A Modern Day Datsun 510? Are you SE-R-ious?
In the 70’s Nissan dominated race tracks and rally stages around the world with the Datsun 510, a small, rear-wheel drive economy car built to be a drivers car. In the early '90s Nissan revisited the concept of a compact drivers car with the B13 Sentra SE-R ('91-'94)—a spiritual successor to the 510.
Nissan took their most basic economy car, the Sentra, and packed it with performance minded features (LSD, disc brakes, more power, etc.) to give it sports car like performance for a driver on a budget.
Outside, the SE-R was very unassuming. It looks like its design was inspired by a VCR—though some may argue, it's lines are reminiscent of the E30 3-series. It featured a basic three-box design with no character lines; just straight lines with rounded corners. In SE-R spec, it was a VCR box with a front lip and rear spoiler.
Once you get over the dull exterior, you discover what really made the SE-R fun. Nissan took the age-old formula of taking a lightweight economy car and stuffed a bigger motor under the hood
When most economy cars of the era were barely pushing over 100hp, the SE-R was making 140hp. That was courtesy of a 2.0L SR20DE that made 140hp and revved all the way to 7500 rpm, paired with a 5-speed manual transmission, sending power to the front wheels through a Limited Slip Differential. 0-60 took 7.6 seconds and the quarter-mile in just over 15 seconds. Not neck snapping, but enough oomph to get you to the next corner quickly.
At the time, it was more powerful than the EG Civic Si but cheaper than the DA Integra GS-R. "Often-overlooked" is a phrase frequently associated with the car, which means that the SE-R can still be found cheap—unlike more popular Hondas of the same era, which have seen a slight increase in prices.
The rear torsion beam suspension of the standard Sentra was replaced with a sportier independent rear suspension in the SE-R, in addition to stiffening the suspension and adding larger diameter anti-sway bars. Coupled with the drivetrain and a lightweight of only 2,500 lbs, made the SE-R very tossable when the road got twisty.
Its affordability, features and driving characteristics made it a popular choice among club racers in road racing, autocross, rallycross and even drag racing.
Nissan only offered B13 SE-R for 3 short years from 1991-1994 (although the B13 Sentra lived on until 2017 in Mexico). It was replaced by the 200SX, which never exactly carried the torch for the B13.
The SE-R trim level disappeared until the B15 Sentra in 2002 but just like every car that has evolved, the subsequent generations of the SE-R got fatter and softer.
Nissan still offers a performance model of the Sentra called the Sentra NISMO but no newer generation of the Sentra has been able to carry on the legacy of the legendary B13 SE-R.
These days, SE-Rs (which might as well stand for Seriously Extinct and Rare) are not often found for sale. If you do come across one for sale, it is far from stock and has seen better days. If you happen to find one in decent shape, it may be worth turning into a budget race car—or worth restoring for display at Pebble Beach 2060, or at least Radwood 2020.
If you loved the Datsun 510, you'll love this Nissan IDX concept car that draws tons of inspiration from the 510.