1987 Nissan Sentra Sport Coupe
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.
Why 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.
Inside 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.
One 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.