When it was redesigned for 2007, the Nissan Sentra compact sedan finally became competitive with the likes of the class-leading Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla — after having trailed the Ford Focus and perhaps even the Chevrolet Cobalt. Regular Sentras come in base 2.0, 2.0 S and 2.0 SL trim levels. The Sentra SE-R and SE-R Spec V came along later in the model year with sporting intentions, and it doesn't fare as well against tough competition like the Mazdaspeed3 and Volkswagen GTI.
The 2008 model year sees the end of the base Sentra with the six-speed manual transmission, but also the addition of many features, from the functional to the cosmetic.
Car styling has been moving in a bolder direction of late, though that's not as common in the compact class. Rather than making a statement, the Sentra looks like a smaller Altima midsize sedan, from the grille material to the high-mounted clear-lens taillights. Unfortunately, its headlights look like those of the Ford Fusion midsize sedan. Given the timeframe, this can hardly be a case of copycatting on Nissan's part — just bad timing.
The Sentra is a nice-looking car — young but not especially daring. Body-colored door handles and side mirrors give it a richer look that will help higher trim levels compete in the market with Volkswagen Jettas and other brands' higher trims. Fifteen-inch wheels are standard; 16-inchers come on the 2.0 S model. Alloy wheels, also measuring 16 inches, are optional. As of 2008, the 2.0 S and 2.0 SL models have standard fog lights with body-colored surrounds.
The Sentra SE-R is distinguished from the regular Sentra with different nose and tail treatments, side sill extensions and a rear spoiler.
The Sentra stands taller than conventional compacts, a trend that improves forward visibility as well as entry and exit by increasing the minimum seat height. A driver's seat height adjustment is available but not standard on the base, 2.0 trim level — unfortunate for shorter drivers, especially because the trunkline is rather high. A 60/40-split folding backseat is standard, as are power windows and door locks, air conditioning and side curtain airbags.
There's some of what you might call innovations in the car: rear cupholders large enough for 32-ounce cups and 20-ounce bottles, high-mounted front-seatback pockets for backseat passengers, and a configurable partition in the trunk that can form two compartments — one of which Nissan describes as "hidden."
The Sentra SL offers leather upholstery, a Rockford-Fosgate premium stereo, Bluetooth hands-free cellular capability and Intelligent Key keyless engine start.
The SE-R boasts numerous interior upgrades, including an oil pressure gauge, lateral G meter and cloth sport seats embroidered with the SE-R designation. The SE-R Spec V adds red seat belts.
The Sentra has a substantial list of upgraded and new features for 2008. The driver's power window is now also one-touch up, not just down, and the assist grips over the doors now fold flat, replacing fixed handles. All of the regular Sentra trim levels now have brightly illuminated instruments, day and night, as standard equipment. The 2.0 S trim level has a new charcoal interior, a standard security system and cruise control, and is now eligible for a moonroof package. XM Satellite Radio is standard on 2.0 SL models, excluding subscription service.
The regular Sentra has a 140-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder and either a six-speed manual transmission or a continuously variable automatic transmission that's designed for high gas mileage. The SE-R employs a 2.5-liter four-cylinder that generates 177 hp. The same engine produces 200 hp in the SE-R Spec V due to modified intake and exhaust, a higher compression ratio and a higher redline of 6,800 rpm, among other tweaks. The SE-R comes with a manual transmission or a performance-tuned version of the CVT.
The Sentra's MacPherson strut front suspension and, particularly, the semi-independent torsion-beam rear suspension are unlikely to please sport enthusiasts — but performance, not construction, is what matters most. The Spec V has a firmer suspension and larger brakes with rear discs, where the regular Sentra trim levels have drum brakes.
Safety features include standard a tire pressure monitoring system, side-impact airbags and active head restraints for the front seats. Side curtain airbags cover all the side windows. For 2008, antilock brakes become standard on the 2.0 S and the SL trim level, but remain optional on the Sentra 2.0.
The Sentra has a notably quiet cabin and ride quality that's more comfortable than most compact cars'. The electric power steering works well, with plenty of boost for parking but a firmer feel once you get moving.
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 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.
The manual transmission is decent, but the tall, long-throw shifter isn't a high point. What the CVT does best is the technology's reason for existing: improved gas mileage. Overall, the power is more than workable, but the car's no rocket, despite horsepower and torque increases over the previous generation. An electronic stability system — while still the exception in this class — would be nice to have.
The SE-R Spec V that we drove added performance on top of the regular Sentra, but there's not a lot of low-rev grunt, and there was more body roll than we'd like. Sporty competitors in this class set the bar high, and the SE-R doesn't clear it.