Visitors to Chicago may never realize that an entire world exists below their feet as they explore the city. But it's there. And it's paved. Word came to me that at the lowest point, Lower Lower Randolph Street, there's a mystical market trading in far out wares. In order to find said market I decided to employ the 2008 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V, a car that's inconspicuous despite the abundance of letters in its name and the bright red paint.
Stealth is key in Chicago's underground city as I hoped to avoid attention both from the police and those they've pledged to protect me from. Did anyone know Nissan still makes an SE-R version of the Sentra? Did anyone remember they still make a Sentra? Despite the paint, body kit, spoiler and split five-spoke wheels, the SE-R looks like any other econobox.
Another key to survival here is a car quick enough to keep up with your reflexes. Lower Whacker, the main underground pathway, feels like a Driver's Ed video made real. Delivery trucks and commodity traders late for lunch with the mistress randomly dart out of alleys and into the narrow, concrete-edged roadway. The small Sentra, despite its unimpressive origins, handles itself with impressive poise. The speed-sensitive power steering is so quick I had to pause and remind myself what I was driving, right before my brain turned back on and I narrowly avoided one of the many pieces of construction equipment left, as an obstacle, in my path.
I pulled off onto a side street, only to catch a red near one of the underground city's biggest traps: the transient cartographers. Conventioneers staying at any of the area's finer hotels often get lost down in the catacombs, sometimes never to be found again. These homeless men appear to the misplaced orthodontists, emerging from the ether to offer help. At a price. But I was here to expose secrets and they rely on confusion. I was their sworn enemy.
The red light snapped to green and I put pedal to floor, escaping what could have been a trap. The Sentra's normally aspirated fourbanger springs to life with only a minor squeak of the tires, power instantly available from the high compression engine. Unlike the Caliber SRT4 and MS3 there's no hint of torque steer, meaning there's no chance I'll nick a curb as I delve further into the darkness.
With its thick concrete walls, steel girders and a layout similar to the inside of a church organ, this world beneath worlds tends to amplify sounds. This works to my disadvantage as the SE-R Spec V whines with an unpleasant high-pitch buzz as the needle sweeps across the tach, alerting those in the area. There's no need to slow down, though, as the Sentra absorbs the bumps of uneven concrete competently enough for a souped-up econobox.
I finally make it to the lowest levels of Randolph, hoping to find the market. There are mysterious stairwells, unmarked cop cars and parking garage entrances galore. But no market. Unlike its competitors, the SE-R doesn't even offer navigation as an option, so I've got nothing but my wits to help me find this enchanted locate. And my wits fail me.
Maybe the market closed. Maybe it never existed. Maybe those lurking below the pizza joints and coffee shops were alerted to the presence of a nosey surface dweller and concealed it from view. Of course, even if I'd found it I wouldn't be able to haul that much treasure home. The V-brace in the trunk invalidates the possibility of pass-through storage.
And just like my quest, the Sentra SE-R Spec V doesn't quite measure up to expectations. An unexpectedly enjoyable platform with usable power and predictable handling is somehow ruined by its own gimmicks, namely the dyed-red seatbelts and boost-gauge wannabe G-meter stolen from the Z that both look obnoxious in this sedan.
No worry. Unlike some if its overpowered and oversized competitors, the SE-R isn't a chore to drive in urban areas, making the journey equally as fun as anything I was likely to find. Maybe between here and there is truly better than either here or there.
• <a href="http://jalopnik.com/397014/2008-nissan-sentra-se+r-spec-v-part-two
">2008 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V, Part Two
• 2008 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V, Part Three