Comfortable, practical, and sporty.
by Phil Berg
Base Price (MSRP) $11,649
As Tested (MSRP) $17,116
Nissan completely redesigned its Sentra. It's a bigger car than the previous generation: a lot longer, a little wider and a bit taller. Fortunately, the Sentra's smooth-running character has been preserved.
There's more power under the hood, particularly for the XE and GXE models, which come with a new 1.8-liter engine. A performance package turns the 2.0-liter SE model into a small sports sedan in looks and in performance. Indeed, the all-new Nissan Sentra is now a less-expensive competitor for Volkswagen's hot-selling Jetta. And that's quite a compliment.
Introduced late last year as a 2000 model, the Sentra adds an inside emergency trunk release for 2001.
Sentra is available as four models nationwide: base XE, well-equipped GXE, sporty SE and environmentally conscious CA (Clean Air). Two engines are available.
The lineup starts with the $11,649 XE, a stripper model that only a small percentage of Sentra customers will buy. The XE comes with Nissan's new 126-horsepower 1.8-liter engine that replaces the previous 1.6-liter engine. An $1199 XE Option Package makes it more comfortable. But at that point it may make sense to move up to the GXE.
GXE is expected to be the most popular model. It starts at $13,499. GXE includes the new 1.8-liter engine, and adds a host of features that turn it into a comfortable sedan: cruise control, intermittent wipers, tachometer, a compact disc stereo and power windows, mirrors and door locks. With an automatic transmission and a GXE Convenience Package it retails for $14,449. Sentra GXE can also be equipped with optional 15-inch wheels and tires as well as anti-lock brakes, which we recommend highly. It is also available with optional side-impact airbags for the front seats, making the Sentra a safety conscious alternative to a bigger but older car. Both the XE and GXE come with rear drum brakes.
SE ($14,899) comes equipped with the larger 145-horsepower twin-cam 2.0-liter engine. Included in the optional SE Performance Package ($899) are 16-inch wheels with P195/55R16 tires, a big rear spoiler and flashy side sills, and a security system. The suspension is firmer to match the capability of the bigger tires. You can't get the 16-inch tires and firmest suspension without getting the exhibitionist spoiler and side sills. The Performance Package also includes the top-line 180-watt, seven-speaker sound system. A six-disc in-dash head unit ($399) and a motorized moonroof are optional. The total, $16,896, is about $1500 more than a comparably equipped Ford Focus ZTS, but $1000 less than a four-cylinder VW Jetta GLS.
Anti-lock brakes and side-impact air bags are a smart buy at $699 for GXE and SE.
The new Sentra CA (Clean Air) model is the first gasoline-fueled vehicle to meet CARB super ultra low emissions vehicle (SULEV) standards set by the California Air Resources Board. Nissan is building 500 CA models, powered by a 122-horsepower version of the new 1.8-liter engine. This low-friction engine uses three catalytic converters and a special sealed fuel system; it is optimized to run on the latest low-sulfur fuel available in California. The engine equipment is expensive, but Nissan is offering it for $14,799. Fuel economy suffers 1 to 2 miles per gallon over the standard engine. You can run the car on non-California fuel containing more sulfur, but emissions increase; do this long enough and it'll degrade the catalysts.
Nissan has learned that refined and nimble little economy cars don't sell too well if they're homely. It learned this from its 1995-1999 Sentra. There's a lot of competition for economy cars coming from bigger used cars, which are now off-lease and selling at attractive discounts. But some folks, particularly smart female shoppers, prefer new, reasonably priced sedans to used cars.
So this new Sentra is an attractive car. Its styling is now as slick as the Civic. "Compact" is a relative term, as all these cars seem to grow over time. The new Sentra pushes the boundaries of its sub-compact industry classification. It is longer than other four-door compact sedans: It's longer than the Mitsubishi Mirage by four inches, the Mazda Protege and Toyota Corolla by three inches, and the Honda Civic by two inches. And it looks it: The stretched body isn't tucked underneath the bumpers at the ends of the car, making it look even longer.
At first glance the front seats look like normal economy car perches, but once you're in them they feel much roomier. One reason is that the seats are adjustable eight ways, instead of the normal four. The roomy new interior holds more people and cargo. The rear seats are able to accommodate grownups now, and all seating positions provide more breathing room. An available 60/40 split folding rear seatback can be unlatched from the trunk. All three seating positions in the rear have three-point belts, though three back there is a crowd. The four outboard belts are equipped with automatic tensioners, an important safety feature for an economy car. This is equipment that many bigger sedans didn't have just five years ago.
Stereo controls are positioned high on the center console, making them easy to adjust, and the silver trim of the faceplate matches the latest in European Continental design found on the trendy Ford Focus. Other controls are straightforward and easy to use.
This new Sentra hums right along. We drove a GXE with a five-speed manual to 100 mph quite easily in the desert, and it was revving at a relatively calm 4500 rpm. The car rode as stable as the larger Altima at this speed, and wind and tire noise was very low. This is the kind of car that can get even choir teachers and librarians lots of speeding tickets. At the legal speed limit of 70 mph, the engine turns just 3100 rpm in fifth and the automatic-equipped model revs even lower.
We were enthused by the more powerful SE models. The SE has terrific, sensitive brakes and stops as confidently as the big Maxima or even a BMW or Audi. That performance is due to the rear disc brakes, and a well-damped suspension. The difference in brake pedal feel is broad: The drum-equipped GXE had a soft-feeling, almost spongy brake pedal compared to the SE versions. The sportier models' pedals feel firm, and while pedal travel is short, there's no loss of sensitivity. It feels like you end up using less leg muscle to stop the SE models.
Holding the Sentra up are the familiar struts in front and a coil-spring beam axle in the rear. The softest-sprung version of the suspension comes on the XE and GXE, while the SE models get two progressively stiffer setups for folks who like to feel the road. SE models also get larger wheels and tires and rear disc brakes, as well as a substantial-looking tubular strut tower brace.
SE's high-performance 2.0-liter engine is shared with the pricey Infiniti G20. Nissan increased power slightly buy using a larger intake, lighter crankshaft, coated pistons and a variable restriction muffler. At its 6750 redline, the exhaust note is notably quiet, and there's no buzzing or rattling as you would expect of an economy car. This familiar engine endeared us to the pre-'95 Sentra SE-R, only this time around it's in a more substantial body. We're impressed with the refinement of this car, even at its acceleration and handling limits.
Shifting the five-speed manual is more of a fluid motion than you'll make in a VW, but it's still a long-travel sedan shifter, and you can feel the rod linkage move as the engine rocks on its mounts. It's not a Miata-like sports shifter. SE manual transmissions get a nifty viscous limited-slip front differential. Nissan also tuned the SE's optional automatic transmission for smoother shifting.
You'll like whipping along a challenging two-lane road in the SE. The Sentra feels bigger and more grownup than a Honda Civic, and it feels more hunkered down and less top-heavy than a Ford Focus ZTS. The SE has notably heavier steering at low speeds than the GXE, so a day of parking in New York City means you can skip the health club. On bumps in the GXE there's a bit of steering column shake that isn't present in the SE (or in the Altima or Maxima). The suspension travel feels adequately long on rough roads, and on really big bumps the jounce bumpers actuate gradually, like a Honda's.
GXE and XE models run smooth and quiet. The new 1.8-liter engine revs easily to its 6500 redline. The EPA rates it at 26/33 mpg city/highway with an automatic transmission, and 27/35 with a five-speed manual. This engine using a timing chain instead of the cheaper and quieter timing belt. You don't notice the extra noise generated by the timing chain on the GXE, however. Four big engine mounts isolate the motor, and a welcome list of sound-deadening treatments keep noise and vibration very low. The new 1.8-liter engine is designed to deliver its power lower in the rev range, where most Americans shift. Most Americans opt for automatic transmissions in their Sentras, making the new five-speed gearbox a rarer item. Low-rpm torque and carefully mapped gearing allow GXE and XE models with automatics to accelerate quickly from intersections yet cruise at highway speeds in a relaxed manner.
Nissan's new Sentra is a willing sedan with a smoothness that leaves you feeling it's worth more than its price. Cruising along an interstate is a peaceful experience in both the GXE and the SE models. On winding roads, it offers sporty handling that makes it fun to drive. Stiff suspension tuning and big 16-inch wheels with Firestone Firehawk GTA tires give the SE with the Performance Package the abilities of a European sedan.
All-new styling is neat and proportioned. We sense that Nissan is in the position that Volkswagen was a decade ago when its cars were very good, but nobody noticed, and few purchased. If you're in the market for an affordable sedan that's easy to look at and tons of fun to drive, then you shouldn't wait for Nissan's fortunes in the mass market to improve as a result of this new Sentra.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.