Pros: Low base price; peppy base engine; six-speed manual transmission
Cons: Basic interior appointments; high levels of road noise
The Nissan Sentra was first unveiled in 1982. Since its inception more than three decades ago, the Sentra has been through six generations. The most recent generation was introduced in 2006 as a 2007 model. The 2012 model is virtually unchanged from the 2010 model, which saw a mid-cycle refresh to the front fascia.
The Sentra is available in six models: base (referred to the Sentra 2.0), S, SR, SL, SE-R and SE-R Spec V, and with a range of engine and transmission combinations. Depending on model, buyers can choose between a 2.0-liter inline-4 and a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine mated to either a six-speed manual or continuously variable transmission.
Comfort & Utility
The Sentra's interior is large enough (97.7 cubic feet of interior volume) to accommodate five adults comfortably. The Sentra's trunk provides 13.1 cubic feet of additional cargo space. With a 60/40 split double-fold rear seat (the bottom cushion folds forward, allowing the seat back to fold down flat), the Sentra offers decent cargo carrying capability.
In addition to its wide-open interior space, Nissan has cleverly incorporated other storage solutions into the Sentra, including a rear seat armrest with cupholders that can accommodate a 20-ounce bottle and a 32-ounce drink cup, extra instrument panel storage next to the driver's door, and a large glove compartment that can fit an eight-by-11-inch writing tablet or a large map.
The center console also offers multiple storage options, including an adjustable cupholder design and cell phone space.
The 2012 Sentra is far from being the most tech-savvy vehicle in its class. In fact, it's near the bottom of the tech heap. The Sentra is available with Nissan's Intelligent Key keyless entry and ignition system, Bluetooth hands-free connectivity and a premium Rockford Fosgate audio system with eight speakers.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The 2012 Sentra is offered with a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine that makes 140 horsepower and 147 lb-ft of torque, mated to a standard Xtronic continuously variable transmission or a six-speed manual transmission. Fuel economy is rated at 27 mpg in the city and 34 mpg on the highway with the CVT. With the six-speed manual transmission, fuel economy suffers slightly with a rating of 24/31 mpg.
When customers step up to the SE-R Spec V, Nissan fits the Sentra with a 2.5-liter inline-4 engine that produces 200 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque. The SE-R Spec V is rated at 21/28 mpg.
The 2012 Sentra is built with many standard safety features, including ABS with electronic brake-force distribution, vehicle dynamic control and traction control.
Other standard safety features for the Sentra include dual-stage supplemental front air bags with seatbelt sensors and occupant classification sensor, front seat-mounted side impact supplemental air bags, roof-mounted curtain side impact airbags and and front-seat active head restraints.
The driving experience provided by the Sentra isn't really anything to write home about. Time was, the Sentra was above average in power delivery, handling and overall driving enjoyment-but the 1990s are long gone.
In the interim, companies like Ford, Chevrolet and Mazda have stepped up their game. All three-among others-now sell really well-sorted compact sedans. Meanwhile, the Sentra has essentially remained the same and hasn't been improved much over the years.
The power from the 2.0-liter inline-4 in the base Sentra is peppy but not surprisingly so. When optioned with a CVT, the Sentra is slow off the line but finds its stride in the higher RPMs. At highway speeds, however, the Sentra suffers from high levels of wind and road noise. Again, this used to be acceptable in compact cars, but with quiet cabins like that found in the Ford Focus, it's hard to ignore the Sentra's faults.
Other Cars to Consider
Ford Focus - Starting at $16,500, the Focus is a sight better-looking than the Sentra. For the money, it has 20 more hp, and it achieves better fuel economy all around.
Chevrolet Cruze - The Cruze starts at $16,800 and is built on the German platform of the Opel Astra. It's smooth, relatively inexpensive and well built. Unlike the Focus, the base Cruze is available with a six-speed manual transmission.
Mitsubishi Lancer - With a base price of $15,695, the Lancer is the cheapest of the bunch. The ride isn't as refined or as quiet as in the Cruze or the Focus. But the Lancer is available with all-wheel drive, which sets it apart nicely from the competition.
More often than not, we recommend buyers upgrade with options and higher trim levels. But in the case of the Sentra, with its less-than-impressive tech upgrades, we won't. Instead, we recommend buyers look to the base Sentra 2.0, which starts at $16,250. At that price, the Sentra is fitted with a smooth-shifting six-speed manual transmission and basic interior appointments.