But we want our small cars big, so the Sentra moves into that territory. Those who want truly small cars have other options: the Nissan Versa, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, and all-wheel-drive Suzuki SX4, to name a few.
The Sentra is aimed at Echo Boomers, those kids of Baby Boomers. So if the Sentra is the second car they've owned in their lifetime, it might be a step up in size. Nissan believes that these folks virtually live in their cars, so in designing the new Sentra, they've tried to create a mobile backpack.
The cabin is more spacious, and is finished like a more expensive car, with wonderfully supportive seats in either cloth or rich leather. One thing the Sentra doesn't have, surprisingly, is a fifth door: no hatchback model, only the sedan. But at least the 60/40 rear seats fold flat, opening up the trunk space, creating a large flat cargo area, or a cozy space for two Echo Boomers to sleep.
There's an all-new aluminum 2.0-liter engine, more powerful and fuel efficient than before, to go with the new chassis and body. It's mated to either a wonderful six-speed gearbox, or an optional new CVT, continuously variable transmission. If you like a manual gearbox in a car like this, the six-speed transforms the feel of the Sentra, and it's the way to go; but if you just want to forget the car has a transmission, the CVT is the call.
Nissan Sentra 2.0 ($14,750); 2.0S ($15,650); 2.0SL ($18,400)
Large door openings make it easy to climb in and out, and a high, distinctive rear deck offers ample trunk space.
The 2007 Sentra is 4 inches higher and 3.2 inches wider than before, and has a wheelbase 5.9 inches longer while only increasing the overall length by 2.3 inches, so there's a lot less of the body hanging over the wheels. This means better balance on the road. And the latest chassis are safer, with crush zones built into less space. Everything about a car is packaged so much more efficiently, today, in the cabin and under the hood. The Sentra is no exception.
You'll make no compromises in looks, comfort, safety or style, to have this inexpensive compact car in your driveway.
With 97.4 cubic feet of cabin space, the '07 Sentra has more room than the Mazda3, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, and Chevy Cobalt, in that order. In trunk volume, the Cobalt makes up for it, with 13.9 cubic feet, compared to the Sentra's 13.1; but the Sentra has something simple but clever, in its optional (2.0S and 2.0SL) Divide-N-Hide trunk. The trunk is so deep that it can accept a false folding back, creating a secret space about 20 inches wide, just behind the rear seat.
We spent time in both a bare-bones Sentra 2.0 with cloth seats, and the fully equipped 2.0SL with leather. 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 leather is plush for a compact car.
The four-speaker sound system in the 2.0 was okay, and the six-speaker Rockford Fosgate audio system with in-dash 6-disc CD system in the 2.0SL was great.
The longer wheelbase with shorter overhangs results in more legroom for the rear seat passengers. When there's no one back there, the 60/40 split rear seat drops flat, to open up the space into the trunk. There's no problem fitting a bicycle (or maybe two) back there, through the trunk; two friendly Echo Boomers could even sleep back there.
But the new instrument panel might be the nicest aspect of the interior. Again, 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 a 45-degree angle. The trim around it all is a handsome flat silver.
Our Sentra 2.0 zoomed up freeway on-ramps, and felt like it belonged in the fast lane. The flow of traffic in northern California was more than 80 mph, and the Sentra ran 90 with ease. 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.
The Sentra is EPA rated at 29 city and 36 highway miles per gallon, with the new CVT transmission, as in our test model. This is the third generation of that transmission, and the technology improves in leaps. The main benefit with a CVT is less internal friction, for better gas mileage. With only two ranges, high and low, it's smoother because there's less shifting, although the sound is odd, like the car is winding up. And the surge when you floor it is pretty aggressive. The 2007 Nissan Altima has a manual mode for the CVT transmission, turning it into a six-speed; but the Sentra, alas, does not.
The suspension is a new independent configuration in front, with a torsion beam in the rear, a compact design with separate shocks and coil springs that allows more room for the trunk that's above it. 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 potholes.
The brakes feel even better. Vented 11-inch discs in front and drums in rear. It's unfortunate that ABS isn't standard except in the 2.0 SL, especially considering all the other standard safety equipment; but at least the option is only $250. We recommend it 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 word that applies to every aspect of the all-new 2007 Sentra is solid. Nissan has nailed this one, from a design standpoint. It's got a new engine, chassis, styling and interior, all of which are excellent and will keep the Sentra near the top of its competitive class of well-built cars. For the price, the Sentra is a great value.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from San Francisco.