What's New for 2010
The 2010 Nissan Sentra receives a new optional navigation system (late availability) that includes a 5-inch color screen and real-time traffic information. Other tweaks include revised headlights and taillights for all models, a new grille and front fascia for the 2.0, 2.0 S and 2.0 SL, a standard 4.3-inch color-display audio head unit with iPod and Bluetooth controls for 2.0 SL and the SE-R models, and an optional back-up camera for the navigation system. Also, the 2.0SL receives standard stability control, but its leather upholstery is now optional rather than standard. Finally, the slight fuel economy increase provided by last year's "FE+" trim level has been added to all models with the 2.0-liter engine and continuously variable transmission (CVT).
The 2010 Nissan Sentra torpedoes the notion that economy cars must have relatively cramped cabins. Full-size adults fit just fine, thanks to the Sentra's tall hatchback roots -- its platform is derived from the Euro-market Renault Mégane. Despite this French connection, the Sentra retains Nissan's trademark sporty-yet-functional interior design, including orange backlighting and a nicely contoured steering wheel. However, its driving character is just so-so by the ever-escalating standards of this segment.
Under the hood, at least, the Sentra is plenty competitive. Most models come with a solid 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 140 horsepower and up to 34 miles per gallon on the highway. Standard on the uplevel SE-R is a 2.5-liter four that sacrifices a few mpg in return for a healthy 37-hp power bump. The high-performance SE-R Spec V receives a massaged version of the 2.5-liter engine with a 7,000-rpm redline and an impressive 200 hp and 180 pound-feet of torque. Nissan has made a point of offering capable power plants across its model lineup, and the Sentra is no exception.
But unlike competitors that include the Honda Civic, Mazda 3 and Mitsubishi Lancer, the Sentra's handling abilities are unremarkable. Even the SE-R models fall short of segment-leading sport compacts, though they're certainly sharp enough to be entertaining. Yet there's not the expected payoff in ride comfort, as the Sentra's suspension allows some unpleasant impact harshness as well. Softly sprung economy sedans like the Hyundai Elantra and Toyota Corolla do a better job here.
Overall, the 2010 Nissan Sentra is a midpack small sedan -- worth considering if the price is right, but not particularly desirable. We appreciate the Sentra's technology offerings, including its new-for-2010 optional navigation system, but it takes more than high-tech toys to hack it in this segment. The Sentra is not a bad car by any means; rivals like the Civic, Elantra, Mazda 3 and Lancer just happen to be better all-around choices.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2010 Nissan Sentra is offered in six trim levels: 2.0, 2.0 S, 2.0 SR, 2.0 SL, SE-R and SE-R Spec V. The base model 2.0 includes 15-inch steel wheels, power windows and locks, 60/40-split-folding rear seats, air-conditioning and a four-speaker sound system with a CD player and an auxiliary audio jack. Add-ons for the base 2.0 are few.
The 2.0 S gains 16-inch steel wheels, driver seat height adjustment, keyless entry, cruise control, power mirrors, a trip computer, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls and a six-speaker stereo with MP3 capability. The 2.0 SR adds an SE-R-inspired body kit and 16-inch alloy wheels at no extra cost.
Opting for the 2.0 SL trim nets 16-inch alloy wheels, keyless ignition and entry, satellite radio, overhead storage for CDs and a 4.3-inch color display audio head unit with Bluetooth and an iPod adapter. Many of the SL's standard features are available as options for the 2.0 S. Options available for either S or SL trims include a sunroof, heated front seats, a rear spoiler, a trunk divider and an eight-speaker Rockford Fosgate sound system with a six-CD changer. Leather upholstery is available, but only on the SL. As with other Nissans, these options are grouped into larger, more expensive packages.
The Sentra SE-R trim level heaps on more amenities to the SL trim, but keyless start, satellite radio and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls are available only as options. Standard features for the SE-R include 17-inch alloy wheels, more performance-minded suspension tuning, larger brakes, a lower body kit, cloth sport seats, aluminum-trimmed pedals, the SL's color-display stereo and gauges for oil pressure and G-force.
The SE-R Spec V further enhances the SE-R's sporting nature by adding higher-performance tires, an even firmer and lower suspension, larger front brakes and racier interior trim. One drawback to the added performance of the Spec V is a reinforcement brace that prevents the rear seats from folding. Both SE-R models offer options like a sunroof and the Rockford Fosgate sound system, but keyless ignition and entry are only available with the standard SE-R. A limited-slip front differential is only available on the Spec V.
A navigation system (late availability) with real-time traffic is optional on the SL and both SE-R models, as is a back-up camera.
Powertrains and Performance
Nissan Sentra 2.0 models come equipped with a 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine that produces 140 hp and 147 pound-feet of torque. Power is routed to the front wheels through a CVT or a six-speed manual gearbox (base 2.0 only). Fuel economy for the CVT registers an EPA-estimated 26 mpg city/34 mpg highway and 29 mpg in combined driving, while the manual transmission drops fuel economy noticeably to 24/31/27 mpg.
The Sentra SE-R models feature four-cylinder engines that displace 2.5 liters. The regular SE-R cranks out 177 hp and 172 lb-ft of torque, and a CVT with manual shift control is the only transmission available. For those with more of an appetite for power and performance, the SE-R Spec V produces a higher-revving 200 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque, and it's available only with a six-speed manual. In performance testing, we clocked a Spec V from zero to 60 mph in a quick 6.7 seconds. The added performance hurts fuel economy, but not too much -- the SE-R manages 24/30/26 mpg and the Spec V returns 21/28/24 mpg, though the latter requires premium fuel.
The entire 2010 Nissan Sentra line comes standard with front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. Antilock brakes are an option for the base 2.0 model and standard on all others. The higher-performing SE-R models come with four-wheel disc brakes, while the others have rear drums. Stability control is standard on the 2.0SL, SE-R and SE-R Spec V, but unavailable on other Sentras.
In government crash testing, the Nissan Sentra earned a perfect five-star rating for front passenger protection in frontal and side-impact crashes. Four stars were given for rear-seat side-impact protection. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the Sentra its highest score of "Good" for both frontal-offset and side impacts.
Interior Design and Special Features
Inside, the Sentra is recognizably a Nissan product, with the company's trademark orange backlighting, sporty gauges and slick-looking but easy-to-use controls. Impressive high-tech goodies like available navigation, iPod and Bluetooth functionality sweeten the deal. Materials quality is decent and the cabin is surprisingly spacious, comfortably accommodating taller adults in any seat. Smaller drivers, however, may feel as though they're sitting in a cave due to the Sentra's high dashboard and beltline. The non-telescoping steering wheel doesn't help driver comfort either. Trunk space is good for this segment at 13.1 cubic feet.
Overall, the 2010 Nissan Sentra gets the job done on the road. The 2.0-liter engine is adequately smooth and peppy, but the CVT causes an irritating engine drone during acceleration. On smooth tarmac the ride quality is suitable, but when things get rough, the Sentra's suspension lets a notable amount of impact harshness filter through. Handling is forgettable in 2.0 models.
Those looking for performance will gravitate toward the SE-R models. Both variants are more at home in tight corners, but the Spec V is significantly sharper, and its free-revving yet torque-rich engine delivers plenty of lively fun. However, compared to other sport compacts in their price range, even the Spec V isn't especially fun to drive. Part of the problem is its balky manual shifter, which feels awkward and imprecise relative to the slick six-speed in the Honda Civic Si.