The five generations of Nissan Sentras stretching back to 1982 have all featured front-wheel drive, four-cylinder engines and utterly boxy and boring styling. The all-new, sixth-generation 2007 Sentra is still a front-drive four-banger but the sheet metal is, for the first time, actually interesting.
Taking cues from the larger Nissan Altima and the brand's flagship four-door, the Nissan Maxima, this is easily the most handsome and immediately appealing Sentra ever built. It's also the largest and the most powerful.
Imagine that, an interesting-looking Sentra. Who even knew it was possible?
Godzilla-sized The new Sentra is built atop Nissan and Renault's shared "C" platform which also underpins the Renault Mégane. It's a steel unibody with the engine and transaxle mounted transversely in the nose, MacPherson struts holding up the front and a cheap torsion beam keeping the tail from dragging. The rack-and-pinion steering is electrically power-assisted, the brakes are discs in the front and drums in the rear and an antilock system is optional on the base Sentra and standard equipment on the midmarket Sentra S and more lavish Sentra SL.
No, the real story here is the Sentra's new larger size. At 105.7 inches the Sentra's wheelbase is just shy of the Civic sedan's 106.3 inches, but significantly longer than either the Cobalt's or the Corolla's. In fact the new Sentra's wheelbase is 2.6 inches longer than Nissan's first (1993) Altima and 5.9 inches longer than the wheelbase of the outgoing 2006 Sentra.
It's official, the small Nissan is now the Versa, not the Sentra.
It's the same story under the hood, too. Along with the new Sentra's additional sheet metal comes a new 2.0-liter four, the 140-horsepower, all-aluminum, DOHC, 16-valve "MR20DE." It lacks variable valve timing, but the MR20DE's long-stroke design results in excellent torque production: a peak 147-pound feet at 4,800 rpm. In contrast the torquiest Civic, the sporting Si, peaks at just 139 lb-ft and has to spin at 6,100 rpm to manage that.
That twist is channeled through either a six-speed manual transmission or an automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT) in the base Sentra and Sentra S. Every Sentra SL, like the test vehicle, comes with the CVT automatic.
Parlez-vous Français? With Nissan and Renault now thoroughly commingled, there's a lot of French influence in the Sentra SL's interior. The dash design is clean and efficient, with a large tach and speedometer sitting in a single pod on either side of a smaller amber-glowing digital gauge for the fuel level and engine temperature. The center of the dash is capped by an information display with the optional Rockford Fosgate sound system with an in-dash six-disc CD changer just beneath it, and straightforward three-dial ventilation controls under that.
Nissan proudly points to such high-tech interior features as the available Bluetooth phone compatibility built into the sound system and the "Intelligent Key" system that allows the car to be started when the fob is in the driver's pocket. There's also an auxiliary input jack for the stereo; too bad it's smack in the middle of the dash so a long cord is needed to snake past the shifter and reach the MP3 player you've stuck into one of the floor-mounted cupholders. In a Civic the auxiliary jack is down in the console where the music player is bound to be stored. Plus there's only one 12-volt dash on the Sentra SL and it's buried where it can't be seen.
For die-hard CD lovers there's also a built-in case for eight discs behind the driver's sun visor. But hasn't everyone who wants to carry eight CDs worth of music around bought an iPod by now?
Whatever, the real stride forward here is in how intuitively the controls work and the relatively high quality of most of the materials used. Sure, the dash top is still cheesy hard plastic, but the headliner is a neat mesh material; the SL's leather seats are neatly perforated; there are plenty of nooks, cubbies and cupholders strewn about; and all the switches work with precision. The precision is Japanese, but the style and attention to tactile satisfaction is French. The car itself is actually assembled in Mexico.
And it's a relatively roomy interior, too, with rear legroom equal to the Civic sedan's despite the Honda's longer wheelbase.
The Sentra is go Tip into the throttle and there's a sensation of urgency from the 2.0-liter engine. The 9.0-second 0-60-mph time is a solid performance, particularly for an engine churning a CVT. It's also quicker than the five-speed automatic-equipped 2006 Honda Civic EX sedan tested earlier this year, and the Sentra SL's EPA-rated fuel economy of 29 in the city and 36 on the highway is simply outstanding. In fact, it's a higher fuel economy rating than the Sentra S with a six-speed manual transmission.
But the driver has to be willing to live with the CVT. While efficient, the CVT doesn't operate like a conventional automatic. There's a distinct, relentless CVT drone that occurs as the engine builds revs slowly and then settles in near its power peak as the car gathers speed. Fortunately the Sentra's new four is quiet and mannered, and this CVT seems better tuned than others; still, the sensation can be unsettling.
Then there's the fact that the CVT is completely resistant to enthusiastic driving. There's simply no way to choose a "gear" and then hold that through a corner. Or downshift. Or upshift. Or anything.
Once at speed, however, the Sentra SL is quiet, with minimal wind noise and some barely perceptible whirr from the P205/55HR16 all-season tires. For commuters with long stretches of unimpeded freeway to cover every morning, the Sentra may be about perfect. If there's more stop and go action involved, a competitor with a more conventional transmission will be more pleasant.
Harsh reality Climb over a speed bump with the new Sentra and there's more impact harshness than there is in the Civic or Corolla. In particular, the front gets jolted while the rear seems to take its time settling back down. The natural front-drive understeer is relatively mild and there's negligible body roll during hard cornering, so it's no surprise that the car is quick through the slalom at 64.3 mph. But a go-kart is quick through the slalom, too, and it doesn't have much suspension travel either.
On the skid pad the Sentra SL orbited to the tune of 0.75g, which is exactly the performance of the modestly shod, natural-gas-fueled Honda Civic GX we recently tested. But while the Honda reached its limits when the tires gave up adhesion, the Sentra first finds its suspension bump stops and only then do the tires give up. This is a suspension that's in need of retuning for both better comfort and confidence when its limits are approached.
Steering is quick and heavy if uncommunicative, and the brakes required a fairly long 135 feet to stop the car from 60 mph. There was also more brake dive than we would like.
No dispute, it must commute In this subcompact/compact class of cars, being an excellent commuter is as important as quick lap times are for an exotic sports car. The Sentra is a winner on those terms with its roomy interior, neat detailing and smooth — and relatively economical — power plant. Plus, the Rockford Fosgate sound system sounds spectacular even if it doesn't integrate with MP3 players as well as some competitors.
But the impact harshness and short travel of the Sentra's suspension keep it from being the best in its class. And many buyers will find the CVT's behavior simply frustrating. With some well-considered tuning tweaks and a few additional features, the 2007 Nissan Sentra could add up to some real competition for the Civic and Mazda 3. Hopefully the 200-hp Sentra SE-R will be just that.
Overall Grade: C+
Audio Fantastic Package which requires the Sunroof Package.
Price if optional:
In-dash six-disc changer
CD-R/RW, MP3, also plays WMA and AAC files without text support
Bluetooth for phone:
Yes, standard on the SL
How does it sound: C+ In general, the system sounds fair. However, there is a dull or fuzzy feel to tone and it lacks crispness and detail. There is noticeable bass but it isn't as sharp or as deep as we'd expect from a Rockford system. Pop music sounds best, as the inherent brightness of most pop tracks seems to give the sound new life. On the other hand, stick in some aggressive rock or metal and lack of separation and a muddled sound are obvious even to non-audiophiles. Still, the system produces a recognizable immediacy that many buyers in Sentra's segment will like. The in-your-face feel could be the stereo's best or worst quality depending on who's listening.
How does it work: B The head unit is simple and straightforward. All functions are easy to master quickly and the stereo even has a midrange adjustment — a feature even the pricier Bose system in the new Altima does not have. The display is large enough and relevant information is communicated via thick, bold symbols that make it easy to read while driving.
Special features: Both the Nissan Versa and Nissan Sentra offer Bluetooth as either a standard feature or option. That's impressive given the Sentra's price point. Another indication that Nissan is paying attention to the details is the fact that the steering-wheel-mounted controls for the audio system have been significantly reworked for the next generation of Nissans. They're now more logically placed and are easier to access without having to look down, as controls for volume and track change are shaped differently and placed farther apart.
Conclusion: We've been fairly impressed with factory-installed Rockford stereos in other Nissan products but this one seems slightly lacking. It gets loud enough; we're just not sure that's enough to justify the extra $1,500 you have to drop to get this optional system. Otherwise, functionality and ease of use are excellent. — Brian Moody
Senior Road Test Editor Josh Jacquot says: What's in a name? A lot if you're Nissan. The lowly Sentra has a storied history and this latest version has big shoes to fill. Sort of.
Remember the first-generation Sentra SE-R? Its 7,500-rpm 2.0-liter mill had an impressive combination of power and poise for a sporty econobox. It had simple, functional proportions that still look good today and strut suspension at all four corners that was both inexpensive to produce and yielded excellent handling. It was the econobox done right. And both the media and consumers knew it from the beginning. B13 Sentras, as they're known to those who care, still have a cult following today.
Second-generation cars retained a similar powertrain but ousted the basic-but-utilitarian strut rear suspension for an axle with a Scott-Russell link. "Less costly," said Nissan shortly before being saved from certain death by a weird little French company. Third-generation cars became bigger and weirder and kept the same silly rear suspension. Hot-rod models got a 2.5-liter tractor engine that refused to rev coupled to a six-speed tranny that, while costly, offered few real benefits given the engine's power delivery.
The verdict is still out on this latest Sentra. If you're a fan of the bizarre and eternally revvy driving experience that comes with almost all continuously variable transmissions then you'll love the new Sentra. It feels to me like every time I put my foot down I'm releasing a bungee cord wrapped around a spool. It lets the cacophonous 2.0-liter four howl until you give the go pedal a break. It's also got struts in front, a torsion beam (even cheaper than a Scott-Russell link?) in back and a bizarre shape that's about as timeless as purple rhinestone sneakers.
But as small cars go, it's reasonably useful. First, it's hardly small — 9.5 inches longer than a B13. Rear-seat space is impressive, but it comes at the expense of a deep trunk. Door openings should allow a human of any size to enter comfortably. The SE-R model comes with the CVT. Enthusiasts must step up to the SE-R Spec V to get real manual shifting. And both models come with the same 2.5-liter mill loathed in the last SE-R. Time will tell.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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