. Typing that out a second time, I now realize that a Dear John is a pretty outdated reference...I mean, this is basically Drake's In My Feelings but for cars. Damn, should have called it that.
I learned about Nissan the same way every real 90s kid did: Gran Turismo. Please press the pink button to seal your Rose-Tint apparatus in place and prepare for the Orbitz enema, because you already know how this part goes. Car people need no reminding of the absolute heat Nissan crammed into that one game: Silvia, 240SX, Skyline, Pulsar, GT-R, 300ZX, all names which hold legend status. Obviously Nissan was selling actual cars in America in the 90s, including the 240SX, but I can't remember ever seeing one until the early 2000s, when the late 90s Sentras, Maximas, and Altimas had trickled down to older brothers and sisters, and tuner culture was absolutely dominant. Maybe it was my lateness in coming to cars as a hobby, but by the time I really began to notice Nissans on the street, the 350z was already out, so that would mean it was the early 2000s, let's say 2001...yeah, that timeline syncs up just about perfectly.
Here's where I'm going to name-drop a car I didn't know about when it was new on lots, and I'm very tempted to lie about it here and say that I liked this car before it was cool, but it still isn't a cool car now, and the truth is I only found out about this car four or five years ago when a friend of mine bought one. I'm talking about the Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V. Aside from having a really appalling name, and coming from a notoriously boring if reliable nameplate, the Spec V is a pretty special car. Here's a picture:
Okay, okay, there's nothing terribly appealing about that, you're probably thinking. But now let's put the Sentra next to the 2001 Nissan Skyline, after which the Spec V was designed:
Nobody is going to confuse one for the other obviously, but there are some excellent visual symmetries between the two. It takes some stones to make your cheapest car look like your most exotic and expensive one. The Sentra wasn't all looks, either. The Spec V came from the factory with 175 HP and 185 ft/lbs, channeled to the road through a six-speed manual and a limited-slip differential. It did 0-60 in just a titch over 7 seconds, and indeed the only car in the segment that was faster was the Dodge Neon SRT-4. The Spec V still holds one major advantage over the SRT-4, however: any Spec V that wasn't crashed is still running today.
By the way, let's take a second here and look at Car and Driver's 2003 affordable performance roundup. All of these cars could be yours for $20,000:
If that isn't a murderer's row of companies that used to make dope cars. Remember when Ford made cars? Remember when Dodge tried to make cars? Remember when Mazda made fast cars? Remember when Nissan made cool cars? Also, are you coming around on the looks of the Spec V yet? the early 2000s were a gross time in car design.
The Spec V was lightly refreshed in 2004, and then followed along with the 2007 refresh of the Sentra, to become the baby racer version of Nissan's new top-tier supercar, the R35 GT-R.
Come on! I mean, come on! You have to love a company that pulls the designs for its affordable performance car directly from its own halo car. Who else does this? Audi might be the only other company, and unlike Nissan, Audi has a single design language that applies throughout their whole range. This newer generation of Spec V jumped up to 200 HP, 4 wheel disc brakes, the limited-slip diff came back again, and so did a whole host of suspension upgrades and tunes. In short, Nissan was making the Spec V line specifically for people like me: Car people who don't want or need anything more than a really good driving experience in a car that truly fits their every day life without compromise.
The Spec V was discontinued in 2012 and unfortunately its like has never been seen again, not from Nissan and not from any other car maker either. Ugh okay, fine, I'll talk about the Sentra Turbo and Sentra Nismo models Nissan pinched off last year. We CEP lads saw the Sentra Nismo at the Chicago Auto Show last year, and Nick and I both instantly fell in love. I was in transports of ecstasy because at that very moment I was in the market for a car, specifically a car that fit my everyday life and would offer some performance and a good driving experience. This would be a new challenger! The Sentra Nismo seemed like a throwback to the Spec V, even though it didn't use the name. I mean, yeah, it was super ugly on the outside, but the interior was premium, and fit like a glove. There was a manual shifter in the middle, a limited slip diff in the front, and a 1.6L turbocharged engine under the hood, conspiring together to make...Pre-Production Model Performance Figures Not Available. Shit. I asked the Nissan rep if we could get more information, and she told me that both the Sentra Turbo and Nismo would be released in May of 2017, and expected on lots in June, but she didn't know any of the numbers on the car. Not price, not performance, nothing.
I should have known then, but I didn't. I thought "Nismo is Nissan's performance house. If there's anybody in the whole world to trust with making a hot Sentra, it's gotta be them." But nah. They phoned it in on both hot Sentras. Actually, they had somebody else phone it in for them. First, and very different to every other Nismo car that Nissan has ever made, the Nismo Sentra doesn't get a performance increase over the Turbo Sentra. It's just a cosmetic upgrade. Second, both hot Sentras have a pathetic 188 HP. Third, the Turbo Sentra has the most unintuitive and dissatisfying shifter I've ever encountered. Worse than a manual golf cart, worse than shaking hands with a recalcitrant parakeet, worse than trying to race with a Tiptronic. To top all of THAT off, you can't realistically touch a Nismo Sentra for less than $26,000. That's $1000 more than a Civic Si, a car that will bounce the Sentra in every imaginable category! Both hot Sentras were dead in the water before they even had a chance. I was brokenhearted about it, to be completely honest. I think that without really realizing it, I had built up a mythology for Nissan in my head. I thought that they would come with a strong offering that would slot them right back in to the hot hatch wars of the 2010s right next to the Gamma Hyundai twins, the Kia Forte SX, and the Civic Si. I thought that Nissan was coming to save me. But...they didn't. Instead, they broke my heart. And the new Sentra isn't the only way.
There are two more parts to this letter coming up, so be sure to tune in next time when this extended Dear John letter carries on. The next topic up for discussion: The Nissan Juke.