Skyline Style: The B15 Sentra SE-R

Robert
By Robert Bowen
Sep 16, 2021 | Nissan, Sentra, SE-R, Spec-V, B15 | Posted in Buyer's Guides | From the May 2012 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Courtesy Nissan

[Editor's Note: This article originally rain in the May 2012 issue of Grassroots Motorsports]

Small, sporty sleepers have been enthusiast favorites for decades, and for years Nissan’s entry into this category has been the Sentra SE-R. That original 1991 Sentra SE-R added plenty of punch to Nissan’s economy car platform, including more power, stiffer suspension and even a factory limited-slip differential. The result was simply amazing performance for a base price south of $11,000. Unfortunately, the follow-up SE-Rs lost much of that first car’s panache.

Weight went up, redlines went down, and enthusiasts were no longer enamored with the twist-beam rear suspension used in the late ’90s. The SE-R badge wasn’t one to be confined to the ages, however. Nissan released their all-new, B15-chassis Sentra for 2000. Reviewers liked the new car’s increased interior room and solid construction. In response to the tuner market, Nissan PR teased us with another hotrod Sentra. Dubbed the Disco Potato thanks to its wild, iridescent brown paint job, this one-off machine featured a turbo engine, stiffer suspension and giant wheels and tires.

The Disco Potato showed that there was still a place on the market for a performance-tuned Sentra. In 2002, Nissan responded to consumer demand with the Sentra SE-R and its edgier brother, the SE-R Spec V. These cars occupy a sweet price point today. Values are depreciated, performance is still strong by today’s standards, and good cars abound on the secondhand market.

Monster Meats and Torque

That 2002 Sentra SE-R followed a path blazed a decade earlier: more power and more stick. The Disco Potato’s turbocharged engine didn’t make it into production, but the car did get more grunt. Thanks to similarities with the maker’s larger cars, the SE-R received a 2.5-liter four-cylinder from the Altima. 

This new QR25DE engine made plenty of power, even if it didn’t like to rev to the stratosphere. In SE-R tune, it was rated at 165 horsepower. The 180 lb.-ft. of torque made up for some of the loss of revvability and helped make the heavy cars feel faster than they were.

The real star of the show was the SE-R Spec V. In place of the SE-R’s five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission was a six-speed transaxle fitted with a helical limited-slip differential. Performance rubber on 17-inch alloys replaced 16-inch wheels. Horsepower went up to 175.

Suspension tuning was firmer than on the SE-R, too, with more aggressive rear roll stiffness. Larger front brakes round out the major mechanical differences. As before, Nissan offered a lot of performance for the price. For around $17,000, buyers could drive off the lot with a new Spec V.

Inside, the Spec V had unique red and black upholstery on a more aggressive seat design. Both versions received the same distinctive exterior bits: blacked-out headlight trim, a rear spoiler and an aggressive front bumper. 

Half-Baked Potatoes

Reviews of the new SE-R and Spec V were mixed. Most testers loved its engine’s torque and the grip offered by the helical limited-slip differential. Big tires and stiffer suspension gave the car impressive road holding: A few testers measured peak lateral acceleration around the .85g mark. 

Its seats were noted as comfortable and supportive, but that’s about where the praise stopped. The Spec V was given very short gearing to make the most of the QR engine’s torque, and the buff books frequently faulted this since the car required third gear to reach 60 mph. 

The second issue was the car’s inconsistent real-world performance. While it felt fast, timed data revealed an engine that didn’t always deliver the same performance run after run. 

Other nitpicking revolved around the overall fit and finish of the interior. It didn’t seem as nice as the rest of the field, but remember: The SE-R was priced below its competition. 

Unfortunately, after the launch a few more issues started to surface. One was a tendency for the engine to consume excessive oil. A few engines even failed catastrophically. Numerous TSBs tried to head off the problem; Nissan developed several software updates for the ECU in an attempt to address the root issue. Many early QR25 engines were replaced under warranty. 

The cause? Bits of catalyst got sucked into the engine during overlap. 

Another issue took a few more engines out of service: The tiny screws that secured the secondary throttle valves would occasionally vibrate loose and go into the combustion chamber.

These problems are less common today. Upgrades eliminated those issues for 2003, and many 2002 engines were replaced under warranty long ago. Transmission gearing was revised for 2003 so the Spec V could reach 60 mph in second gear.

The B15-chassis SE-R continued through the 2006 model year, and while they may not enjoy the cult status of the original, these cars now make comfortable, practical daily drivers and track toys.

Things to Know

The B15-chassis Nissan Sentra SE-R and Spec V make fun, inexpensive daily drivers. Since we like to row our own gears, we’d have to go with a Spec V model or an early SE-R.

Engine and Drivetrain

“We’ve found that the stock motors, even from 2002 to 2003, last for a long time if you change the oil often,” says Joe Ippolito of B15 Sentra specialists 2J Racing.

“For a street car, the catalytic converter is the one weak point because it’s known to break up and destroy the engine,” says Kyle Millen of longtime Nissan tuning house Stillen Motorsports. “Other than that, some heads have trouble since the combustion chamber has a thin wall and tends to crack around the top.”

Removing the upper plenum and adding a drop of threadlocker to all of the secondary runner butterfly screws is a prudent, 30-minute project, says Ippolito.

“The 2004-and-up ECU runs on a CAN bus system and can be tuned via Uprev tuning software,” Ippolito explains. “The 2006 is the best because it has a factory wideband O2 sensor and can make air/fuel ratios almost perfect, even with a turbocharger.” The 2004-and-up cars also use a much more reliable MAF sensor, he adds. 

The 2004 gear ratios are the best of the three variants for performance, Ippolito says. 

Both Millen and Ippolito recommend an exhaust header. Figure it’s worth 7 to 12 horsepower, but Ippolito warns that not all are created equal. 

Enthusiasts often remove the balance shafts with a Jim Wolf Technology kit. This move adds a quart of oil capacity and, according to Ippolito, frees up some horsepower. Removing the shafts does introduce some annoying harmonic resonances, however.

Kyle Millen recommends the JWT cam set: “We were very surprised when we saw 200 horsepower at the wheels with the cam set, new valve springs and a 7700 rpm redline thanks to the QR-Pro.”

The QR25 engine does take to turbocharging, but consider stronger aftermarket pistons and rods. “Anything over 350 horsepower breaks [the stock] rods,” Ippolito adds. 

A V6-powered SE-R? Yes, it’s possible, and 2J Racing can make that swap a reality. The 2002-’06 Nissan Maxima VQ35 is almost a direct bolt-in. The weight gain is about 37 pounds.

Body and Interior

The B15 holds up well to abuse, but don’t be surprised by worn leather on the steering wheel, scratched dash plastic, and snagged seat upholstery. 

The Lava interior looks cool—well, to us, anyway—but the fabric stains easily. 

Suspension and Brakes

Kyle Millen recommends combining Eibach springs with Koni shocks. It’s what he runs on his street car. 

The rear twist beam has a very high roll center, and 2J has found that replacing the Scott Russell link with their Panhard rod can make the front and rear roll centers work better together.

The factory rear alignment often has a ridiculous amount of toe-in—some cars have as much as 1/4 inch built into the beam. A good alignment shop can tweak the beam to give neutral toe, which makes for a more predictable transition to oversteer. 

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Comments
View comments on the GRM forums
Jordan Rimpela
Jordan Rimpela GRM+ Memberand Digital Editor
6/21/19 1:38 p.m.

When was the last time you saw one of these on the road?

Professor_Brap
Professor_Brap GRM+ Memberand Dork
6/21/19 1:40 p.m.

In reply to Jordan Rimpela :

Every day. there is a local guy who loves these. 

spacecadet
spacecadet GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
6/21/19 1:42 p.m.

In reply to Jordan Rimpela :

I have a friend who bought one last fall. They love to destroy cats and cause the motors to fail catastrophicly apparently and that's why my friends are getting rid of their already after 6 months of ownership. 

I imagine this is a large part of why you even have to ask this question and they're not all running around with buzzy exhausts and teenagers at the wheel.. 

Run_Away
Run_Away Dork
6/21/19 1:49 p.m.

Nissan should have put the VQ35 V6 in it factory and created an SRT-4 killer. It would have been very easy.

Streetwiseguy
Streetwiseguy MegaDork
6/21/19 2:06 p.m.

I owned two that I had bought from salvage.  I really enjoyed driving them, especially the one with the Brembo brake package.  Shame about the engine killing cats.  I'd imagine that sent more of them to the wrecking yard than anything else.

Tyler H
Tyler H GRM+ Memberand UberDork
6/21/19 2:18 p.m.

Drove one long ago when they were nearly new.  The Spec V had some mighty torque steer as I recall.  

These seem like they would make great LeMons candidates, but I can't recall seeing one.

nutherjrfan
nutherjrfan UltraDork
6/21/19 2:19 p.m.

anyone who didn't know about the cat issue either doesn't have internet or spent all their time watching dumb yt/ig vids.  Heck even being on faceballs you couldn't miss stories about that problem.  But it does make our hobby much cheaper.

Now I'd like to state these kinds of articles impact my ability to get one of these for a song in the next year or so.

There are consistently 2 - 3 different ones popping up on the DC CL every week and for under $3k. 

I'll have to read the article to remind myself of the 'Skyline' front bumper cover years. smiley

TurnerX19
TurnerX19 HalfDork
6/21/19 3:42 p.m.

One of the pizza delivery guys in my neighborhood runs one of thesesurprise Also seems to be the only one around too.

Streetwiseguy
Streetwiseguy MegaDork
6/21/19 3:55 p.m.
nutherjrfan said:

anyone who didn't know about the cat issue either doesn't have internet or spent all their time watching dumb yt/ig vids.  Heck even being on faceballs you couldn't miss stories about that problem.  But it does make our hobby much cheaper.

Now I'd like to state these kinds of articles impact my ability to get one of these for a song in the next year or so.

There are consistently 2 - 3 different ones popping up on the DC CL every week and for under $3k. 

I'll have to read the article to remind myself of the 'Skyline' front bumper cover years. smiley

If you find one, I went two ways.  First one got rings, second one got an engine from a highway driven automatic transmission Altima.  Both were successful, but I made more money parting out the rest of the Altima.

Both got Chinese headers, too.

irish44j
irish44j MegaDork
6/21/19 4:22 p.m.
Run_Away said:

Nissan should have put the VQ35 V6 in it factory and created an SRT-4 killer. It would have been very easy.

I came here to say this. Or at least a VQ30DE-K.

Though I do know a guy who put the VQ35 in, and it was an extremely tight fit and required some customization. Not a drop-in ....

Vigo
Vigo MegaDork
6/22/19 9:19 a.m.

There's a vq35 swap into one documented on this forum.

kazoospec
kazoospec UltraDork
6/22/19 11:19 a.m.

Sometimes I miss mine.  Then I remember pulling the dipstick ever couple weeks and thinking, "I wonder how much oil it burned THIS time?"  Then I remember why I sold it.  

EDIT:  I should say that a fairly simple loctite fix on the intake screws and header replacement greatly improves longevity.  The problem is you don't know how much damage has already been done.  Mine had about 45K on it when I bought it if memory serves and it was just starting to use oil.  I did the two fixes, drove it for several years and sold it approaching 100K without any major issues.  I never really trusted it because of the oil usage, however.  It was never QUITE enough for Nissan to replace the motor, but enough to always bug me.  

boxedfox
boxedfox Reader
6/24/19 10:26 p.m.

On the track, these things would eat outside front tyres like nothing else. The rear beam gave the car so much grip that it completely overpowered the fronts. End result was that it would chew up the fornt tyres whenever you asked it to turn in.

te72
te72 Reader
6/25/19 12:31 a.m.

Perhaps an ignorant question, but how did the cat cause the engine to fail? I've heard of engines running too rich killing cats, but never the other way around?

 

Then again, I've only ever owned one Nissan, and never heard of this issue from any other car... rare issue in the car world?

kazoospec
kazoospec UltraDork
6/25/19 5:03 a.m.

In reply to te72 :

Apparently, during certain conditions, the engine would "scavenge" from the exhaust header and draw the broken down cat material into the motor, damaging the cylinder walls.  This would cause progressively worsening oil consumption and, eventually, engine death.  The solution was to ditch the stock header for an aftermarket header which was either catless or at least had the cat farther away from the block.  A "stand alone" air/fuel controller also supposedly helped keep the fuel/air mixture consistent and slightly leaner during heavy duty cycles.  Both also generated a decent power bump.   

skillit
skillit None
8/17/19 5:12 p.m.

I had to join just to post this. I bought a Spec-V new in February of 2003. I still drive it every day. 210,000 miles, original engine, original transmission, origina clutch somehow... AMA.
I wouldn't necessarily recommend them, except as a toy. But mine has been good to me. :D
https://photos.app.goo.gl/RBSEW61yyPkhqUXN7

fanfoy
fanfoy Dork
8/18/19 9:29 a.m.

I owned two of these. A 2002 and a 2006. They were quite different. While I quickly got rid of the 2002, I kept the 2006 for three years (a long time for me) and I really liked it.

The ones to get are the 2006's. They introduced a bunch of small changes to the engine and brakes that should have been there from the start. They finally made the engine reliable for that year. Mine had 118k miles with the cat still in place and didn't burn a single drop of oil. And it had a hard life of drag racing and autocross. The rear discs are bigger (even though the every parts store will tell you they are the same size as 2002-2005), which helps with the modulation. 

Then I made the mistake of modifying it and I eventually sold it.

If you could find a stock 2006, I think they could still be a great choice to run in HS class. The HLSD is great, I was able to get -1 deg of negative camber in front with the stock suspension and the rear beam does not have too much grip because there is always a wheel in the air. 

 

ProDarwin
ProDarwin UltimaDork
8/18/19 9:38 a.m.

I see one in my driveway every day.  Its for sale.

The diff makes these fun off road.

Knurled.
Knurled. MegaDork
8/18/19 11:47 a.m.
kazoospec said:

In reply to te72 :

Apparently, during certain conditions, the engine would "scavenge" from the exhaust header and draw the broken down cat material into the motor, damaging the cylinder walls.

This was also a fault in the 2.5l Contour/Mystique/Cougar.  The cats would break up, resonance would drive the chunks back up into the engine, and the engine would die catastrophically.

 

Ford did a recall and replaced the converters.

ProDarwin
ProDarwin UltimaDork
8/18/19 11:53 a.m.
Knurled. said:
kazoospec said:

In reply to te72 :

Apparently, during certain conditions, the engine would "scavenge" from the exhaust header and draw the broken down cat material into the motor, damaging the cylinder walls.

This was also a fault in the 2.5l Contour/Mystique/Cougar.  The cats would break up, resonance would drive the chunks back up into the engine, and the engine would die catastrophically.

 

Ford did a recall and replaced the converters.

Didn't the 1zz in the MRS have the same issue as well?

2002colossalfailure
2002colossalfailure Reader
8/18/19 3:50 p.m.

I saw a bright yellow one at the Detroit Auto Show in 2001 (or 2, I forget) and bought a new one in 2003.  Lots of TSD rallies and autocrossing.  Sold it in 2011, but wish I didn't.  It was a fun car and mine, at least, was relaible.

Bsbell80
Bsbell80
9/25/19 7:46 p.m.

In reply to Run_Away :

I believe I own one of the few VQ35 swapped Sentras. It is a blast to drive. Not the best handling car I’ve owned, but it’s very quick and very fun!

DirtyBird222
DirtyBird222 UberDork
9/25/19 10:44 p.m.

Didn't these have timing chain issues as well or am I mistaken? 

Always thought they were great sleepers even though I don't hold a very high opinion on Nissan products. 

Brian K
Brian K New Reader
9/26/19 8:02 p.m.

I have a 2006 Spec V that I bought three years ago.  It had 99,000 on it, was stock, and I am the 7th owner.  Odds weren't in my favor, but it's been good to me.  I swapped out the exhaust manifold for a cheap ebay header right away to try and limit the cat issue.  The 06s had different butterfly screws so I never bothered loctiting those.  It's my rallycross car and other than I keep busting the original and rusted exhaust I don't have too many issues with it.  However, I don't drive it much other than events.  I've only put about 5,000 miles on it in the three years I've had it.

GeddesB
GeddesB New Reader
9/17/21 7:02 p.m.

Bought this one this summer.  $1K 19x,xxx miles.  I'm the third owner.  RallyX and daily driver.  Love the little bugger. 

dean1484
dean1484 GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
9/18/21 7:06 a.m.

In reply to GeddesB :

Really like that color on that car!!!  

MrFancypants
MrFancypants Reader
9/18/21 12:30 p.m.

I had a 2002 Spec V in black. It was a relatively new, low mileage car that I sold at about 50k miles, so I never experienced any of the issues it's become know for. The person I sold it to got at least another 50k out of it before it had any problems.

The car was autocrossed every other weekend, drag raced, and run at track days. It lived a hard life and held up as well as you'd expect.

It's main weird handling quirk was that it was really sensitive to tire pressures. If they were off the car had a serious issue with understeer at every point in a corner. If you got it right it tracked well, still leaning towards understeer... but the front would bite better when you lifted the throttle.

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