All cars in this class involve tradeoffs, but if you want an affordable, reliable driver's car, the Protege ES is unbeatable. It's got the best handling in the class, it's the roomiest in it's class, it's as reliable as a Corolla, and it's peppier than the Corolla or Civic. The Sentra SE has more under the hood, but it won't handle as well, and it will likely be in the shop some.
I've had this car for 2 years now, and I still absolutely love to drive it. Bottom line, this is an extremely practical car that's a lot of fun to drive. One final note: compared with the ES, the 2000 DX and LX have a smaller, underpowered engine. The ES is the one to own.
Great handling, very fun to drive, extremely reliable, roomy for class
Not great gas mileage, more horsepower, more torque at low RPMs, road noise