The Nissan Sentra, which was completely redesigned and re-engineered for the 2007 model year, continues into 2009 with only minimal changes. Among those things which are new for 2009: A slightly restyled trunk lid, new cloth seat selections, automatic door locks are made standard, MP3 capability on the 2.0 S and 2.0 SL trim levels, a new Premium Plus Package for the 2.0 SL, and three new exterior colors.
The Sentra may be thought of as a compact, but it's not that small. The truly small cars are subcompacts: Nissan Versa, Toyota Yaris, and Honda Fit. The Sentra is larger and roomier than those cars and competes with compacts such as the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. Sentra comes only as a four-door sedan (no hatchback is offered) and all models are front-wheel drive.
This latest-generation Sentra was designed for American buyers. As a result, the cabin is spacious and it's finished like a more expensive car, with wonderfully supportive seats in cloth or leather. The 60/40 split rear seat folds flat, opening up the trunk space and creating a large flat cargo area. It's enough space for two to sleep back there, or to haul long items.
The high-performance Sentra SE-R and the higher performance SE-R Spec V feature a 2.5-liter four-cylinder tuned to 177 horsepower and 200 horsepower respectively. These SE-R models have suspension modifications for sharper handling. The SE-R models have more power and better handling, but they're easy to live with and offer all the advantages of the standard Sentra. For 2009, SE-R models have a new Premium Audio Package and two new exterior colors.
Sentra 2.0 models come with an aluminum 2.0-liter engine and a choice of a wonderful six-speed manual gearbox or a CVT continuously variable automatic transmission. These cars are good values. They're roomy inside, the engine is modern and competitive, and the chassis provides good handling and a comfortable ride. Sentras with the 2.0-liter engine are EPA rated at 25/33 mpg City/Highway with the CVT, 24/31 mpg with the six-speed manual. Nissan is a leader in CVT, or continuously variable transmission, design, and we've been happy with them.
The Sentra is built on Nissan's C-platform, which is larger than the subcompact Versa's B-platform and smaller than the midsize Altima's D-platform. The current-generation Sentra is considerably larger than the pre-2007 model. From every angle, it looks like the latest-generation Nissans. With its crisp character lines, the Sentra resembles a scaled down Altima.
The Sentra is offered only as a four-door sedan. Hatchback buyers will want to look elsewhere, including to the smaller Versa.
Designers paid special attention to the grille, front fascia, big trapezoidal halogen headlamps, and steeply raked windshield. The short front overhang lends a sporty look.
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 look 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.
Sentra SE-R models have more aggressive front and rear fascias, side sill extensions that visually lower the car, a rear spoiler, 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 practically live out of 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.
With 97.4 cubic feet of cabin space, the Sentra offers more room than the Mazda3, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, and Chevy Cobalt.
The trunk measures 13.1 cubic feet (12.0 cubic feet for the SE-R Spec V). The Cobalt offers 13.9 cubic feet. The Sentra 2.0 SL offers the simple but clever Divide-N-Hide trunk ($150). 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.
For 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 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 with in-dash 6CD in the 2.0 SL was great.
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 a 45-degree angle. 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 (same as the Honda Civic, eight hp more than the Toyota Corolla and eight hp less than the Mazda3). However, the real story is its strong torque: With 147 pound-feet, it beats those other cars. 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 25/33 mpg City/Highway with the CVT transmission, and 24/31 mpg with the six-speed manual.
The CVT (continuously variable transmission) 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 it 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 an 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. In its base form, it's 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 but didn't feel as agile as a Subaru WRX STi or Mitsubishi Evo X.
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, BMW 1 Series, or even a Chevrolet Cobalt SS. Overall, when it comes to ride and handling, we'd liken the Spec V to the Honda Civic Si: They're both comfortable road cars, with decent handling that provides a lot of feedback as they approach 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 standard on all but the base model. 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.