The 2012 Nissan Sentra doesn't have many frills, but it holds up. And since the current generation is in its final year, the prospect of a good deal makes it worth a look.
Somewhere amid the slew of stylish compacts with smartphone applications and 40-mpg highway ratings is the Sentra, a car that hasn't been redesigned since late 2006. It cannot stream your apps. Its EPA highway rating tops out at a lackluster 34 mpg. It lacks the crash-test accolades many competitors have earned. It drives, however, like a trusty steed.
The Sentra comes in base, S, SR and SL models with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder. The Sentra SE-R, meanwhile, gets a 2.5-liter four-cylinder, while a high-output SE-R Spec V makes 200 horsepower. Compare them here, or compare the 2012 and 2011 Sentra here. We tested a 2.0 S.
Sufficient Power, Soft Ride
Most trims have a continuously variable automatic transmission, which gives the 140-hp four-cylinder immediate passing response and capable off-the-line power. Two editors noticed some drivetrain clunking at low speeds, but otherwise this transmission is the way CVTs should be. Too many of them incur noisy drones and lazy revs. Alas, even though efficiency is the objective behind CVTs, the Sentra's aged unit delivers underwhelming EPA ratings: At 27/34 mpg city/highway with the automatic, it trails the Hyundai Elantra (29/40 mpg) and mainline versions of the Honda Civic (28/39), Ford Focus (28/38) and Chevrolet Cruze (26/38), even though all of these models have step-gear transmissions.
The Sentra rides a lot like the Toyota Corolla: soft but often clumsy. The suspension masks potholes as well as the best competitors — think Cruze or Elantra — and low highway wind noise plays into the overall serenity, but sharp bumps kick up plenty of noise. I noticed some high-pitched tire wail at interstate speeds from our test car's 16-inch Bridgestone Turanza all-season tires, and when one editor loaded the car with a few hundred pounds of cargo, it rode poorly over all sorts of pavement.
Spirited driving befuddles the car, too. The Sentra steers precisely enough, but the Bridgestones grip like shopping-cart wheels. Throw the car into a corner and the nose breaks wide at every chance; tightening highway cloverleafs sent our tester flailing toward the sidelines until the standard electronic stability system reeled it in. Poor balance and even worse grip means you should keep it in a straight line.
Our car's brake pedal had an inch of lackluster response, but SE-R models replace the Sentra's rear drums with four-wheel discs, which might improve matters. The Spec V has larger front discs and high-performance summer tires, with an optional limited-slip differential. Such hardware should make for more fun, but the last SE-R we drove underwhelmed: Its 200 hp came on late, and the summer tires still felt short on grip.
The cabin's conservative design is forgettable, and there were a few misaligned panels and a sloppy gearshift, but materials quality is decent overall. Grab the sun visors or perch your elbow along the windowsill, and the materials actually feel a class above. The well-machined climate controls put the Corolla's sloppy knobs to shame, and the chrome door handles outshine the painted plastic pieces in a number of competing models. In an era where cars from the Civic to the Volkswagen Jetta have dropped the quality ball, it's nice to see Nissan hold its grip.
Thick A- and C-pillars rob some visibility, and long-legged adults will wish the driver's seat adjusted farther rearward. I had it all the way back for my 5-foot-11 frame. The steering wheel needs a telescoping adjustment, too; it only tilts. Backseat legroom is good, but adults may find headroom tight. The trunk sports a competitive 13.1 cubic feet, with an opening that could fit a bike if you fold down the 60/40-split seats. Unfortunately, folding the seat flat is a huff-and-puff, four-step process – or five, if the front seats are too far back. Congress could pass legislation faster.
Reliability, Safety & Features
Reliability has been above average, but crash-test scores underwhelm. In tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Sentra earned the top score, Good, in frontal crashes but Acceptable in side, rear and roof-strength tests, barring it from earning a Top Safety Pick. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rates the Sentra four out of five stars overall, with top scores for NHTSA's new side-pole test but just two stars for backseat side-impact protection.
None of the scores are deal-breakers, but the segment at large does better. A slew of Sentra competitors – the Cruze, Focus, Civic, Elantra, Mazda3, Corolla, Jetta, Mitsubishi Lancer and Subaru Impreza – are Top Safety Picks, and the Civic sedan, Elantra and Cruze have five-star NHTSA ratings. The Sentra has standard head-protecting side airbags, active front head restraints, antilock brakes and an electronic stability system. Click here for a full list of features, or here to see our evaluation of child-seat provisions.
The Sentra's standard features include power windows and locks, air conditioning and a CD stereo with an auxiliary MP3 input. Options include keyless access, heated leather seats, an iPod-friendly stereo, Rockford Fosgate audio and a navigation system. A few features offered elsewhere – automatic climate control, Bluetooth audio streaming – are unavailable. The base Sentra (including destination) starts around $17,000; a loaded SE-R Spec V tops $24,000.
Sentra in the Market
A redesigned Sentra arrives this fall. As it fades into the asphalt sunset, the current generation of Nissan's compact car remains competent in the basics but less than competitive in gas mileage and safety. It rated midpack for affordability among compact cars in a price comparison last year, and if a dealer won't budge from that, there are better choices. Dealer and manufacturer incentives could make the math more favorable, however, especially as the car nears its final months. If the price is right, the Sentra could be worth a look; you could do a lot worse.
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