2007 Nissan Sentra: First Drive

Yesterday I drove a few versions of Nissan's all-new 2007 Sentra sedan in and around San Francisco, and all I can say is it's so much better than the outgoing model, comparisons are pointless. The previous, fifth generation, was the stinker of the compact-car class, but this one is a solid competitor for the likes of the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. It starts to hit dealerships in the middle of this month. Detailed pricing will be announced in a week or so but is expected to start around $15,000.

In the first block behind the wheel I noticed what would establish itself as a defining attribute: a remarkably quiet cabin. We're talking library quiet. Church quiet. More-expensive-car quiet. I and passengers in the 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 encroached sometimes when accelerating, but it depended on the transmission.

The car offers a six-speed manual or an optional continuously variable automatic transmission teamed with a larger, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. The manual is decent, but the tall, long-throw shifter isn't a high point unless you consider its location: high and forward on a center dashboard extension. I have no problem with this placement, but I know from other vehicles that some people consider it a deal-breaker. The six-speed allows a quick launch, and it seems easier when operating this transmission to keep the engine speed down and the noise to a minimum under gentle acceleration.

The CVT, which is also used in the Versa subcompact, seems to let the engine rev higher and make more noise, even under comparably gentle acceleration. It responds reasonably quickly to demands for more power, but there's some rubber-band effect between the pedal and the speed increase. In this class, the Dodge Caliber's CVT is quicker and better overall. Nissan has two other CVTs — for engines larger than 2.0 liters and 3.0 liters, respectively — that also perform better than this one.

What it does best is the technology's reason for being: 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. A sporty SE-R version is likely to turn up the juice considerably when it comes out in spring 2007. (Look for its introduction at the Los Angeles auto show at the end of November.)

The SE-R also should firm up the suspension and improve roadholding. 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 lean. The electric power steering works well, with plenty of boost for parking but a firmer feel once you get moving.

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. This makes for almost 9 cubic feet more cabin space. The dashboard seems low and far forward, which gives the cabin an open, roomier feel. The only drawback is that the A-pillar is also far forward where 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 other kind, too, like most cars these days. The locking glove box is simply ginormous, large enough for a laptop computer.

The trunk (above) has 1.5 cubic feet more volume than before, 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 bit of a pain 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.

As for safety features, 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. An electronic stability system is not available. Antilock brakes are standard on the 2.0 SL and optional on the two lower models. Unfortunately, the rear wheels have drum rather than the preferred disc brakes.

Overall, though, the standard-feature offering is decent and includes air conditioning and power windows and locks. The middle trim level adds 16-inch wheels (from 15-inch), keyless entry and backlit steering-wheel audio controls. The top, SL trim, adds leather upholstery, alloy wheels, antilock brakes and the upscale Intelligent Key, 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 do very well, even against the 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 it.

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