"Hey, remember when the Sentra used to be fun?"

That phrase escaped my lips a few months ago during our compact car comparison test, and it met with murmurs of reluctant agreement. The word "Sentra" once had the letters "SE-R" after it, making it the king of sporty compacts, at least for a while. Lately though, it seemed Nissan was happy just making a better Toyota Corolla and calling it a day.                                                    

But things are changing. A few months ago, Nissan unveiled the 2017 Sentra SR Turbo, with the 1.6-liter turbocharged engine you'll find in a Juke coupled to an available 6-speed manual transmission. When we drove the Sentra Turbo on our local roads, we liked it. The extra 58 horsepower made a big improvement in straight-line speed, the manual transmission was an order of magnitude better than the CVT automatic, and the suspension was just firm enough to make the quicker Sentra fun to drive. But, we're greedy, and wanted more, wondering out loud if the speed freaks at Nissan's NISMO performance division would get a crack at it. 

NISMO delivers

Turns out, they did, and we got our first look at the 2017 Nissan Sentra NISMO at the 2016 Los Angeles Auto Show. The improvements start with the cosmetic. There's a new nose with a bumper clearly inspired by the Nissan GT-R, new extensions for the sill panels, a new GT-R-inspired rear bumper, and a small spoiler. The aerodynamic aids are more than cosmetic, with Nissan noting they reduce lift by up to 30 percent, and the red edges on them combine with the NISMO badges to actually make the Sentra look kinda cool. Helping that along are the new 18-inch wheels -- the first 18-inch wheels fitted to a Sentra from the factory -- wrapped in either Michelin Pilot or, if you prefer, even stickier Bridgestone Potenza "Summer" tires.

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Of course, NISMO is backing up its appearance package with added performance. The suspension gets tweaks, with monotube rear shocks, thicker front and rear anti-roll bars, firmer springs, and additional chassis stiffening to take advantage of the bigger tires.  However, power stays the same as the SR Turbo: 188 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque. Color us a little disappointed, considering there's a Nissan Juke with a 201-horsepower version of the same engine.

Performance potential

We got a brief opportunity to check it all out around the streets of downtown Los Angeles, which was helpful, but unless you're being pursued by a killer robot from the future, it's an environment that makes it nearly impossible to test a car's limits. Still, the suspension felt firmer but not too harsh over potholes, the new sport seats were definitely form fitting, and we like the Alcantara-wrapped steering wheel. The shifter still feels like it could use an added dose of crispness, and the electrically assisted steering's feedback won't give a VW GTI night sweats. But the potential is there, and once we get a chance to drive a Sentra NISMO on friendlier roads we'll have a better impression.

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The price looks solid though, with Nissan noting the base price of a Sentra NISMO will be less than $25,000; final prices will be announced closer to the on-sale date in January. Is the fun Nissan Sentra making a comeback? It sure looks like Nissan's trying, and that's fine with us.


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