Nissan is on a roll, and the Sentra SE-R is one of the latest examples.

In the past two years, Nissan has unveiled seven new models, from the 240SX to 300ZX turbo, but this plain-vanilla Sentra two-door is one of the niftiest to pop out of Nissan's oven.The SE-R, built in Smyrna, Tenn., is the boy-racer version of the basic Sentra two-door. Under its unpretentious body lies the soul of a sports car. Yet with a base price of $11,370, it doesn't take deep pockets to have this kind of motoring fun.

Based on my couple of days with a black SE-R, it is arguably one of the hottest, least expensive sports sedans around, with a performance-per-dollar value that challenges the best in its class.

Run through the gears, and the first thing you notice is the solid feel, not only of the engine, but of the controls and suspension. After a couple of trips on the highway, the two-door body suddenly looks better.

If you couldn't see the outside, you would swear you were driving the Infiniti G20 sports sedan. That's not surprising, since the SE-R uses the same engine and drivetrain as the G20. Infiniti is Nissan's luxury car line.

Enthusiasts will see that the Sentra SE-R continues a trend started more than 20 years ago by the BMW 2002. The 2002 and its little brother, the 1600, knocked the sedan world on its ear with performance and handling that easily surpassed more expensive sports cars. And in 1983 Volkswagen did more or less the same thing with its GTI, another economy car with a hot-rod engine.

That the Sentra SE-R rises above those two is notable. It's quiet, tight and feels like a car that is much bigger. Based on the Sentra two-door, the SE-R is a collection of nifty bits: a 2-liter, overhead-cam, four-cylinder engine; independent suspension; four-wheel disc brakes with optional anti-lock; and viscous limited slip differential. This kind of limited slip is unusual on a front-wheel-drive car.

With 140 anxious horses on tap, the twin-cam, 16-valve engine scoots to 60 mph, yet cruises serenely on the highway. Although the engine will rev to 7,500 rpm, it has the midrange punch of a little V-6. Shift linkage for the five-speed transmission is direct and positive, with none of the rubbery feel often found in front-wheel-drive cars. Even the pedals are placed to allow easy heel-and-toeing on downshifts.

Handling is delightful. It noses into turns like a beagle after a rabbit. The chassis is precisely balanced, and with higher-performance tires its cornering capability would shame many sports cars.

The interior design is again reminiscent of the Infiniti G20 as well as other Nissan sedans. The analog instruments are under a curved hood that blends into the center of the dashboard. The steering wheel tilts for adjustment.

There is no air bag.

The seats were firm and fairly supportive despite their modest side bolsters. The back seat is tight on leg room for adults, due in part to the wheelbase of more than 95 inches.

The test car had a sticker price of $13,720, and that included options such as a leather steering wheel cover and gear shift knob, an electric sunroof, a stereo AM/FM radio, a cassette tape deck, two speakers and air conditioning.

Performance nuts probably would trade the sunroof for anti-lock brakes and a four-speaker stereo, and still have a hot car that doesn't invoke sticker shock.