Wind the clock back 25 years: The Nissan B13 Sentra SE-R is one of the hottest and most critically acclaimed performance compacts of its decade. But now? Now you hardly ever hear its name mentioned—if at all. What gives?
Called the B13 for the platform it rode on, the B13 SE-R was produced from 1991 to 1994 and was a hit for Nissan during its short production time. The car changed the automotive landscape by proving that compact cars could be fun, fast, and affordable. Yet the B13 SE-R has been all but forgotten by most enthusiasts, and that's a shame. If you're in the market for a fun Japanese classic, the SE-R could be what you're looking for. Not only are they still entertaining today, but they are easy to wrench on, have a small but loyal community, and can currently be found for a decent price.
Long ago, before the Age of the Turbos, performance compacts had high-revving, naturally aspirated engines mated to manual transmissions—a purist's dream. In the Sentra SE-R, power came from Nissan's legendary SR20DE inline four-cylinder. It produced 140 hp and revved all the way to a 7500-rpm redline. There was no turbo lag or muted engine note as with sport compacts today; the SE-R responded immediately to throttle inputs and required constant shifting to remain in its peaky power band.
To complement the SR20DE engine, the Sentra SE-R came with a Viscous Limited Slip Differential. This allowed every bit of power to be transmitted to the pavement and significantly improved handling. In fact, the handling was so good for a front-drive car that the SE-R was often compared to the BMW 2002—high praise for a $14,000 econobox.
By far the biggest advantage of the Sentra was its weight. Weighing less than 2500 lbs, the car was nimble and peppy. The suspension could keep stable through hard cornering, and while the SR20DE only produced 140 horsepower, it was more than enough to get the car moving quickly.
In 1990, when we reviewed the original Nissan Sentra SE-R, we were full of praise. "The SE-R has an exterior that belies its character," wrote R&T editor Andrew Bornhop. "Mild aerodynamic aids, such as a front air dam and a trunk-mounted rear spoiler, give it the appearance of a spruced-up grocery-getter rather than the shark it really is."
Along with its overall performance, another reason in-the-know enthusiasts love the SE-R is the engine's reliability and easy maintenance. The SR20DE was originally designed for the European market Primera, a small sedan that later became the Infiniti G20. Nissan's goal for the SR20DE was to make an engine that could maintain respectable speeds on the German autobahn and appeal to the European market. As a result, it was used in numerous forms across the globe and still has large aftermarket support. This, along with being shade-tree friendly, makes it affordable to maintain and modify at home.
Jordan White, a long-time B13 SE-R enthusiast, has owned more than a dozen and has never had serious engine issues. "If you take care of them, they will last forever," White says. "The only problem I've had was the common 5th gear pop-out. Other than that, when taken care of, the Sentra SE-R is amazing."
Resulting from wear on the teeth of the 5th-gear input shaft, a pop out causes the shifter to physically move into neutral when shifting into 5th gear. This issue is mostly found in 1991 and 1992 cars and can be fixed with a kit that runs between $300 and $400. According to White, there is a great deal of labor involved, however, so for those who are not comfortable dismantling their transmissions at home, taking it to the shop might be wise. It's not ideal, but this is also the biggest issue with the SE-R and a fairly manageable one for a 25-year-old car.
Transmission problems aside, the B13 SE-R's performance chops still hold up today. For evidence, look no further than Troy McKeown, an experienced B13 SE-R owner. This past September he took his car to a trackday held by the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green. Initially, he was nervous that his car would cause a giant backup on the track, but that wasn't what happened at all.
"For the entire event, I think that the number of people I let by was about equal to the number of people that had to let me past," McKeown says. "The one that I was most proud of was overtaking a C7 Z06. Even the instructor seemed to be surprised to see this little Japanese four-cylinder car overtaking a monster like that."
If you can't already tell from McKeown and White, one of the greatest strengths of the B13 SE-R is its enthusiastic community. The small, tight-knit group makes up for its thin ranks with passion and constant communication. The rest of the world may have forgotten about this car, but these die-hards want to share its story.
"The SE-R community is amazing," White says. "We come together from all over the United States every year for the annual SE-R convention, anywhere from California to New Jersey."
So if the B13 SE-R has so many desirable qualities and such a rich community, why don't you hear about it more often?
Well, a big reason is the competition it faced. Although the SE-R was an icon of the early 90s, it was competing against plenty of other excellent cars in its price bracket, including the Acura Integra, Honda Prelude, Mazda Miata, and even the Honda CRX. And though they weren't direct competitors, let's not forget about the Toyota Supra, Mazda RX-7, and Acura NSX, which dominate memories of the decade. The good news is that being overshadowed has helped keep the SE-R off most enthusiasts' radars and prices down. The bad news is that its low production numbers have made finding a clean one tough.
Only a small percentage of the B13 Sentra sales were of the SE-R trim, and with the SE-R being a limited production run over 25 years ago, it is hard to say how many are left in good condition. They do come up for sale every couple of weeks and start around $1200 for a rough example. A mint condition SE-R with only 50,000 miles . It might take a bit of time to discover one worth your time and money, but if you can find a well-maintained or tastefully modified car, they're currently an amazing deal. White recommends searching the classifieds at to find trustworthy owners who appreciate the car and community.
Sadly, the B13 Sentra SE-R was essentially a one-off for Nissan. The following Sentra performance trims never lived up to the B13's legacy. Nissan didn't even offer an SE-R trim for the B14 Sentra, and although the B14 SE trim had the SR20DE engine, the company switched out the independent rear suspension for a torsion beam, lost the viscous LSD, and reduced the size of the rear sway bar and rear disc brakes. By the time the SE-R name returned in the B15 Sentra in 2000, the car was a far cry from the special combination of ingredients that made the B13 SE-R such a standout during a Golden Age of sport compacts.