The Nissan Sentra compact is bigger inside than it looks outside. Inside is a roomy interior. Sentra offers a commendable level of features, sophistication, safety and technology. And it's fun to drive.
The Sentra, available as a four-door sedan only (there is no hatchback or two-door model) was designed for the American market and American buyers. The spacious cabin is finished like that of a more expensive car and it has comfortable and supportive seats. There's a 60/40-split rear seat that folds flat, opening up the trunk space and creating a large flat cargo area that's handy for hauling long items.
The Sentra is fun to drive, with a level of performance and handling that's a pleasant surprise in a compact sedan. It's powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder of 140 horsepower, which is matched to a very nice 6-speed manual in the base car, with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) optional in the base car and standard on all other trim levels.
Fuel economy is an EPA-rated 24 mpg City, 31 mpg Highway with the manual and a very thrifty 27/34 mpg with the CVT.
Two high-performance versions are available: Sentra SE-R has a 2.5-liter engine with 177 hp and the CVT. The SE-R Spec V has a turbocharged version of the 2.5-liter engine boosted to 200 hp and fitted with a 6-speed manual. Sentra SE-R models also feature suspension modifications for sharper handling. Even though they offer higher levels of power and handling, we found them easy to live with. The SE-R offers the advantages of the standard Sentra and still delivers good fuel economy: an EPA estimated 24/30 mpg. SE-R Spec V is rated 21/28 mpg.
The 2012 Sentra is unchanged. The current-generation Sentra was launched as a 2007 model and benefited from a moderate facelift for 2010.
The Nissan Sentra represents a solid value. It's roomy inside, the engine is modern and competitive, and the chassis provides good handling and a comfortable ride. We like the continuously variable transmission. All told, if you're in the market for a compact sedan that offers a lot of value in a lot of areas, the Sentra deserves your attention.
Nissan Sentra 2.0 manual transmission ($16,060); 2.0 CVT ($17,240); 2.0 S ($17,990); 2.0 SR ($17,990); 2.0 SL ($19,390); SE-R ($20,120); SE-R Spec V ($20,620)
The Nissan Sentra is larger than the subcompact Versa and smaller than the midsize Altima. From every angle, it looks like the latest-generation Nissans. With its crisp character lines, the Sentra resembles a scaled down Altima. We like the new front end; it manages to look both cleaner and richer and more upscale, all at once. The previous look was sort of angular, with the fog lamps in sharp-edged openings and what seemed like a lot of cuts and creases, but the new front end is smoother. The grille opening looks like that of a more expensive car, and the integration of the grille, lower air intake, headlamps and fog lamps is much cleaner and less busy.
The new look also works well with the short overhangs, which give the Sentra a sporty, assertive appearance.
Along the sides, only widened bodywork around the wheels breaks up the clean, attractive doors and quarter panels. A character line rises from the front door back to a tall trunk, giving the Sentra a bit of a rake. Large door openings make it easy to climb in and out, and a high, distinctive rear deck offers ample trunk space.
The contemporary Nissan appearance continues at the rear, where the high trunk lid is flanked by white and red taillights that have a Nissan family look. The long roof line resolves itself in a short trunk lid, extended on most models by a small horizontal spoiler that incorporates the center brake light.
Sentra SE-R models have more aggressive front and rear fascias, side sill extensions that visually lower the car, and beefy, low-profile 17-inch tires on alloy wheels.
No matter what Sentra you choose, you'll make no compromises in looks, comfort, safety or style, to have this inexpensive compact car in your driveway.
The Nissan Sentra is a good choice for drivers who spend a lot of time in their cars. For example, the locking glovebox is deep enough to hold a laptop computer. There is also an available integrated removable CD holder on the headliner above the driver's sun visor. The front of the center console has a tray for items such as cell phones, as well as two cupholders that are adjustable for 20-ounce bottles or 32-ounce mega cups. Pockets with see-through netting are provided on the backs of the front seats for passengers' cell phones and iPods.
The Sentra's interior volume measures 97.4 cubic feet, more than many of its competitors. The trunk measures 13.1 cubic feet (12.0 cubic feet for the SE-R Spec V). To increase cargo space, the 60/40 split rear seat can be folded flat, to open up the space into the trunk (due to a structural bulkhead, the SE-R Spec V lacks the folding seat). There's no problem fitting a bicycle or maybe two back there, through the trunk; two friendly people could even sleep back there.
We've spent time with a bare-bones Sentra 2.0 with cloth seats, a fully equipped 2.0 SL with leather, and a SE-R Spec V with its sport seats. We liked all of them.
We loved the supportive feel of the cloth seats; they embrace your back like a good hug, and are neither too firm nor too soft. The available leather is plush for a compact car; there's no reason to ride in a penalty box just because you're trying to save gas. The SE-R's sport seats are better bolstered and have a grippy fabric to keep the driver in place during enthusiastic cornering. They also get more flair, with special stitching and red seat belts on the Spec V.
The four-speaker sound system in the 2.0 was okay, while the eight-speaker Rockford Fosgate audio system offered in the 2.0 SL was great. The optional SD-card-based navigation system includes a 5-inch color touch screen display and XM NavTraffic (XM subscription required, sold separately).
A long wheelbase with short overhangs results in agreeable legroom for the rear-seat passengers. The back seats are relatively flat, however, so they won't be comfortable for long trips.
The instrument panel might be the nicest aspect of the interior. Again, it is very stylish, and functional, too. The instruments are sharp, the controls easy to operate, and the center stack features a strong-looking shift lever rising out at an agreeable angle, where it's easy to grab and operate. The trim around it all is a handsome flat silver. SE-R models get two additional gauges at the top of the center stack, one for oil pressure and one that displays acceleration and deceleration g forces.
The Nissan Sentra holds its own in a world of big vehicles. The base 2.0-liter engine puts the Sentra on par with other high-tech four-cylinder engines. Boasting an aluminum block and head, continuously variable valve timing, and electronic fuel injection, the 2.0-liter makes 140 horsepower. However, the real story is its strong torque of 147 pound-feet. Torque is important because it's needed for acceleration from lower speeds, such as when accelerating from an intersection or up a steep grade, and the Sentra feels quite powerful around town and in traffic.
Our Sentra 2.0 zoomed up freeway on-ramps, and felt like it belonged in the fast lane. It ran in 80-mph traffic with ease and had no trouble cruising at 90. The engine wasn't loud and didn't feel strained at that pace, although under full-throttle acceleration it was a bit noisy from 5000 rpm up to its redline of 6500.
Fuel economy for a Sentra with the 2.0-liter engine is an EPA-rated 27/34 mpg City/Highway with the CVT transmission, and 24/31 mpg with the six-speed manual.
The CVT is now in its third generation, and the technology has improved greatly. The main benefit with a CVT is better gas mileage, a result of less internal friction. With only two ranges, high and low, it's smoother because there's less shifting, though the sound is odd, as if the car is winding up like a snowmobile. Floor the gas pedal and the Sentra surges ahead aggressively.
The Sentra SE-R Spec V feels docile in traffic, in spite of the performance from its 200-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder. It makes its best power near redline, from 6600-7000 rpm, so you need to drive it enthusiastically to get the most out of it. It doesn't feel high-strung, however. It's easy to live with and provides that extra bit of oomph when you want to play. The Spec V comes with an easy-shifting six-speed manual transmission and the clutch works with ease, making the Spec V feel more like an everyday driver than a sport compact.
The suspension on all Sentras is struts in front with a torsion beam in the rear: The rear is a compact design with separate shocks and coil springs that allows more room for the trunk that's above it. In its base form, the suspension is forgiving. In its most aggressive state, in the SE-R Spec V (with higher-rate springs, shocks and bushings), it's firm in a quality kind of way, yet never harsh or uncomfortable. It feels rugged and inspires confidence out there in the cruel world of roadway realities. It even felt comfortable over a series of Chicago potholes. We haven't driven the standard SE-R, but we suspect it is also quite comfortable.
We had the opportunity to drive the SE-R Spec V at the fast 4.0-mile Road America circuit near Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. We found it to be fun but not razor sharp. The engine revved predictably, without climbing too quickly for the driver to keep up with gear shifts. The brakes didn't fade during our high-speed lap, and the handling gave nice feedback.
We also thrashed it around an autocross course. The engine provided good power out of corners, so much so that we spun the inside wheel. We would recommend the optional limited-slip differential for anyone wanting to do parking-lot autocrosses or other hard driving in the Spec V. The car leaned more in quick, sharp turns than an autocrosser would like, and wasn't as sharp as the likes of a Mini Cooper S or BMW 1 Series. Overall, when it comes to ride and handling, the Spec V is a comfortable road car, with decent handling that provides a lot of feedback as it approaches the edge of adhesion.
The brakes felt good on the street. Base models have vented 11-inch discs in front and drums in rear. The SE-R has 11.7-inch front discs and 11.5-inch rear discs, and the SE-R Spec V gets 12.6-inch front rotors. ABS is now standard on all models, right down to the base 2.0. We recommend ABS because the anti-lock brakes allow you to brake and steer at the same time in a panic stop.
The Sentra uses electric power steering, as opposed to hydraulic. It's speed-sensitive, which means the feel is lighter when parking and heavier out on the freeway, as it should be.
The Nissan Sentra is a solid compact sedan that gets good gas mileage and offers a great value. The cabin is roomy and comfortable with nice seats and an attractive instrument panel. Sentra offers two excellent engines and a fine, forgiving chassis. The SE-R Spec V provides driving fun without being harsh or high strung. Nissan nailed this one.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses reported from San Francisco, with Kirk Bell reporting from Chicago and John F. Katz from south-central Pennsylvania.