Been a while.

Too long, many say.

The compact Nissan Sentra sedan finally got a major remake for the 2007 model year, the first dramatic size and styling upgrade since 2000.

Hmm. Weren't there analysts who insisted Carlos Ghosn, head of Nissan, should be brought in to run General Motors because GM was slow in bringing out fresh models. Go figure!

Sentra follows the industry pattern when redesigning a car: Make it bigger. So the delay gave Nissan time to boost size without sacrificing mileage

For 2007 Sentra is compact plus, with a 5.9-inch longer wheelbase, 2.3-inch greater overall length and 3.2-inch added width.

One reason Sentra was able to grow is that Nissan has added a new entry-level model to take its place, the Versa.

Sentra comes in base, S and SL versions. We tested the S.

The new dimensions give it a longer, wider stance for more stability on the road. And now there's ample room to stretch arms, legs and shoulders and wiggle the head in the front seat. But can't say you enjoy all that much more room in back, where knee room is tight even if the driver is of average height. If the driver is on an NBA roster, take public transportation.

Expect to fit two adults in the back seat or three kids? Two adults and one kid is a stretch.

If turned on by high-tech goodies and you don't mind spending an additional $900, you get an electronic key fob in place of the old-fashioned key.

Just turn the plastic lever in place of the ignition slot to start the car--providing you have the fob in the car to send its magic signal.

It's also best to keep the fob on you so you don't forget to take it with when you exit.

At least for the $900 you get a variety of other goodies, such as Bluetooth hands-free phone system and an elastic CD holder that slips into a pocket behind the driver's sunvisor.

Performance is adequate. The 1.8-liter, 126-horsepower 4-cylinder has been replaced by a 2-liter, 140-h.p. 4. Rather than a 5-speed, there's now a 6-speed manual. And rather than a 4-speed automatic, there's a continuously variable automatic.

With a CVT you have an infinite number of gear ratios based on your driving habits and the amount of pressure on the pedal.

In many cars we've driven with a CVT, the operation is silent. Other than not hearing or feeling the shift points, you can't tell it's different from a traditional automatic. Can't hear or feel the shift points in the Sentra CVT either, but you certainly can hear the CVT. It was loud enough to make itself known at all times.

Ride and handling are decent, though you can hear and feel the radials as they snap over tar marks in the road. Perhaps a few dollars spent on better insulation is all that's needed to quiet the CVT and suspension. It would be worth the investment.

Handling is typical econo-car, limber enough to slip easily into the parking stall on the first try, but not as agile as a sports car into and out of corners without leaning. Narrow-profile, 16-inch radials are an obvious reason Sentra is called an economy car and not a sportster.

Of course, the 29 m.p.g. city and 36 m.p.g. highway rating is another clue this model isn't meant to wear racing stripes. By the way, the fuel-economy rating is 28/34 with the 6-speed so don't opt for it simply to get better mileage.

Nissan will add a couple sportier models in March, the SE-R with a 177-h.p. version of the 2-liter, and the SE-R V with a 2.5-liter 4 that achieves 200 h.p. Of course, they won't be rated at 29/36, either.

While Nissan focuses on the larger size and new sheet metal that makes Sentra look more like a midsize Altima than a Versa, kudos to the folks in charge of amenities. It's obvious they read the letters from customers and made some changes, the nicest of which is Divide 'n Hide.

Chrysler gave us cupholders, Toyota juice-box holders, Jeep a cargo floor that rolls out for easy loading/unloading and Chevy a rear seat that lifts to expose a laptop storage space. Now it's Nissan's turn to surprise and delight with Divide 'n Hide, which is part of the $900 keyless ignition package.

Open the trunk and you see it stands very high. The rear wall comes with four convenient grocery-bag holders. But it doesn't go all that deep against the rear seats.

If you press a lever in the wall, the wall drops to expose a large compartment behind it to store stuff between the trunk and rear seat backs. Neat, and no doubt soon to be copied.

Another nice touch is that the rear-seat bottom cushions lift and flip forward against the front seat backs so you can drop the rear seat backs flat to create a massive cargo hold in the cabin. But the headrests have to be removed first.

Credit Nissan, too, with responding to women who are asking for places to store their purses other than on the passenger seat. Open the Sentra glove box and a small space in the lid will hold a map or pair of gloves. But lower the lid and find space that seems to reach all the way to the headlamps. Might hold a small laptop, but for sure a purse. Neat.

As evidence of attention to detail, there's a small, covered compartment in the dash left of the steering wheel for coins or parking passes; a pair of cupholders in the center console that adjust to small to large cups; a cell phone holder behind the cupholders; and a deep, though not wide, stowage bin under the center armrest upfront.

The 2007 Sentra 2.0 S starts at $16,450 with the CVT, $800 less if opting for the 6-speed manual.

Side air bags, side-curtain air bags, air conditioning with air filter and power windows and locks join AM/FM radio with CD player, tilt steering and rear-window defroster as standard.

Anti-lock brakes are part of a $600 package that includes alloy wheels, but they also come separately for $250. An option missing was power sunroof, which runs $750.

If you take ABS and the sunroof but pass on satellite radio at $300, splashguards at $130, fog lamps at $270, spoiler at $210 and those alloy wheels, you have a rather complete package for less than $20,000.

Nissan won't say what its sales target is with Sentra. Demand had steadily increased--94,500 sales in 2003; 106,000 in 2004 and 119,000 in 2005--before a dip to 118,000 in 2006 as consumers became aware a remake was coming and chose not to load up on the older model.

- - -

2007 Nissan Sentra 2.0 S

Price as tested: $17,950*



THE STICKER

$16,450 Base

$900 Convenience package with Bluetooth hands-free phone system, leather-wrapped steering wheel, sunvisor CD holder, Divide 'n Hide trunk, cargo net and hooks and keyless entry/ignition

$600 16-inch alloy wheels and ABS

*Add $615 for freight.



THE NUMBERS

Wheelbase: 105.7 inches

Length: 179.8 inches

Engine: 2-liter, 140-h.p. 4-cylinder

Transmission: Continuously variable automatic

CITY: 29 M.P.G.

HIGHWAY: 36 M.P.G.



PLUSES

Redesigned with larger dimensions and richer Altima look.

Very good mileage.

Decent price.

Clever Divide 'n Hide trunk.

Massive glove box.



MINUSES

Stiff seats.

Sparse rear-seat knee room.

CVT noisy.