The cars we loved.
I never owned a car during much of the time that I was in college, so as graduation time approached, I daydreamed about what my first car might be. It was 1989 and I was short on cash, so my criteria was simple: it had to be cheap, sporty and good on gas. My list included the usual first car suspects like the Civic, Corolla, Escort and Cavalier. The catch of course was that these cars had to be used to be affordable. While the Nissan Sentra was on that list, I had crossed off many of its variations until I spotted the Sports Coupe. The Sports Coupe was the Sentra to the sporty extreme (before the SE-R arrived in America). Other markets may have known it as the Sunny, but there was no confusing it with the sedan, wagon and the other Sentra Coupe (the one with the ungainly hatch). It shared almost no body components with the rest of the Sentra family and that was mostly a good thing.
Like the Toyota Corolla SR5 and Honda Civic S, the Sentra Sport Coupe represented a growing category of sporty small cars. Although the Nissan was far from being a pocket rocket, it offered racy looks and all the benefits of low-cost ownership. The Sentra stood out because of its sleek profile, but its looks were not matched by noteworthy performance. It ranked mid pack in its class, but that did not stop it from being a small hit in looks obsessed ’80s America. Nissan claimed a drag coefficient of just 0.30. The raked windshield and fastback hatch styling certainly put the Nissan in a category visually with more expensive cars like the Celica. The Sport Coupe was available in various trims ranging from no air 5 speed manual LX to fully loaded SE with pop up sunroof. All versions were powered by a buzzy 1.6 litre SOHC engine. The little transversely mounted four cylinder made 84 hp , just 10 or so away from pocket rocket status (based on its competiors).
Not surprisingly, low power was offset by low weight. Even loaded, the Sentra Sports Coupe with air, and automatic transmission weighed in at just 2563 lbs. With the standard 5 speed you could merge with highway traffic to 60 mph in a leisurely 11 seconds and top out at 103 mph. That was probably as fast as anyone would want to go in a car with 13 inch wheels. Despite its sleek aerodynamic shape, the Coupe was subject to wind prone instability at highway speeds making the top speed more theoretical. More than one publication found the Sentra Sports Coupe to be unsettled at speed.
While the engine was smooth and quite at lower speeds, it was rough at high rpm. Plenty of downshifting was needed to maintain momentum on hilly roads. Fuel efficiency was a disappointment, considering how small the engine was. At only 31 mpg, it was not much better than a V6 powered Cavalier of the day. Technically the Sentra Coupe had a big advantage over many of its sub compact rivals in that it had a fully independent suspension and dual anti-sway bars. While this sounded great for handling, the Sentra over steered badly when pushed in corners and was said to lose its composure on rougher road surfaces, a trait associated with many solid rear beam axle cars.
The most attractive attribute of the Sentra Sports Coupe beyond silhouette was the interior. Like many Japanese car interiors of the ’80s it was well laid out with finely detailed switchgear and great stereo options. Sadly, while the interior looked great, build quality was not as good as that from Honda or Toyota.
When it came time to get a car, I ended up with a used Civic. Even at ten years old it was tight, squeak free and fun to drive. I forgot about the Sentra Sport Coupe as it faded away and was replaced in spirit by the Pulsar NX. Nissan would introduce a Sentra SE-R coupe in the United States in 1991. The upright three box design was a considerable advancement over the old Sport Coupe and established new benchmarks for small sporty cars. It also marked the point in which pocket rockets begun to move away from the hatchback form factor in the United States. Today the Sentra has grown up to become an attractive (if not boring) car that has no real sporty variant in the US market as of this writing. The Sport Coupe form factor has not been duplicated in any American bound Nissan since 1989. So I guess looks really aren’t everything.