Durability spoken here. by Ray Thursby
Though Nissan competes in almost every segment of the automotive markeplace, the solid cornerstone of the company's operations is its small-car lineup. The four-door Sentra is, as it has been for years, a solid player in a very tough arena.
There's no magic to being a leader among dozens of nameplates. Almost every customer with $15,000 or less to spend wants the same things -- quality, economy, safety, reliability and as many features as can reasonably be installed in an inexpensive people-hauler.
Beyond that, buyers prize stretch-out roominess. Cramped quarters are perhaps acceptable in subcompact entry-level cars -- the Ford Festiva and Hyundai Accent, for example -- but members of this larger and more expensive compact group are true sedans with separate trunks and longer wheelbases. As such, they're expected to accommodate at least four adult-size passenger.
Many companies build cars that fill the bill; Honda's Civic, the Ford Escort/Mercury Tracer, Chrysler's Neon twins, Mazda Protege, Geo Prizm and Toyota Corolla are good examples. But Nissan adds a little something to the equation. While it meets the virtues listed above, it also offers genuine driving pleasure. That, plus a dash of individual, recognizable style, helps give the Sentra visibility in a busy field.
The Sentra was completely redesigned in 1995. Drawing on the successful formula of the larger Nissan Altima, the Sentra's shape is softly rounded, a welcome departure from the severely boxy, utilitarian look of the earlier version.
Nissan's designers created a smooth, classically-proportioned sedan body that's both elegant and efficient. The design follows current aerodynamic trends with its high tail, but this is also a practical touch, as it gives the Sentra a well-shaped trunk space.
Visual distinctions between basic E, XE, GXE and GLE Sentras are subtle. The least-expensive is, naturally, the plainest of the bunch, with steel wheels, a single exterior mirror on the driver's side, black bumpers and a rock bottom price of $11,499. This is one of those models that exists primarily to give the manufacturer a low price point for advertising purposes, and it's virtually devoid of the creature comforts that make motoring more pleasant.
All the rest have body-colored bumpers. The XE (from $13,529) and GXE (from $14,459) have dual side mirrors and full wheel covers, while the top-of-the-line GLE ($15,229) rides on larger-diameter aluminum alloy wheels and includes a power glass moonroof in its extensive inventory of standard features.
Beyond exterior and interior trim differences -- and the spartan furnishings of the base model -- there are some other good reasons to choose one of the higher-grade Sentras. The first is availability of anti-lock brakes on GXE and GLE models; disc brakes replace the rear drums when this option -- $999 -- is ordered.
Also, all grades above the base car have standard air conditioning, plus power steering and a rear anti-roll bar that makes a readily noticeable improvement in the Sentra's cornering ability.
In past years, Sentras were offered in two-door body styles, as well as sedans. That's not technically true anymore, though it is in essence. Nissan has separated the coupes from the sedans as a separate line -- the 200SX. However, the coupes share the same basic chassis and powertrain hardware, although the line does have one model -- the 200SX SE-R -- with a substantially more powerful (140 hp) 2.0-liter dohc 16-valve four-cylinder engine.
All Sentras are powered by a 1.6-liter dohc 16-valve four-cylinder engine. This smooth powerplant develops 115 hp, which is enough to give the cars good -- though far from class-leading -- performance, thanks in part to low curb weights. Fuel economy is excellent with either the standard five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic transmission.
Though Sentras equipped with automatic transmissions are sold as separate models, the self-shifter adds about $800.
Our test car was a GLE with a five-speed manual transmission and ABS.
The Inside Story
You don't get luxury car extras like leather or woodgrain trim inside the Sentra; what you do get is a cabin that will seat four comfortably -- five for short distances -- decked out in cloth upholstery and durable plastics.
The seats are very good, with the reclinable front buckets offering good adjustability and support for a car in this class, even in bare-bones the base model. Rear seats in GXE and GLE models add a split/folding seatback, to expand trunk space when there's long stuff to stow.
However, rear seat leg room is on the skimpy side, compared to cars like the Neon and GM's Chevy Cavalier/Pontiac Sunbird cousins.
As you'd expect, the more expensive Sentras look a little nicer inside. XE and GXE models have a higher grade of woven cloth than the fabric in the basic Sentra, while the GLE seats are covered with an attractive and comfortable velour. All four models have full carpeting and handy map pockets in the front door panels.
Regardless of model, the Sentra provides a comfortable driving position -- the standard tilt steering helps -- and the few controls required are all within easy reach.
Instrumentation is sparse in most models, with only a speedometer, fuel gauge and coolant temperature gauge. The GLE's instrument cluster also includes a tachometer, a useful instrument in cars with small, relatively high-revving engines.
A clock is integrated into the standard AM/FM/cassette audio system that's provided with all but base Sentras.
Trunk space is so-so for the class at 10.7 cubic feet. However, the shape does help. All the available space is useable, and is easily reached through a large opening with a low liftover. No glamor back here; the floor of the trunk is covered by a plain but durable rubber mat.
Ride & Drive
Considering the distances the economical Sentra can travel between fill-ups, it ought to be a comfortable car. And it is. On most roads, the small Nissan rides smoothly, and its stiff body structure isolates occupants from road noise and the small shocks that can translate themselves as noise through the suspension bushings.
As small sedans go, Sentras are nimble and fun to drive as well. The suspension is firm enough to provide good control. The power steering is light, yet transmits plenty of road feel to the driver and, with the larger, wider tires that go with the GLE, traction is good.
As speeds through corners increase, some body roll shows up, but the tires give plenty of warning before losing adhesion. The brakes are effective, with or without ABS, though it's an option we recommend.
The manual transmission works well with the Sentra engine, giving the car good stoplight getaway and ready response for the traffic wars that go with daily commuting. The Sentra can hit 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds, not as quick as a Neon but better than average for this class. Naturally, a full load of passengers takes the edge of the performance.
All in all, the Nissan Sentra stacks up as a reasonable car. It packs a fair amount of value into a reasonably priced package, handles well enough to be fun to drive and has enough go-power to keep commuting from being drudgery.
It's also finished as well as virtually all its rivals, and better than most.
No $15,000 car is going to be luxurious, yet that sum does buy a Sentra that is very well equipped with features that make daily driving and even long trips easy to take. And careful packaging of these features means that the buyer need not spend time sorting through lists of optional equipemnt; one of the four models will probably have everything you want in a basic transportation car.
Although we tested the GLE, we think the XE or GXE represent a little better value, provided a tachometer isn't particularly important to you. We also think the base Sentra is a little too austere for anything but pizza delivery service.
As a durable transportation device, the sentra measures up well compared to the rest of this class. Its repair history suggests that it will be reliable and inexpensive to maintain.
Add better-than-average fit and finish, achieved by U.S. workers at Nissan's huge facility in Smyrna, Tennesse, and we'd say that the smallest Nissan merits at least a look by small car shoppers.
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© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.