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1987 Nissan Sentra Sport Coupe

004I've been wanting to write about this car for a while, so I finally pulled out an old photo album, copied the prints, and went to work.

And this is why: When I worked at the Nissan plant here in Tennessee (Where they now build the Leaf), they had a very affordable Lease Car Program. A version of it still survives. Any full-time Nissan employee, after 8 months of employment, was eligible for the program. The only requirement? You had to have a driver's license; your previous driving record was of no concern.

You could order any Nissan vehicle that was sold in the US and wait about three months for its arrival. The Infinity Division had not yet been born while I was there; I don't know if they are available now or not. But a stripped Sentra could be had back then for as little as $88 a month, and a 300ZX Turbo was, if memory serves, around $270. The BIG NEWS was that insurance was included, with a $250 deductable.

So for a whopping sum of approximately $185 a month, I had the unlimited use of this custom-ordered Sentra Sport Coupe SE. I had seen a prototype/early production model in the plant's Quality Assurance Department for whatever reason (They were never built in Tennessee), and immediately had to have one. The car you see here is the first white Sport Coupe delivered in Tennessee, or so I was told.

This car stickered for about $12,000 in 1986, which was pretty pricey for a Sentra. The monthy payment, deducted from your wages, covered the car and all maintenance, including wear items such as tires. You did have to put your own gas in it.

003Why did I get a Sport Coupe? Well, in 1986, I thought it offered the best value of any Nissan vehicle sold in America. Also, I thought the car perfected the wedge design of the '80s; even the wheel arches flared a little so all the lines didn't look like they were drawn with a ruler. And its side window profile closely resembled the stylish Fiero, which had been on the road for about three years before the Sport Coupe came along.

This car did not share any body panels or interior pieces with the other Sentras, so it didn't project "basic economy" like the rest of the family. Nor was it a starchy Stanza. The car stood alone in the Nissan lineup, at least in my eyes -- it was almost a luxury/sport/economy coupe. Almost.

And I think that if Nissan had gone one step farther and not had its major flaw (which we will get to here in a bit), not only would it have been a class leader, but perhaps an icon... I really thought that much of the car.

002Inside the car, it felt very upscale and "sporty." The door panels felt thick and solid. Its firm cloth seats had proper side bolsters and multiple adjustment points... this was the first car I ever had with an adjustable lumbar support.

An AM/FM Stereo radio was standard, but a tape deck was extra. Nissan was just getting away from mid-1980s BMW-style orange dashboard lighting, and the Sport Coupe glowed a pleasant Ford-like green.

However, nobody told Nissan's parts suppliers about the changeover, so my car had green gauges and radio lighting, and an orange tape deck light. Oh well, nothing's perfect I suppose.

Power windows, door locks, and remote entry systems were unheard of in a Sentra in 1986, and remained so for years to come. It had a primitive tilt wheel, where the entire column moved up and down. Cruise control? Sorry, gotta move up to the Stanza to get that too. But at least the outside mirrors had cables and levers at your beck and call.

I wanted fog lights (A typical 1980s car accessory), but I could only get Dark Ages-style amber-lensed fog lights for some unknown reason. I wanted clear ones, so I skipped them.

The Sport Coupes came in two models; XE and SE. The SE was superior in that it had a dark silver lower body and bumper treatment, over the XE's unicolored body and black bumpers. The SE also had aluminum wheels and a sunroof. There may have been a couple of other minor detail differences.

The Sport Coupe handled like, well, a sport coupe should. Even though it was built on the regular B12 Sentra chassis, it had front and rear anti-roll bars and stiffer shocks. I recall that it had lower profile tires as well.

Oh yes... the car had a major flaw. Though it completely hid its Sentra/Sunny underpinnings, it also had the same engine... and that's where the car failed. As elegant as the car looked and as well as it drove, it felt like at least one cylinder was not firing.

Nissan_Sentra_SE-R_EngineOne source says that the 1987 Sport Coupe, then later all 1988 Sentras, had the E16i (1.6-litre I-4 throttle body EFI) engine that gave a whopping 70 horsepower. That seems a little low, but I can't dispute that either.

And there was a perfect answer... but it came a little late. In 1991, the Sentra SE-R arrived. Had its 140-horsepower engine (Shown here) been born in the Sport Coupe, I feel it would have been a benchmark car... unique styling, great handling, tons of power on tap, affordable. You know... the whole ball of wax.

I drove a 5-speed; an automatic was also offered, but still, coming out of the corners, there just wasn't much power there. At least it passed a lot of gas stations.

I could only find one decent ad that shows the Sport Coupe:

 

After about nine months with a lease car, you had some options. First, order another car and turn in your year-old one when the new one arrives. Second, do nothing and turn your car in after 12 months. The third option was to buy your lease car if you wanted. Had my leased Sport Coupe had the power, I probably would have bought it, and maybe kept it to this day.

So maybe with just a few more features, refinement, and power, this car could have been a legend. It was close... so close.

--That Car Guy (Chuck)

Image Credits: The first three photos of the Sport Coupe were taken the day I brought it home. The Sentra SE-R engine image is from SpannerHead.com.

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Yes! Great car!

The "good old days" of Japanese cars in the U.S....back when they did make unique "sport" versions of basic sedans...Toyota too had a sporty coupe based on a Corolla...and even a unique body style for its AWD Corolla wagon starting in 1989.

And general styling and parts of the Sentra look familiar. The year before, I treated myself to my first sports car, a 1985 300ZX (the second year r the "folded paper" design).
T-tops, digital dash...the works. I can't recall if it had leather or not. Nice car...but m,y ownership was brief because I had to sell it when I was transferred to the UK two years later. My brother had a similar 87 model which he enjoyed for a number of years.

That's a neat little car.

If only I could still buy new sporty cars with simple adjustable mirrors (why power?), no PW, no PDL, no auto climate control... But solid seats and fabrics. Long live my 92 GTI 16v. The Sentra SER of 1993 was the last car I ever thought I could consider purchasing based on it's similar packaging. I agree with the article, the engine was gutless for this car's intentions. With Toyota FX 16's offered for about 800 bucks more in standard form, complete with a competent DOHC 16v, why bother with the Sentra Sports coupe? (aside from the styling)

Sounds a little like my '85 CRX--sweet handling, but perhaps a mite underpowered. As with the CRX, there has to be a proven recipe or three for badassing the engine bay to give it the power it deserves.

I always thought it would be sweet to find a wrecked SE-R and drop its engine into a Sport Coupe. Everything should bolt right up.

Not only would this hatch become hot, it would be a sleeper and finally get the power it deserved.

When I was in high school, my folks bought a used '89 Sentra SE 2-door for me (and presumably, my sister) to drive. Even without the sport suspension and 15" wheels, it still handled pretty well. I had insisted on a manual transmission, which could get you to 60 in about 10 seconds. I did discover that it would indeed peg the 105 MPH speedo, so that was something. Also, you could easily see 25 MPG in everyday driving - my personal best was an average of 42 MPG on the freeway. It wasn't bad to look at, easy to drive, and big enough for most of my needs. Even with the abuse of a young male driver, things seldom broke and were fairly cheap to fix when they did. Would I own another one? Yeah. If I had to. I guess. But I would definitely hit a salvage yard for suspension and drivetrain upgrades!

Sweet post! So there was more to them that met the eye.

About 5 years ago, a computer professor had one and was in the automotive technicians' garage. That's when I got a good look at it.

The wedginess and heavy 80s feel took me by surprise. The styling grew on me. The more I saw, the more I liked it.

Back then, I was still a bit newb-ish with Datsun/Nissans when I saw this car.
I thought it was related to the S-chassis (Nissan 240SX) and thought it was RWD. While looking at the thing, I zoned out as I imagined myself drifting the thing. My grin gave me away, when one of my classmates, IIRC was the S14 Nissan 240SX owner with an RB-series work-in-progress engine swap, said to me with a sly grin of his own, 'You like it, huh?' With my stupid grin I agreed with him before going back to class or something.
Soon I realized it was a Sentra. Though this hampered the whole drifting dream, I still found them to be interesting little cars.

I do have one question: What type of rear suspension did it have?

Tigerstrypes: I left this out because it didn't directly pertain to the Sport Coupe, plus it would have added length. But, according to Wiki:

"The B12 chassis would be the last chassis to offer a station wagon model, which was marketed as the "California" in some Asian markets. Even more rare are the four-wheel drive versions of the station wagon, offered as an option in 1987, 1988 and 1989 model years. These models featured an electrically activated single-range transfer case to drive the independently suspended rear wheels, making the car a selectable four-wheel-drive (not all-wheel-drive) vehicle."

So... get the rear drive pieces from a 4WD wagon, disconnect the FWD bits (Or make THEM electronically-controlled if possible), drop in the SE-R engine, and you potentially have your drift-mobile.

We can dream, can't we? :)

Back in '88 a good friend of mine bought a new Sentra 2-door (not the Sport Coupe), the total bare-bones model with A/C is its only option. Even had a 4-speed manual (like I said, bare bones). The funny thing was another friend of ours had a fully-loaded '87 Pontiac Sunbird coupe (as loaded as you could get for one of those, anyway), and I remember that bare-bones Sentra almost feeling like a Maxima by comparison to that Pontiac, it was so much better built and solid-feeling - even surprisingly fun to drive.

IMHO the Sentra seriously lost its way with the 1995 redesign, too bloated and just became flat-out ugly. Only recently has it become relevant in the compact-car race again.

I was in love with that car when I was a teenager. My older sister had a red 88 SE 5spd. The inside was plush and I loved the green lit up inside lights at night. That car had more character than any car I have ever come across. I thought the styling was incredible. I would like to find an SE 5spd in mint condition. I think it would be a great collector car.

I agree with Yankee. Not only did the car's get bloated in 1995 (I did not care for the coupe models in 94 either) but the reliability record somehow went to poop on Consumer Guide. When prior models always seemed to shine.

I have an 1987 hatch with 83,566 miles on it replaced the head gasket hesitates to start but runs fine after idling down. It's an automatic. When I put it in reverse or drive it dies out immediatly. If there's anyone who can help I'm all ears. Write me at barringtonc@gmail.com with any info about the car.


I purchased a 1989 Sentra Sport Coupe SE in 2007 with 155,000 miles for the sum of $650. It leaked a little oil and the owner thought there were engine problems (which turned out to be a bad spark plug). I just finished putting a new alternator and main seal in it about a week ago. Other than needing new shocks bad, this car is still running strong as hell..and I've never had the head off or done any major engine work. Sport Coupes are great cars and the GA16i motor in the 89s (despite their low horsepower), are bulletproof. Thanks for writing about the sport coupe. Our opinions of the car are about the same.

Chuck, if you receive these comments via e-mail, can you get in touch? I was wondering if I could get higher-res versions of your Sentra Sport Coupe photos. My wife had this exact car when we met 22 years ago and later gave to a niece in Washington. She still misses that car! I was hoping to make a gift of a framed photo, but she does not have any. E-mail is jimk at audamotive.com

do u know what the casting # is for an '87 E16s Sentra Coupe? Having a hard time determining if it's a 31M or 33M, thanks!

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