Exterior & Styling
The new Sentra is larger by more than 3 inches in width, 2.3 inches in length, 4 inches in height and 5.9 inches in wheelbase. The new styling emulates the Altima midsize sedan, though possibly the previous-generation Altima, because it's less compelling than the new one. Nissan is keeping up with market trends by eradicating cheapo black-plastic side mirrors and door handles. Even the base 2.0 trim level has body-colored mirrors and handles. The lower two trims come with steel wheels, and the 2.0 SL has 16-inch alloy rims.
During my first mile behind the wheel I noticed the Sentra's defining attribute: a remarkably quiet cabin. We're talking library quiet. Church quiet. More-expensive-car quiet. I and the passengers, front and back, chatted away at all speeds with nary a "What?" The most noticeable sound was from the tires, but only on some road surfaces at higher speeds, and it was never excessive. As for the engine noise, it sometimes encroached when accelerating, but it depended on whether the transmission was the manual or the optional continuously variable automatic transmission.
The exterior growth has added almost 9 cubic feet more cabin space. The dashboard seems low and far forward, which gives the cabin an open, roomy feel. The only drawback is that the A-pillar is so far forward it can block your view. The driver's seat has a height adjustment and can be either manual or powered. The steering wheel tilts, but unfortunately doesn't telescope. The quality of the materials is mostly very good, with soft, low-gloss surfaces. Some trim pieces on the SL are convincing faux metal, but there's plenty of the unconvincing kind, too, as in most cars these days. The locking glove box is simply ginormous — large enough to hold the average laptop computer.
If you're looking for the comfort of leather upholstery, your sole choice is the SL model. On the other extreme, the base 2.0 is the only level that lacks a driver's seat height adjustment. Combined with the tilt-only steering wheel, the 2.0 seems like a version for people who just happen to fit — not for two differently sized drivers to share.
Engine & Transmission Choices
The car offers a six-speed manual or an optional CVT teamed with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. The manual is decent, but the tall, long-throw shifter isn't a high point, unless you take that literally: It's located high and forward on a center dashboard extension. I have no problem with this placement, but some people consider it a deal-breaker. The six-speed allows a quick launch, and it seems easier to keep the engine speed down and the noise to a minimum when working this transmission and accelerating gradually.
The CVT, also used in Nissan's Versa subcompact, seems to let the engine rev higher and make more noise, even under comparably gradual acceleration. There's a little rubber-band effect between the pedal and the speed increase, but it responds reasonably to demands for more power. In this class, the Dodge Caliber's CVT is quicker and better overall. Nissan has two other CVTs — for engines larger than 2.0 and 3.0 liters, respectively — that also perform better than the Sentra's.
What the CVT does best is the technology's reason for existing: improved gas mileage, which is an estimated 29/36 mpg (city/highway), even better than the manual's 28/34. (For perspective, though, the Civic's fuel economy is better with a conventional five-speed automatic.) Overall, the power is more than workable, but the car's no rocket, despite horsepower and torque increases over the previous generation. Introduced at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November 2006, the sporty SE-R and SE-R Spec V versions turn up the juice to 200 horsepower with a high-output version of the Altima's 2.5-liter four-cylinder. They come out in spring 2007.
|Sentra 2.0, 2.0 S and 2.0 SL||Sentra SE-R||Sentra SE-R Spec V|
|Engine type||2.0-liter 4-cylinder||2.5-liter|
|high-output 2.5-liter 4-cylinder|
|Horsepower (@ rpm)||140|
|Torque (lbs.-ft. @ rpm)||147|
or CVT automatic
|CVT automatic||6-speed manual|
|EPA gas mileage (city/highway, mpg)||28/34 (manual)|
Ride & Handling
The SE-R Spec V will also firm up the suspension and improve roadholding with summer performance tires. The regular Sentra 2.0, 2.0 S and 2.0 SL are tuned more for comfort, and they deliver. This is impressive ride quality from any perspective, and especially in the compact class. The handling is decent, with some body roll. The electric power steering works well, with plenty of boost for parking but a firmer feel once you get moving.
The trunk has an added 1.5 cubic feet of volume, and the 60/40-split, folding backseat extends the cargo area into the cabin. The seat cushions must be flipped forward first, which is a drag but results in a continuous, almost-flat floor. The good news is that the head restraints tilt forward and don't need to be removed. The optional Convenience Package adds a vertical trunk partition. Seems unnecessary for a trunk to have hidden space, but at least the panel gives you a plastic, grime-resistant tray when lowered.
Six airbags are standard, including side-impact torso bags for the front occupants and side curtains that protect front and backseat occupants in a side impact. The front seats have active head restraints. An electronic stability system is not available; while still the exception in this class rather than the rule, it would be nice to have — and would help the Sentra stack up more favorably in feature comparisons. Unfortunately, the rear wheels have drum rather than the preferred disc brakes. Antilock brakes are standard on the 2.0 SL and optional on the two lower models — thankfully as a standalone option priced reasonably at $250 for the Sentra 2.0. Less thankfully, for the 2.0 S they're packaged with alloy wheels for $600. What if I want my safety without the flash?
Centralized tire pressure monitoring is standard equipment.
Sentra in the Market
Overall, the standard-feature offering is decent and includes air conditioning and power windows and locks. It bears noting that the price-leading Sentra 2.0 is fairly stripped-down in many ways, and it's bound to remain that way. Aside from the ABS, it's eligible only for satellite radio (Sirius or XM), floormats and some cosmetic changes. The middle trim level adds 16-inch wheels (up from 15-inch), keyless entry and backlit steering-wheel audio controls. The top SL trim adds as standard equipment leather upholstery, alloy wheels, antilock brakes and Nissan's upscale Intelligent Key feature, which allows you to unlock the doors and start the car without removing the keyless remote from your pocket/purse/backpack.
Considering how tough the competition is in this segment, I think the Sentra will excel, even against class leaders. The Caliber body style seems to appeal to a different buyer, and though recently introduced, the Chevrolet Cobalt can't hold a candle to the Sentra. Of these two, the Cobalt gets dismissed by many shoppers because of its pedestrian styling. The Sentra runs a similar risk. We'll have to see how it sells.
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