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The Nissan Sentra has been vying for the wallets of economy-car shoppers since 1982. For most of that time, the Sentra's overall refinement and image have trailed the segment leaders. There have been periods, however, when this car has been one of the best choices available.
That applies to the current Nissan Sentra, which benefits from a redesign that provides greater space, a higher-quality cabin and improved fuel economy. While it may lack the visual pizzazz and driver involvement of its competitors, today's Sentra is definitely a compelling choice. As a used model, the Sentra is less desirable but its high fuel efficiency and low upkeep costs could make it worth a look.
Current Nissan Sentra
The current Nissan Sentra was completely redesigned for 2013. It is bigger yet lighter than the car it replaced, with a more refined style that is almost reminiscent of a Lexus. The cabin gets higher-quality materials, extra room and the latest high-tech items that are increasingly common in the compact segment. The engine actually has less power than its predecessor, but is more fuel efficient, highlighting a change in shoppers' priorities.
The Sentra sedan comes standard with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder rated at 130 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque. Fuel economy is excellent and gets a hair better with the special FE+ model. A six-speed manual transmission is standard on the base model, but a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) is included on all other models.
The Sentra's engine is pleasantly muted while accelerating moderately and while cruising at freeway speeds. Only under hard acceleration does the engine get vocal, but it's nothing objectionable, especially given the segment in which it competes. The Sentra's CVT is one of the better ones out there, offering fairly quiet freeway cruising and little of the strangely elastic "rubber-banding" sensation some of these transmissions have.
There are four trim levels: S, SV, SR and SL. The base model S has air-conditioning, full-power accessories and an auxiliary audio jack. The SV doesn't add much in the way of standard equipment, but rather increases the availability of options. The SR is essentially an SV with sporty design elements, while the SL gets the sort of luxury and convenience items that have begun showing up in this segment.
Cabin quality and design are priorities for the latest small sedans, and the Sentra is no different. Nissan has taken a more refined and conservative approach, however, while many of its rivals go for a funky and more youthful vibe. Fit and finish is a strong suit, and the SL in particular, looks like a junior luxury car.
In total, the Sentra's cabin speaks to the car itself. It's a more grown-up sort of compact car that eschews look-at-me styling and zippy wannabe sports car dynamics for a sensible, comfortable and economical formula. We suspect that will likely appeal to many shoppers.
Used Nissan Sentra Models
The previous, sixth-generation Nissan Sentra was produced from 2007-'12. It featured slightly larger dimensions than the fifth-generation model and employed Nissan's design language of the time, giving it a measure of styling pizzazz it never had. It was also better to drive, although as with many of its predecessors, many of the car's attributes could be described as being "close but no cigar" when compared to the best in class.
For much of this generation's production, there were six main trim levels: four variants based on the 2.0-liter engine (base, S, SR and SL) and two high-performance versions (SE-R and SE-R Spec V). All models but the SE-R got a 2.0-liter inline-4 that made 140 hp. The SE-R had a 2.5-liter four with 177 hp, while the SE-R Spec V had a modified version of the 2.5-liter engine that made 200 hp. A six-speed manual or CVT were the available transmission options, the latter available in all but the Spec V.
For 2009, the moniker "FE+" was affixed to all Sentras except the manual-transmission 2.0S and both SE-R trims. Ostensibly meaning "Fuel Economy Plus," the new name signified a 1 mpg increase in fuel economy for those Sentras via a tweak to the engine computer. These FE+ fuel economy improvements were standardized on all except the SE-R trims the following year.
The base Sentra offered just the basics, but included power windows and locks and air-conditioning. Stepping up to the S added common items like power mirrors, a height-adjustable driver seat and an iPod interface (available 2010 and later), while the SL went the extra mile with items like a leather-wrapped steering wheel, keyless ignition/entry and Bluetooth. The SL was also available with leather seating and a navigation system (2010 and later). The 2.0 SR introduced for 2009 essentially added a body kit and wheels inspired by the SE-R.
The SE-R and Spec V trims featured performance-tuned suspensions, performance tires and larger brakes. The Spec-V, particularly, provided stirring dynamics; it could run to 60 mph in just 6.7 seconds and offered plenty of grip during cornering. However, its tall body design introduced more body roll than expected from a compact car and its steering lacked the feel of rivals.
One downside to this Nissan Sentra was its CVT, which made the engine drone noisily and provided no way for a driver to change or hold ratios on his own. The SE-R at least offered a manual shift mode that addressed the latter problem. Another dynamic weakness was the car's suspension, which struggled to dampen bigger bumps and road undulations. One upside: Combined with a generous wheelbase, this Sentra offered a roomy cabin with ample headroom and legroom for 6-foot passengers.
In terms of changes, Sentras made prior to 2010 had a different grille and headlights, and lacked standard stability control. There were also standard and optional features added throughout its lifetime, many of which were high-tech items like Bluetooth that became commonplace during its production.
Nissan's fifth-generation Sentra ran from 2000-'06. Available in sedan form only, it was initially available in base XE, nicely equipped GXE and top-of-the-line SE trims. All were powered by a 1.8-liter inline-4 with 126 hp, and power was sent to the front wheels via a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual gearbox. The sporty SE-R returned in '02, and just like today, there were two versions: the standard SE-R (165 hp, five-speed manual) and the hot rod SE-R Spec V (175 hp, six-speed manual, 17-inch wheels).
At the time, our editors praised this Sentra for its functional cabin design, nimble handling, many standard features and peppy SE-R trim level. Downsides included bland styling, an awkward driving position and a small backseat. This generation generally has a solid reputation as far as mechanical reliability, though anecdotal evidence suggests that the engine in the SE-R models was more trouble-prone.
The fourth-generation Sentra (1995-'99), with its low nose and high tail, was a styling departure from the straight-edged look of the previous car, Officially offered just as a sedan (the coupe version became the 200SX), this Sentra had more interior room than before, but sadly lost its independent rear suspension. (Notably, independent rear suspension has never returned to the Sentra line -- today's sixth-generation car continues on with a rear torsion-beam setup.) Trim levels consisted of a bare-bones base model, the slightly less stripped XE, the popularly equipped GXE, the luxury GLE and the sporty SE. All trims but the SE had a 115-hp engine, while the SE actually featured the same 140-hp engine as the previous SE-R.
The sporty SE-R debuted with the third-generation Nissan Sentra (1991-'94). Buyers had a choice of either a coupe or sedan, though both shared the same simple, boxy styling. With 140 hp, four-wheel disc brakes and a tuned, fully independent suspension, the Nissan Sentra SE-R coupe provided a lot of bang for the buck and was a favorite among driving enthusiasts. All other Sentras of this generation had a 110-hp engine and trims included the stripper E, base XE, sporty SE and well-equipped GXE.
Running from 1987-'90, the second-generation Sentra was available in a multitude of body styles, including a coupe, a sedan, a wagon, a hatchback and a Sport Coupe fastback. Engine output ranged from 69 to 90 hp, depending on the year. Many of these Nissan Sentras are still on the road, and they have a respectable reputation for reliability and a miserly fuel appetite.
Read the most recent 2013 Nissan Sentra review.
If you are looking for older years, visit our used Nissan Sentra page.