Discussions that revolve around fan-favorite Japanese cars of the '90s will usually bring about mentions of various S-chassis and Skyline models, RX-7s, Civics and Integras, but rarely does it include cars like this 1991 Nissan Sentra SE-R - and it's a shame. At a time when the hot hatch was really beginning to take off and stateside Japanese auto manufacturers were producing undeniably lovable options that still carry the majority of our industry's weight to this day, the SE-R version of Nissan's ultra-budget people mover Sentra line quietly snuck into the mix. That's not to say there wasn't aftermarket support throughout the '90s, but it paled in comparison to more popular chassis. For some, that's a huge turnoff because car building becomes that much tougher when things aren't readily available. For others, like Juan Ramirez, that's part of the fun in all of this.
With a 16-year relationship tied to his build, Juan's SE-R has seen a multitude of changes but speak with him today and you quickly realize his current setup is by far his favorite. With an emphasis on the track days he regularly attends, the car's current state defies its almost 30-year service life. But to get it to the point that it's at now, you'll need to take a step back about a decade and a half.
What truly pulled Juan into the SE-R chassis is its power plant. He adds, "My first two cars were Datsun 510s (both automatics) and all I could think about in the early days of the Internet Is wanting a SR20 swap. The cost was too high and I stumbled across some USDM cars that had SR20s. The Sentra really caught my eye and I really didn't know why, other than it wasn't a car really noticed before." The main thing was that it came equipped with an SR20 and a search online led him to eBay where he purchased this car in its final countdown, just before the sale ended, but it wasn't the sinister "eBay snipe" action you might imagine. "I accidentally bid on the car in the final 30 seconds of the auction. It belonged to Ken Nord, who developed the sway bars on the car and later sold that design to Progress Group." A handful of other mods were attached but the first order of business was getting the car, and being that Juan didn't know how to drive a manual at that time, he relied on his brother to drive it home.
Going Faster Before Slowing Down
Not long after getting acquainted with driving stick, Juan added a T25-based turbo kit to the factory SR that only stuck for a few years as his college days didn't allow enough disposable income needed for fuel to support his admittedly heavy right foot. The switch back to the SE-R's more basic transportation duties didn't mean the parts collecting ceased, but it did transition to more OEM parts in order to support some long-term goals for the car. "I kept collecting little parts for it as I knew one day I would either be restoring it, or just building it to my liking as a track car." With plenty of research and shared knowledge from his fellow Sentra forum friends, in 2010 Juan decided to ditch the car's original engine for an SR20VE. "In the years of being part of the FWD SR20 community, I've seen that FWD turbo SR20s are usually on jack stands or part of the 'I'll come back stronger next year' club, rather than putting in laps at a track day."
Homemade OEM Parts Shelf
Putting in laps at a track day is exactly where we met Juan, as he attended and competed in our FF Battle 11 event last year. He was chosen because, sure, his car fit the criteria of a FWD street car with some experience under his belt, but more importantly, we never, ever see these cars around anymore. The pics of his car sent over for registration gave us a clue as to how clean it was, but it wasn't until the day of the event that we realized this SE-R was in immaculate condition inside and out. Part of that is Juan's regular upkeep over so many years but the bigger factor is all of those little purchases he made back in his college years that essentially served as an OEM parts stockpile for the complete revamp he performed in 2018. He states, "As I started to paint and powdercoat things, it quickly spiraled into a semi-restoration. I had collected many of the seals and gaskets along with other brand-new OEM pieces over the years and figured I would put them to use. I wanted to keep a full interior and as many OEM Nissan parts as possible on the car, even down to the wheel liner! The end result is the only bad financial decision I have ever made that actually makes me smile."
Fresh paint always looks fresher with brand new OEM trim pieces and to take advantage of the new paint, Juan brought in some JDM Nissan Sunny OEM GT-1 pieces, like front and rear bumpers, front grill, power folding mirrors, headlights and corners. In track day mode, the changes are quick and user-friendly with a lightweight Seibon carbon-fiber hood and trunk lid bolted in place and 15x8 TE37SL with 225/45 Nankang AR-1 getting the nod for duty. Like any '90s-era fan, Juan's got additional wheels to change up the look whenever he wants.
Consistent and Reliable > All Out Power
After seven years of street and track miles, Juan's first SR20VE swap was replaced with a freshened-up version and the go-fast mods kept basic, with a focus on reliability and longevity under stress. Wilson Manifolds ported and polished the intake manifold that gets air from a TSR fabrication intake which leads to a Tomei adapted SR SR16VE throttle body. The SR16VE was also relied upon for its cams, and on the exhaust end of things, an ASP Header and 3-inch exhaust tubing terminate in a VAREX electronically baffled muffler that lets him open it up at the track and quiet things down considerably for the street.
The same sort of simple, purposeful feel that you get from the outside carries to the inside of this SE-R, where the interior is complete and includes a set of Recaro SRDs for the street (fixed back Sparco Evo 2 for the track), Momo steering wheel and AutoPower 4-point roll bar. A trio of AEM gauges replace the factory-appointed cassette player to keep an eye on the car's vitals and Juan's TDK Mega-Mix cassette tapes have to be played through a bright yellow Sony Walkman as a result.
Exactly Where It's Supposed To Be
There's something to be said for enthusiasts who stick with the same car for so many years, continually making changes and adjustments that come from hands-on experience. In Juan's case, track days have provided his most useful feedback and after 16 years of wrenching, adapting and adopting, the outlook remains the same. He closes with this, "The SE-R's place Is out being driven and driven hard, which I fully Intend to keep doing. It's also for the guys who like to do things the hard way as finding parts and aftermarket support for it is becoming harder and harder, but I try to do my part to try and keep it going. I was told once long ago that 'Quality parts give you quality results,' and that's really all I set out to do when putting this car together. It's awesome to see people appreciate It as much as I do. I'm glad I waited so long to build and appreciate it, because we all know we are never done modding."