Unlike many (incl. me) who review the cars, I actually own this one. Mine is "Arrest-Me" Red (or Aztec Red in Nissan code--I've had two tickets already) 6 spd manual, Rockford Fosgate system, and controversial "Lava" interior theme. I bought it used because I HAD TO HAVE IT. As of this update, it has 43000 miles on it.
PERFORMANCE: (because that's what you really want to know if you are reading this review). Fast? Uh, *yeah.* In car talk, there's the old saying, there's no replacement for displacement, and this engine displaces nearly as many liters as most small V6s. This car will do 60 in third gear, still 1500rpms shy of redline, and you have three more forward gears after that. You can't beat it's torque band in this market segment, not even for more money. The CVTCS engine technology is totally seamless, without any lag (unlike Honda's VTEC). The engine will continue to pull, even accelerate up steep hills when already in top gear--try that with an American 4-banger. In Spec-V, the suspension is already as tight as you'll ever need for rallying, let alone commuting. With 4-wheel discs, it stops hard and smooth and soon, which is good if you're going to drive it like it wants to be driven. Power steering is well-balanced, until you get the revs over 4 grand--the torque steer means you have to put your right hand back on the wheel *immediately* after downshifting--or else the torque may pull the wheel out of your left. Well, you could always learn to shift BEFORE you start cornering. This a genuine Nissan design quirk, has been for years, across many models, I don't really understand why but I don't mind it either. The only time it would be a problem is in the snow, but then you shouldn't be that high on the tach in the snow anyway. The Spec-V does have the helical limited slip differential to help out with wheel spin--note to racer boys: this means it's very difficult to squeal or "chirp" the tires, even with the stick shift. Combined with snow tires, this car is very confident in slushy junk.
TRANSAXLE and RUBBER: The SE-R doesn't really need 17" wheels & tires; they are an unnecessary expense, in terms of performance, though they look great. They do contribute to the rough ride as well, exaggerating the already tight suspension. The six-speed box is a not a gimmick--6th is NOT an overdrive or highway gear strictly, and will see much use from me in an attempt to improve MPG. The natural shift points are higher than you might expect, given all the low-end power, but with all that torque on tap, you probably won't remember you need to shift a lot of the time anyway. Many have complained about the shifter being stiff and notchy, and I agree it is not as smooth as the 2003 version that I test-drove, but it gets the job done; only real hassle is that 6th is too close to (and not well blocked off from) Reverse. This can be a pain in parking lots, getting 6th instead of R, but only once have I come close to hitting R instead of 6th (which would have been HORRENDOUS at 65mph).
EQUIPMENT: While I do have the sunroof and audio package, I'm not much impressed with either one--you can't really ever tell if the sunroof is fully closed (it has no "locked" position), and although the Rockford subwoofer sounds nice, the stereo head unit doesn't even have a real equalizer or low-pass filter--I wouldn't have this package if I'd been buying new. I ditched it for a much better Sony that has a better EQ and reads my MP3 discs. At this price, in terms of safety, ABS should be standard equipment; but it only comes with the Side Air Bags option. I've never yet had a car with ABS so the only place I'll miss it is on my insurance premium. The Spec-V does come with power windows, locks, and mirrors, which have withstood harsh northern winters with no problems.
LOOKS and OTHER IMPRESSIONS: The paint/finish on this car is some of the worst I've ever seen, especially on the front edge of the hood, which is also already faded a different color than the bumper/cowl. It still looks ok from a distance, but up close it is all nicks and orange-peel. The finish is even worse than some of the older Jap cars I've owned (back in the 80s), and unfortunately this problem seems typical in Nissan's trucks as well (my dad and sis both own one, a '99 and an '00). The red or yellow colors are also highly visible to the cops (and will boost your insurance just based on that, in many places). The SE-R doesn't really look much different than the lower-end Sentra models, which may bother some people. The "lava" red-themed seats are made of some really cheap, easily-snagged material, and at two years old look more like twenty, especially the front two. They are very comfortable though, with good bolster for all you fellow maniacs out there, and the driver seat is very adjustable (3 ways).
GAS IS $3 a GALLON: Driving to the supermarket rally-style does have a MPG penalty, and this engine does not post impressive numbers for fuel economy even driven sanely, for the EPA or for me. UPDATE: Best I've seen after three months is 24-25mpg around town, feeding it 89 or 91 octane. The most I've ever gotten out of 10 gallons was 282 miles on the highway. I've actually achieved 27mpg consistently by paying for Premium (93), which the engine seems to prefer (and is "recommended" by Nissan).
DEJA VU: The weirdest thing about this car is how similar it is to my old car, a '94 Altima. The powerplant is basically the same, bored out for an extra 100 cc or so, tweaked with some valve-timing wizardry, and crammed into a smaller chassis. Actually, the dimensions of both cars, right down to the wheelbase, are very close. The curb weight on the Spec-V is actually slightly more! But as designs go, the SIMILARITY IS A VERY GOOD THING. I loved my Altima to death, and only this SE-R could replace it.
I personally dig the "sleeper" aspect of Nissan's cars. The Altima was a criminally overlooked vehicle back then, but it turns out all that was needed to make it a show-stopper was a little racer-boy touch, and Nissan has provided exactly that with the SE-R. It is truly a "four-door sports car" (as they used to call the Maxima) and even maxed out with options will cost only about $20K. It's true that the rear seat offers neglible legroom, but at least it has doors to access it, unlike many competing "sports" cars.
COMPLAINTS--WHAT'S UP WITH THE REMOTE TRUNK RELEASE, NISSAN? I had one in my Altima--it was a simple and cheap convenience, one that's standard and functional on much crummier Hyundais, guys. The one in my Sentra has a latch that deactivates the remote release every time the trunk lid closes more than feather-softly, which is often, given the spoiler weighing it down. Then you can only open the trunk with the key. I had to wedge a piece of wood into the stupid latch to keep this from happening. It took a while to get used to the red guages, too. And, just like my Altima, actually putting anything taller than a twelve-ounce can in the cup holder interferes with center stack controls. I can do without that bit of nostalgia.
RELIABILITY: I have had to replace the heater core at 30,000 miles (out of warranty, time-wise) which was an expensive and lengthy repair even with a friendly mechanic. The car has also required new brake pads and rotors on the rear axle, as well as all new wheel studs at right rear position, at only 40,000 miles. Finding brand-name rotors was harder than expected and also expensive. The heat shielding on the spare tire well also came loose and required some creative rivetting. All in all though, I have only spent $700 in maintenance and repairs over three years of ownership.
COMPARING: A new Spec V retails at about $17,500, stripped. Many comparable cars have only 2 doors. A Jetta may have higher end materials inside, but you have to step up to the GL 1.8T to get 180 hp and 5 spd--base models have to be special ordered b/c the ones on the lot tend to be loaded (20K+), plus you get to spend all that quality time in the waiting room at the dealer getting them fixed. For a real rally car, Subie's WRX starts at $100 per hp (227 hp)--and if you don't like the wagon, the sedan actually costs more--typical stickers are $27K. An Acura RSX-S can't be had for less than $24K; the Civic Si runs $19.5--both are only 2 doors. In terms of small import performers, Nissan offers great bang for the buck, and there is already a big aftermarket for this car. Check Edmunds for side-by-sides; in my opinion, most (young!) people in the market for these cars won't want to pay the premium money that Subaru, VW, and Honda are asking for them.
THE FUTURE: Me, I view this as a project car; it already has over $1500 in performance parts on it, including adjustable shocks, cold-air intake and full Greddy exhaust. I have had the car dyno'ed at 169hp at the wheels, which means about 195 or so at the crankshaft, still naturally aspirated. I'm saving for the Nismo camshafts or a supercharger to make sure I get past that number. Already I can smoke any (non-turbo) 4-cylinder Mazda, Honda, Toyota, Ford, Chevy, Pontiac, Saturn, Vdub, or whatever else ya got, at any stoplight anywhere, anytime. Who ever thought you could have this much fun in a little Nissan?
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