Editor's note: This review was written in August 2010 about the 2010 Nissan Sentra. The 2011 Sentra gains standard safety features like antilock brakes and an electronic stability system, but little else of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2011, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Some cars get all the attention, and the Nissan Sentra isn't one of them. Its name isn't always uttered in the same sentences as models like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, but after driving one it's clear that it should be; this car deserves to be on compact-car buyers' shopping lists. While you probably wouldn't regret getting a Civic or Corolla, the Sentra outdoes those cars in some areas and offers a number of upscale features for exceptionally affordable prices.
In the world of everyday, economy transportation, the Sentra is a pleasant surprise — a hidden gem for those willing to give it a try.
I tested an uplevel Sentra 2.0 SL. This trim level starts at $18,560, but with options its as-tested price was $20,630.
The Sentra's tall stance and short hood and trunklid make the car look a bit stubby in profile. It's not nearly as sleek as the Civic, which is still futuristic looking even though it's been around in its current form since the 2006 model year — an incredible feat. I like the Sentra's design more than the Corolla's, which is about as bland and nondescript a car as you'll find these days. For a side-by-side comparison of the Sentra, Civic and Corolla, click here.
Not everything's right with the Sentra's design. A couple of our editors, myself included, weren't fond of the car's clear-lens taillights. This design cue was a fad a few years ago, and it's time for Nissan to ditch the look.
The Sentra comes standard with steel wheels, but our 2.0 SL had 16-inch alloy wheels with an eight-spoke design. Alloy wheels always dress up a car's exterior, and 2.0 S and 2.0 SL models get chrome door and trunklid accents that serve the same purpose.
The Sentra's off-the-line performance is good, with acceleration that's much more effortless than the Civic or Corolla, both of which are offered with traditional automatic transmissions with fixed gears. The Sentra's optional continuously variable automatic transmission, which my car had, provides an infinite number of gear ratios, and that allows engine speed to remain more constant, and usually quieter.
Nissan has done a remarkable job tuning the Sentra's drivetrain. Performance-oriented SE-R and SE-R Spec V models are available with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, but I tested the base 140-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder that goes in the majority of Sentra trim levels. The engine was paired with the optional CVT, as mentioned, but a six-speed manual is standard. Nissan is one of the few automakers using CVTs in many of its cars and crossovers, and the Sentra proves the automaker knows what it's doing.
Overall, the Sentra feels like it has a larger engine under its hood than it does, but not at the expense of fuel economy. The infinite gear ratios in a CVT allow the engine to operate in its most efficient range, and the Sentra with the CVT gets a competitive 26/34 mpg city/highway. That beats the manual transmission's 24/31-mpg rating. Predictably, gas mileage drops with the larger four-cylinder, down to 24/30 mpg with the CVT and 21/28 mpg in the manual-transmission model, which also prefers premium gas.
Like many other cars with smaller engines — the Civic and Corolla included — the Sentra's four-cylinder doesn't have a lot of power in reserve for highway passing. It accelerates up to highway speeds confidently and cruises easily with fast traffic, but don't expect a burst of power if you stab the gas pedal. If you do stab it, you're more likely to get just a slight bump in speed and more engine noise.
I like the Sentra's ride quality, though some Cars.com staffers who drove it thought the suspension was noisy over rougher stretches of road. I noticed some noise over big bumps, but the suspension craftily blended good damping abilities without sacrificing steering response and overall nimbleness.
The Civic handles well but makes occupants pay with a noisy cabin. The Corolla isolates you but doesn't encourage you to push it on a winding road. The Sentra, meanwhile, falls somewhere between the two. It provides a quieter, more comfortable driving experience than the Civic but isn't as softly sprung as the Corolla. It's a nice balance that delivers the benefits of both approaches in one car.
Certain elements of the Sentra's cabin drew criticism from staff members, including the loud, cheap-sounding noise emanating from the gear selector when moved from Park to Drive, the appearance of the faux-silver trim bordering the selector itself, and the feel of the radio buttons. On the whole, however, the clean-looking cabin utilizes nice materials and has some upscale controls, like the manual air-conditioning knobs, which wouldn't be out of place in a much more expensive car.
I was able to get fairly comfortable in the driver's seat, but I wish Nissan would add a telescoping adjustment to the steering wheel (it only tilts). If I could, I would have pulled the steering wheel a little closer so my arms wouldn't have had to stretch so far forward.
I also have a problem with the Sentra's instrument panel, or more specifically, one of its gauges. There are two large, backlit analog gauges that are easy to read, but between them is an orange-lit digital readout for fuel level, engine temperature and the trip computer. It's functionally acceptable, but it's too bright and distracting in the daytime. You can lower its brightness when the headlights are on but not when they're off, and who wants to drive around with the headlights on all the time because of a poorly designed gauge?
As in many compact cars, if you plan on carrying adults in the backseat you'll have to make sure front-seat occupants are willing to share their legroom. Even then, the Sentra's backseat is snug but workable for taller adults. There's adequate space between two adults sitting in the outboard rear seats, but adding a third in the middle makes for a tight squeeze. Suspension noise is more prevalent when riding in the backseat, too.
The 2.0 SL is already one of the better-equipped trims in the Sentra lineup, and our test car had some premium options, like leather upholstery and a navigation system. These features are relatively common in this class, but what's interesting is that they aren't as expensive as you might think.
The leather seats cost $700. To get leather in a Corolla, you'd have to pay more than twice that, though Toyota includes front seat heaters in the package. It's not like the Sentra uses cheapo leather, either; staffers commented positively on its high-quality feel.
Even more affordable is the optional navigation system, which costs $400. That's substantially less than the $1,500-$2,000 these systems typically run and is much closer to the price of a portable navigation system. The Sentra's 5-inch screen isn't as large as some other built-in ones, but its graphics are crisp and it features easy-to-use touch-screen operation. We liked the iPod integration with the touch-screen, too.
The Sentra's 13.1-cubic-foot trunk is similar in size to its main competitors, but it offers greater cargo versatility thanks to a large opening when you fold the backseat. It takes an extra step to fold the seats — you have to flip forward the seat cushion first — but once the backrest is down the opening's extra size is clearly evident. This is an uncommon seat-folding design — many compact cars simply have backrests that fold down — and it may mean you'll have to move the front seats forward a little so the cushions can flip forward far enough for the backrests to clear them on the way down. The rear head restraints don't have to be removed before folding the seats; they simply flip forward. Still, it's an awful lot of work to fold the second row. You can fold the seatbacks without flipping the bottom cushions forward, but if you do you're left with highly angled backrests that aren't flat with the cargo floor.
The Sentra received a Good overall rating — the highest possible score — in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests. It received the next-best score, Acceptable, in IIHS' rear-impact whiplash-injury test.
Standard safety features include side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags for both rows and active front head restraints. Antilock brakes and an electronic stability system are optional.
Check out the Standard Equipment & Specs page for a full list of safety features.
Sentra in the Market
The Sentra has been available in its current form for a few years, but it remains a competitive entry in the compact segment. Its drivetrain performance and suspension tuning are praiseworthy, and its configurable cargo area enhances its utility. Shopping for a new car can be a time-consuming process, but if you make an effort to test-drive a Sentra I think you'll find that it's time well-spent.
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