Overview

When discussing its vehicle marketing, Nissan employs what it calls a 3-sedan strategy. Which means, not surprisingly, the Japanese automaker is offering its U.S. audience three sedans in three different sizes and three different price ranges for the 1995 model year.

At the top of the list is the popular Maxima. Slotted beneath is the even more popular Altima. And rounding out the trio, the smallest and the least expensive of the Nissans, the all-new Sentra.

Now the key word when talking about the Sentra is sedan. There are no longer any coupes in the Sentra line, only 4-door sedans. There is a marketing strategy at work here as well. Sedan and coupe buyers are of two different types, according to Nissan, and the company found that the Sentra coupe turned off those buyers who associated Sentra with a sedan. As a result, there is a new coupe for those folks: the Nissan 200SX. It's a Sentra under the skin, but with a coupe-only name.

To insure all bases have been covered in this highly competitive small-sedan market segment, Nissan is offering the new Sentra in four flavors: base, XE, GXE and GLE. We tested a Sentra GLE that came in priced at $14,839.

Walkaround

Your first impression as you view the Nissan Sentra is that this is one fine little sedan. Clean lines abound, although the Sentra very much resembles what has become the look of most Japanese vehicles these days: low nose, high tail, arched roofline and rounded shoulders.

There is also plenty of room inside, high-quality materials and good fit-and-finish inside and out. The new shape has a more aerodynamic quality than the previous model, leading to better visibility and more trunk space.

The difference between the four models, of course, comes down to equipment. The base model is not very well-equipped, and one would do well to overlook it. In fact, it is so unappealing that Nissan predicts the model will represent only about 5 percent of the expecte 1995 Sentra sales.

The XE, by contrast, has a wealth of standard equipment, including air conditioning, AM/FM/cassette, full wheel covers, outside mirrors and body-color bumpers, making it a pretty good package.

Move up to the GXE and add cruise control, power assists, split rear seatbacks and black side moldings. And for the GLE, add to that list a sunroof, velour seat cloth, remote keyless entry, security system, alloy wheels, larger all-season tires and body-color side moldings.

All Sentras are powered by a 1.6-liter 16-valve DOHC 4-cylinder engine that produces 115 hp. The engine has had some refinements that have increased horsepower by five and fuel economy by a couple of gallons over last year's numbers. A 5-speed manual transmission is standard, though a 4-speed automatic is optional on all but the base model.

The front suspension hasn't changed, but the rear suspension is now a version of the multi-link beam design currently in use on the 1995 Maxima. The idea was to give the small Sentra sedan the ride and handling of a larger vehicle.

This new design, because it takes up less space, allowed for an increase in the Sentra's wheelbase to 99.8 in. That means a more roomy interior, especially in terms of rear-seat legroom - 1.5 in. more, to be exact. Also, fewer mounting points and soft-mount shock absorbers mean less noise transmission into the passenger compartment.

Interior Features

The redesigned Sentra is slightly larger inside and, thanks to bigger glass areas, might feel even roomier. We had enough head- and legroom to feel comfortable, even on long trips.

As far as standard interior equipment, all Sentra models come with features such as a tilt steering wheel, reclining front bucket seats with adjustable head restraints, pull-out dual cupholders, a handy center console and a foot rest for the driver.

The sentra's instrument panel is surprisingly handsome for a sedan in this category. The tachometer and speedometer are easy to read inside the instrument cluster, and are covered by a hood that sweeps quite gracefully into a pair of air outlets on the top front of the dash panel.

Below those outlets, a control panel for the air conditioning and sound system extends slightly forward from the dash panel. The knobs for the climate control are large and have a nice quality feel when they are turned.

The stereo system in the Sentra is a bit of a disappointment, though, earning only a barely average rating from us in terms of sound reproduction. The system had a large volume knob, but tuning the radio had to be performed with small up/down buttons that required too much of our test driver's attention.

Nissan has done a good job with the sentra's upholstery. Patterns are subdued and the cloth itself has a quality look - especially the velour in the GLE. There are also cloth panels in the doors of the GLE and GXE models instead of the typical grained plastic, adding to the this-is-not-a-cheap-little-sedan look.

In the all-important cubby count, the Sentra does just OK with storage compartments only in the doors, along with a small area for stowage just forward of the shift lever.

Safety features are evident throughout the Sentra, with all models having dual airbags, adjustable front shoulder-belt anchors and child-safety rear door locks. However, anti-lock brakes are optional only on the GXE and the GLE, a fact that we find to be regrettable.

Driving Impressions

The Sentra offers no surprises on the road, but no real disappointments, either. Although the 1.6-liter engine has good low-end torque, it definitely lacks zip at higher rpm. That means it will get you going smartly but won't provide any thrills once you're under way. It also is quite buzzy at high rpm. But these observations didn't come as a shock to us. The Sentra is a small sedan doing what most small sedans typically do.

Over the road, the Sentra delivers as advertised. The new rear suspension seems to exert a strong grip on the road, absorbing bumps, holes and ripples, and doesn't send much audible or vibrational evidence of its progress into the passenger compartment. And, despite the aforementioned buzz, engine noise was at acceptable levels, due (we think) to a much larger muffler and stiffer mounting of the engine than before.

The Sentra is, of course, rather light - 2400 lb. is the average weight of the four models - so it has a nimble feel on the road, which converts to easy maneuvering around town.

Add to the mix the increased body rigidity and you have a vehicle with noticeably improved handling. Also, the steering isn't over-assisted and transmits good road feel.

The 5-speed manual gearbox shifts smoothly with good gear-to-gear feel. The 4-speed automatic transmission offers equally smooth shifts and quick drop-down for passing.

Summary

Nissan's stated purpose when work began on the new Sentra was to build a small sedan with the ride, comfort and convenience of a larger car. In terms of those goals, the automaker was successful.

Another goal was to provide what the company called "superior driving performance." In that category, the Nissan Sentra falls short. But again, performance in this category is not high on most potential buyers' lists of must-haves.

What is important is that the new Sentra looks better, rides better, handles better and has more room than the car it replaces. That's progress, and that's enough for us to rate it a good small sedan.

Model Line Overview
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$11,389
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