A little backstory here. Myself and a good friend of mine swapped cars for a couple of days while he took mine to get detailed. (It's ridiculously clean now) For a brief period of time I swapped my 1989 Suzuki Swift GTi for his manual shift 2002 Nissan Sentra. Fair trade? Depends who's counting.
Both cars have revvy little four cylinders, are front wheel drive, Japanese and seat 4.5 people. But like many things, the numbers aren't the half of it.
Starting the 1.8 in the Sentra is such a quiet and smooth affair you have to double check the tach to make sure it's actually idling. It's that quiet. Giving the beige little car some gas doesn't exactly make it a rock concert. The engine makes an audible noise that's happy and hums peacefully to it's desired pace. The Sentra is surprisingly torquey and accelerates smartly; perhaps faster than the Swift. Handling is confident as the Sentra is not easily unsettled by bumps or cracks in the pavement. Sure it understeers, but it understeers predictably so you can control it. The hydraulic clutch is decidedly non-linear but the 5 speed manual shifter is crisp and precise. One grumble is that the revs hang painfully long before falling enough to grab the next gear when upshifting. This makes shifting smoothly at a normal pace quite difficult.
Overall, the Sentra is a good microcosm of modern compact cars. It's a good car that gets good mileage, rides well and is in some real world instances faster than the Swift in any performance parameter. Why then would anyone want a 23 year old hatchback with cackling paper speakers and as much sound insulation as a third-world prison cell?
Twist the key and the all aluminum (With hollow camshafts!) 1.3 barks to life. It settles into a surprisingly deep burble popping away at 2,300 rpm until it warms up. The cold Swift is a recalcitrant beast to behold. The gearbox crunches and requires double clutching, the accessory belt voices its shrill discontent, and the heater takes it's sweet time warming up.
But when it does warm up, the little hot hatch is something to behold. Weighing 1,800 lbs wet, the handling is understandably crisp. The thick anti-rollbars and stiff shocks are jarring on broken pavement and the manual steering wanders through ruts and cracks. The twin cam four cylinder in the Swift was incredibly advanced at the time, especially for an economy car. The engine has a metallic bark and will rev up to 7,400 rpm. It doesn't make any power but eh, who cares? It's the theatre of it. Parallel parking is comedic to watch as the driver heavily wrenches the wheel to maneuver the cartoonishly small car.
The Swift GTi makes little effort to hide what it is. It's a loud crude sub-compact fitted with a 200% power increase from the base cars. Where as the Sentra uses modern ignition, airbags and many other modern advances, the GTi is refreshingly old school in it's approach.