THE FUN THING about the auto industry is that most of its wars are fought with cars. The shootout in the subcompact segment, 39.6 percent of the U.S. auto market, is a case in point.
The Koreans scored the biggest small-car hit this year with the introduction of their under-$7,000, well-crafted Hyundai Excel. Japanese auto makers, who dominate small-car sales in the United States, were left spinning their wheels -- or so it seemed.
Enter Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. with its 1987 -- yep, 1987 -- line of completely restyled Sentra cars. Talk about quick response! Talk about smarts!
Nissan was in a bit of a marketing bind. Its earlier Sentra subcompacts were selling well. But they were rather drab affairs, almost tinny in some respects -- not appealing enough to keep buyers coming back in the face of less-expensive, but worthy competition from the likes of Hyundai.
So, Nissan ordered up some galvanized steel and spirit, and put them into its spanking new Sentra SE Coupe. If this car is an example of how the Japanese intend to fight back, the Koreans and the rest of the newcomers invading the U.S. small-car market had better come up with some more ammunition.
Outstanding complaint: Easily fixed in what auto makers call a "running production change." The rear-view mirror, attached at both the roof and windshield, is a cumbersome thing that can obscure right-of-center vision, regardless of how the driver's seat and mirror are adjusted. Raise the windshield mount and get rid of the roofline attachment. Okay, Nissan?
Outstanding praise: An overall excellent job of restyling, eliminating nearly all of Sentra's weaknesses. The tinny feeling is gone, kaput. Nissan put more spot welds and other reinforcements into this one. The SE Coupe feels tight and right.
Ah, yes. Those dealers who thrive on selling "undercoating" and other silly "rust-prevention" stuff will have a hard time making a buck like that on this car. Nissan already has done the rust-prevention job with galvanized metals, anti-corrosion wax on all closed surfaces, anti-corrosion sealants on all edges and hinges, and anti-corrosion paint.
Unless you're parking the 1987 Sentra in a damp salt mine, you don't need additional rust or paint treatment.
Ride, acceleration and handling: The Sentra SE Coupe easily matches or exceeds the performance of comparable cars in all three categories. Power comes from a 1.6-liter, four-cylinder, fuel-injected, gasoline engine.
That engine whines a bit in high-speed passing. But the noise is a minor irritant, and does nothing to detract from the SE Coupe's quickness and agility in heavy traffic.
The car seats four. But, for comfort's sake, put the shorter and thinner passengers in the rear.
Head-turning-quotient: A truly flippant, fun design. Should go over great with the under-30, budget-minded, but-we-still-like-to-party set.
Sound system: AM/FM stereo radio by Nissan. High-class boogie. But jazz and classics come out okay, too.
Mileage: About 24 to the gallon (13.2-gallon tank), combined city-highway, running with two occupants and with windows down most of the time.
Price-as-tested: $10,799 (sunroof standard on SE Coupe), including $670 for air conditioner, $220 for two-tone paint, and $210 delivery charge.