Nissan Sentra — chiseled good looks and a new size

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The collective we were pleasantly surprised by the spacious interior of the redesigned compact Nissan Sentra sedan after just a few miles in the driver's seat. That's because we are familiar with the previous iteration, having owned a 2002 model.

The old Sentra was smaller inside and out than the '07, but far from uncomfortable. In fact, we've always thought it about the right size.

We like the additional room offered by the new Sentra. And that emphasizes the fact that for about three decades manufacturers have associated bigger with better each time they introduce an all-new model.

Size has become paramount. In terms of size, the new sixth-generation Sentra is the old Altima. Over at Honda, the Civic is the old Accord. And the current-generation Toyota Corolla is the old Camry. If this trend continues, we will be driving Civics and Sentras that rival Lincoln Town Cars and Cadillac DeVilles in size.

OK, that's a bit far-fetched. The growth spurt has to end somewhere. But you get the picture. Small cars are growing into mid-sized cars and mid-sized cars are edging into full-sized territory.

At the same time automakers haven't abandoned the small-car market. They are adding all-new sub-compact products to the bottom of the lineup.

The Sentra, once the bottom-feeding fish in the Nissan aquarium, has been replaced by the all-new Versa. The Versa is nearly identical in size to the previous Sentra and it is a remarkably fuel-efficient small car with excellent interior space and a host of features.

As for the Sentra, we have liked it for many years. In its standard iteration it has been a very pleasant conservatively styled small family sedan with good fuel economy, decent performance, a smooth ride, comfortable interior and a nice array of features at a fair price.

Nissan has done a credible job in keeping the new, larger edition pointed in the same direction.

Even though initial television ads targeted the Sentra at 20-something buyers, we think it will continue to attract just as many 60-something customers who are looking for the new-found spaciousness in an affordable sedan with enough amenities to satisfy their needs.

Perhaps those ads should have been aimed at the Versa. It will be interesting to see if the Versa siphons off Sentra sales. But regardless, Nissan will be the winner.

The Sentra has a more chiseled look and a more aggressive stance than the previous model. In fact, it is so much different than the preceding model, there's the possibility it will turn off current owners, although it did not turn us off. In profile it looks somewhat like a miniature version of the mid-sized Altima. Nissan design cues can be seen in the front grille and headlights.

The interior also gets a new treatment, and this is a good thing. The new look shouldn't turn anybody off. The relatively simple center stack is trimmed in aluminum-looking accents, the three round climate controls are intuitive and have a good feel and the stereo controls are easily decipherable. It’s very well done. Also nicely done is the gear shifter location jutting out from the center stack just below the stereo and climate controls.

One of our criticisms of the previous Sentra was its lack of motivation from the 126-horsepower 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine. It did the chores it was assigned, but with a passing grade of a C minus. The new edition is improved with a 2.0-liter 16-valve 4-cylinder engine generating 140 horsepower and 147 pound-feet of torque. We like the sprightly manner the Sentra moved in stoplight-to-stoplight driving. And merging and passing were accomplished without drama.

Performance and gas mileage are about equal from either a six-speed manual or the new-for-'07 continuously variable transmission (CVT). Figure about 28 around town and 34 to 35 mpg on the highway according to EPA guidelines.

The standard Sentra — the more sports-oriented SE-R version is due later this year — has never been a road carver. Suspension is soft, but the sedan has confident handling traits under normal driving conditions. In other words, the Sentra is designed to accomplish everyday chores, but lacks the sporty demeanor for weekend road rallies leaving that to the SE-R.

The Sentra is endowed with a relatively quiet interior, something not always associated with cars in entry-level segments. The lack of intrusive noise can be credited in part to Nissan's use of liquid-filled engine mounts, which help eliminate vibration and noise from the engine compartment.

The Sentra comes in three trim levels — base, S and SL — starting at an economical $14,750. The top-of-the-line SL begins at $18,400. While the Sentra can be outfitted with considerable amenities, the base model is somewhat thread bare and lives only to give dealers an attractive advertising price.

We know this first hand because our test car was a base model devoid of extras.

It comes with 15-inch steel wheels, air conditioning, a four-speaker stereo with CD player and MP3 jack and power windows and doorlocks. There are no power mirrors, no keyless entry, no cruise control and perhaps worst of all, no antilock brakes. Safety is provided in all models in the form of side-impact airbags and side curtain airbags.

Moving up to the mid-level S model with CVT at $16,450 brings a reasonable list of equipment. The S adds 16-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry, power mirrors, steering-wheel mounted audio controls and six-speaker stereo.

The top trim level adds several things normally associated with higher-priced vehicles including keyless start and Bluetooth capability.

Enticing extras include a 340-watt Rockford Fosgate sound system with either XM or Sirius Satellite radio, a power sunroof, and a rear-deck spoiler.

Navigation systems have been trickling down automakers' lineups for several years, but navigation is not yet available on the Sentra.

While the new styling may turn off some shoppers, the Sentra remains what it has been for years — a comfortable small car that's adequate for around-town driving as well as highway jaunts. Now it comes with more available features, more horsepower and a more spacious interior.


Base price, $14,750, as driven, $14,750
Engine: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 140 @ 5,100 rpm
Torque: 147 foot-pounds @ 4,800 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Turning circle: 35.4 feet
Curb weight: 2,853 pounds
Wheelbase: 105.7 inches
Length: 179.8 inches
Luggage capacity: 13.1 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 14.5 gallons
EPA mileage: 34 mpg highway, 28 city
0-60: 9.4 seconds (Motor Trend)
Also consider: Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Mazda3, Hyundai Elantra

The Good:
• Generous interior space
• Fuel efficient despite horsepower increase

The Bad:
• Four-wheel disc brakes not available, and ABS is standard on only the top model

The Ugly:
• A better vehicle than its predecessor, but it doesn't raise the bar enough to compete with the best in the segment