What's New for 2011
The 2011 Nissan Sentra sees only minor updates. Fuel economy has been slightly improved while safety has been enhanced, as antilock brakes and stability control are now standard across the board. A spoiler in the style of the SE-R is available for the 2.0 (with CVT), 2.0 S and 2.0 SL.
The 2011 Nissan Sentra makes its case as a reasonable choice for a shopper in the market for a small sedan. Thanks to high fuel economy, spacious seating and plenty of features, the Sentra gets high marks in the areas that matter to most people. Nissan also offers the SE-R and SE-R Spec V trim levels for those seeking bigger thrills. Taken as a whole, however, the Sentra isn't the most inspired car in its class.
Under the hood, the Sentra is pretty competitive. Most Sentra models come with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder making 140 horsepower while still getting up to 34 mpg on the highway. The high-performance SE-R model offers 177 hp from a larger 2.5-liter engine, while the SE-R Spec V takes this engine's output right up to 200 hp.
But the Sentra falls to midpack when its handling abilities are considered. The lower-level models of the Sentra just aren't particularly fun to drive, and there's no payoff in terms of ride quality either, as the suspension isn't very compliant over rough surfaces.
Even the top-shelf Sentra SE-R Spec V trails the pack of high-performance cars with which it tries to compete, since its rear torsion-beam suspension puts it at a disadvantage compared to more lithe competitors that use independent rear suspension and offer similar power.
Overall, the 2011 Nissan Sentra is worth considering for the right price. But it's more practical than desirable. We'd suggest considering alternatives like the Honda Civic, Kia Forte and Mazda 3, all of which offer similar or better driving excitement while still retaining plenty of practicality. In a segment that's increasingly about being fun as well as being smart, the Sentra wilts next to the charms of its rivals.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2011 Nissan Sentra is offered in six different 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).
The base-model Sentra starts with 15-inch steel wheels, power windows and locks, air-conditioning, a tilt-adjustable steering wheel, 60/40-split-folding rear seats and a four-speaker audio system with a CD player and auxiliary audio jack. The Sentra 2.0 S adds 16-inch steel wheels, a height-adjustable driver seat, cruise control, keyless entry and a six-speaker audio system with an iPod interface.
The 2.0 SR is similar but borrows some styling cues from its high-performance line mates, offering sport fascias front and rear, rocker sill extensions, foglamps, a rear spoiler and 16-inch wheels. Going with the SL gets you 16-inch alloy wheels, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, keyless ignition/entry, Bluetooth, and a premium Rockford Fosgate audio system with satellite radio, a USB audio input and a color display. Most of the SL's upgrades are offered on the 2.0 S and 2.0 SR as options. Other options abound for the SL, many of them bundled into packages. Highlights include a sunroof, leather upholstery, heated front seats and a navigation system.
The Sentra SE-R trim level is equipped similarly to the 2.0 SR but also includes 17-inch alloy wheels, more performance-minded suspension tuning, an aero-style body kit, cloth sport seats, the SL's color-display stereo and gauges to register not only oil pressure but also g-forces during cornering. The SE-R Upgrade package adds most of the SL's standard and optional features.
The SE-R Spec V further enhances the SE-R's sporting nature by adding higher-performance tires, an even firmer suspension with a lower ride height, larger front brakes and sportier interior trim. One drawback to the added performance of the Spec V is a structural reinforcement brace between the rear shock towers that prevents the rear seats from folding. Also available on the Spec V is an optional feature upgrade package that includes a mechanical limited-slip front differential.
Powertrains and Performance
Nissan Sentra 2.0 models come with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that generates 140 hp and 147 pound-feet torque. The Sentra SE-R has a 2.5-liter engine that produces 177 hp and 172 lb-ft of torque; the Spec V bumps this to 200 hp and 180 lb-ft. In our testing, the Spec V sprinted to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds, a quick time for its class.
The 2.0 Sentra base model features a six-speed manual transmission standard, with an option to upgrade to a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The CVT comes standard on the 2.0 S, 2.0 SR, 2.0 SL and SE-R, with the SE-R offering shift paddles. The Spec V is only offered with a close-ratio six-speed manual.
The 2.0 Sentra models with CVT are notably frugal, achieving an EPA-estimated 27 mpg city/34 mpg highway and 30 mpg in combined driving; the manual transmission drops fuel economy noticeably to 24/31/27 mpg. The SE-R isn't too far behind, though, at 24/30/26. The Spec V checks in with a still respectable 21/28/24 mpg.
The 2011 Nissan Sentra comes standard with antilock brakes, stability control, front-seat side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags and active front head restraints. The higher-performing SE-R models come with four-wheel disc brakes, while the others have rear drums.
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 for the instruments, sporty gauges and slick-looking but easy-to-use controls. Materials quality is decent, but with just a 5-inch screen, the optional navigation system has a pretty tiny monitor.
The front seats are surprisingly spacious, comfortably accommodating taller adults. Smaller drivers, however, might feel confined due to the Sentra's high dashboard and beltline. The non-telescoping steering wheel doesn't help driver comfort either. Rear headroom and hiproom are decent, but rear legroom is a bit on the tight side.
The Sentra 2.0 models offer 60/40-split rear seating and 13.1 cubic feet of cargo room. The SE-R, however, uses a brace behind the rear seats as a chassis-strengthening measure, limiting the usefulness of its fold-down configuration.
Overall, the 2011 Nissan Sentra gets the job done on the road. Power from the 2.0-liter engine is adequate, but the CVT leads to an irritating drone from the engine during acceleration. On smooth tarmac the ride is suitable, but when things get rough, the Sentra's suspension lets in a noticeable amount of harshness. Handling is unremarkable on 2.0 models.
The SE-R Spec V does indeed have sharper handling, and its 200 hp is not inadequate performance by any means. But compared to other sport compacts in its class, even the Spec V isn't especially fun to drive. Part of the problem is the manual transmission's balky shift action, which feels awkward and imprecise relative to that of the Honda Civic Si.