What's New for 2012
The 2012 Nissan Sentra returns unchanged, with the exception of a new Technology option package on 2.0 S models.
The current-generation Sentra debuted in 2007, making the 2012 model one of the oldest small sedans available this year in terms of design. It still has some nice qualities, but overall the Sentra has been outclassed by newer and more desirable models this year.
Among the Sentra sedan's best qualities are decent fuel economy, a comfortable interior and a long list of desirable standard features and options. There are even two sporty variants, including the 200-horsepower SE-R Spec V, designed to appeal to driving enthusiasts.
Unfortunately, the list of weak points is considerably longer. Mainstream 2.0 models just don't offer a very appealing driving experience due in part to the droning created by the CVT and an outdated rear suspension design that delivers only passable handling and marginal ride quality. Even with its firmer sport suspension, the SE-R Spec V can't quite match the moves of other high-performance compacts like the Mazdaspeed 3.
While buyers looking for affordable transportation will still find the 2012 Nissan Sentra worth a look, the car ultimately feels a little long in the tooth compared to its newer or more recently refreshed competitors. Instead of the Sentra, we recommend checking out other top choices like the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Mazda 3 and Volkswagen Golf. Within this group, you'll find more engaging driving experiences, better fuel economy, more power, more attractive designs, newer features and higher levels of overall ownership satisfaction.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2012 Nissan Sentra sedan is offered in six different trim levels, including four mainstream models based on a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine (2.0, 2.0 S, 2.0 SR and 2.0 SL) and two high-performance variants powered by a 2.5-liter engine (SE-R and SE-R Spec V).
The entry-level Sentra 2.0 starts with 15-inch steel wheels, air-conditioning, cloth upholstery, 60/40-split-folding rear seats, power windows and locks, a tilt-adjustable steering wheel and a four-speaker sound system with a CD player and auxiliary audio jack. The Sentra 2.0 S adds 16-inch steel wheels, power mirrors, a height-adjustable driver seat, cruise control, remote keyless entry and a six-speaker CD/MP3 audio system with an iPod interface.
The 2.0 SR includes those items and adds styling cues from its sportier siblings including distinctive front and rear fascias, side sill extensions, foglamps, a rear spoiler and 16-inch alloy wheels. Moving up to the SL gets you a leather-wrapped steering wheel, keyless entry/ignition, Bluetooth and an upgraded stereo with satellite radio and a color display.
Options on the 2.0 models vary by trim level and include leather upholstery with heated front seats (SL only) and a Convenience package that bundles keyless entry/ignition, Bluetooth and a leather-wrapped steering wheel (S/SR only). A Technology package adds a navigation system, satellite radio and an iPod interface (S/SR only). A Special Edition package includes everything in the Convenience and Technology packages plus a sunroof (SR only), while the Special Value package includes the sunroof, navigation and a rearview monitor (SL only). An Audio package includes an eight-speaker Rockford Fosgate audio system (SL only).
The Sentra SE-R trim level is equipped similarly to the 2.0 SR but adds 17-inch alloy wheels, performance-oriented suspension tuning, an aero-style body kit, cloth sport seats, the SL's stereo with color display and gauges that allow the driver to monitor things like oil pressure and g-forces during cornering. The SE-R Upgrade package adds a sunroof, keyless entry/ignition, a rearview monitor, the navigation system, satellite radio and the Rockford Fosgate audio system.
The SE-R Spec V builds on the SE-R's sporting nature with more power, 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 SE-R Spec V Upgrade package that includes all the items in the SE-R Upgrade plus a mechanical limited-slip front differential.
Powertrains and Performance
2012 Nissan Sentra models with a "2.0" in their name are powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that generates 140 hp and 147 pound-feet of torque. The Sentra SE-R and SE-R Spec V get a 2.5-liter engine that produces 177 hp and 172 lb-ft of torque and 200 hp and 180 lb-ft, respectively. 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 comes fitted with a six-speed manual transmission as standard equipment, with the option of a CVT. The CVT is standard on the 2.0 S, 2.0 SR, 2.0 SL and even the SE-R, which also gets steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles. The Spec V is only offered with a close-ratio six-speed manual gearbox.
Sentra models equipped with the 2.0-liter engine and CVT achieve an EPA-estimated 27 mpg city/34 mpg highway and 30 mpg in combined driving; with the manual transmission those numbers drop noticeably to 24/31/27 mpg. The SE-R isn't bad at 24/30/26, and even the Spec V manages a still respectable 21/28/24 mpg.
The 2012 Nissan Sentra comes standard with antilock brakes, stability control, front-seat side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags and active front head restraints. The sportier SE-R models come with four-wheel disc brakes, while the others have rear drums.
In government crash tests, the Sentra received an overall score of four stars (out of five). Within that rating, it earned three stars for overall frontal crash protection and three stars again for overall side crash 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
The Sentra's interior features unexpectedly spacious front seats that make it easy for even tall folks to get comfortable, though the lack of a telescoping steering column is a downer. The backseat is more of a mixed bag, with good headroom and hiproom offset by a shortage of legroom. Trunk space, at 13.1 cubic feet, is average for the class.
From a driver's perspective, the dashboard gets high marks for the simple and straightforward design of gauges and controls. One notable exception is the optional navigation system's smallish 5-inch screen, which requires a fair amount of squinting to read.
What you think of driving the 2012 Nissan Sentra sedan depends a great deal on what's under the hood. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder makes decent power, but the CVT creates a less-than-appealing droning sound when accelerating. Handling is just passable. The ride quality is fine on smooth roads but becomes a bit rough over broken pavement.
As you'd expect, the SE-R Spec V is another story altogether, with abundant acceleration and noticeably sharper handling. Some of the fun is lost due to the manual transmission's balky action that can't compare to the precise feel of shifters in competitors like the Honda Civic Si.