When Nissan set out to re-engineer its Sentra sedan for the 2000 model year, it was well-aware that compact cars can carry many negative preconceptions -- you know: cheap and tinny, bland styling, all-too-basic transportation. In other words, not the kinds of things that send thousands of excited new-car buyers into showrooms. Consequently, Nissan product planners came up with the idea of making their new entry-level sedan what they call an "UN-compact" compact.
As an UN-compact, they believe the new Sentra can differentiate itself from the pack in much the same way the so-called "un-cola" does from other leading soft drinks. They wanted the new Sentra to exude taste and sophistication and yet stil offer "Nissan DNA" - good quality, plenty of features and a refreshing orientation toward performance and good handling. Modern yet mature styling was sought so that it might outlive today's edgy, look-at-me designs.
Not only would this car have to look and drive different, but it would also have to appeal to nontraditional compact buyers. Let's face it, in this kind of declining market segment a product needs to find wider appeal just to hold its ground. So Nissan is targeting a younger, more upwardly mobile audience this time around: Internet-savvy 30-year-olds, mostly female, college-educated types with a $40K income and no kids. For them, the new Sentra is a "destination" vehicle - their first new-car purchase to replace the used car they drove in college.
Enter the 2000 model, the first Sentra to be designed exclusively for the U.S. market. Part of Nissan's new global vehicle strategy plan, Sentra shares its platform with six other compact models sold in Europe and Japan, and some componentry with its current American stablemates, Altima and Maxima. Company officials are quick to point out that despite being based on a "global" platform, the new Sentra is not a "world car." (Nissan defines a global platform as the combination of floor panel and functional assemblies such as the engine, transmission and chassis components attached to it that determine the basic dynamics of the car.) In other words, it was made exclusively to complete the revamp of Nissan's North American small-medium-large sedan lineup - made up of Sentra (good), Altima (better) and Maxima (best).
That's not to discount the global aspect of the Sentra's rebirth. Engineering was shared between the Nissan Technical Center (NTC) in Japan and Nissan Research and Development (NRD) teams in California, Michigan and Arizona. First shown at January's Detroit auto show, the 2000 Sentra is larger and more powerful than its predecessor, with an exterior styled at Nissan Design International Inc., (NDI) in La Jolla, Calif., and an interior inspired by Nissan Design Europe (NDE) in Geretsried, Germany. And with Nissan's Smyrna, Tenn., assembly plant now shifting its production mix more heavily toward trucks, new Sentras are built by Nissan Mexicana (NISMEX) in Aguascalientes, Mexico.
While Edmunds.com hasn't been fond of Sentra styling in the past, we will admit that this latest version looks both clean and purposeful. Although we may have expected something with a little more flair -- especially since it was penned by NDI, designers of the popular 2000 Nissan Xterra SUV and 2000 Maxima sedan -- the 2000 Sentra does appear less of an econobox and more Maxima-like. That's not a bad thing, mind you -- we just wish it were a little more daring.
Up front there's a lower, more expressive hood, with a larger, body-colored bumper and grille. New, flush-mounted one-piece multi-parabola headlights integrate nicely into the new fascia. And the car's flanks are now marked by a character line running all the way back to the familiar raised rear deck which conceals a trunk both larger and easier to access.
Nissan designer Jerry Hirshberg calls it "robust, rounded, and just a little sassy." We're not so sure about the sassy part, but we will allow that it looks a little more upmarket than many compacts. "This was our first crack at an 'entry level' product," admitted Hirshberg, who heads up NDI. "Our aim was to design a car with its own character." And that's a tall order. With so many styling cues being borrowed among automakers these days, we think it's still pretty hard to tell most import sedans apart. And Nissan has no less than three of them.
Sentra's new size, however, is not a matter of opinion. Its overall length was stretched 6.5 inches to 177.5 inches and the body widened by 0.8 of an inch to 67.3 inches. Height was also raised 1.0 inch to 55.5 inches. But the new coachwork rides on the same-size wheelbase as last year's car of just under 100 inches. More important, the new model offers a 30-percent improvement in torsional rigidity over the previous-generation Sentra, due to an additional (third) floorpan crossmember; strengthened roof sides, B-pillars and outer-body sill panels; and new, S-shaped front crossmembers.
The benefit of this stronger, global platform is enhanced crash safety, thanks mainly to what Nissan calls its "two-zone" body structure. The two-zone design offers one energy-absorbing crushable zone, including the engine compartment's newly developed hexagonal front side member sections, and a safety restraint zone, which acts as a safety cell to protect occupants.
Beyond improved frontal crashworthiness, the added body rigidity also translates into better handling stability, ride comfort and a newfound quietness that Nissan brass says exceeds the norms of the compact sedan class. Nissan engineers, who've filled Sentra's body pillars with expandable foam, cite no less than 56 other revisions throughout the new Sentra for a marked reduction in noise, vibration and harshness (NVH). According to Nissan's own sound-measuring tests, a new Sentra driving along at 30 mph is quieter than a Toyota Corolla at idle. Our initial impressions of the Sentra left us certain that the idea of a quiet compact car isn't an oxymoron.
Speaking of the inside, it's apparent that the first order of business for the 2000 model was to improve roominess and convenience. Total interior volume has been increased by almost 3.0 cubic feet to 100.1 cubic feet (88.5 cubic foot passenger compartment/11.6 cubic foot trunk) moving it up into the EPA compact classification. Legroom is adequate up front but - as with any five-passenger compact - merely acceptable in the rear. Seating position and visibility is good, with headroom increased 0.8 of an inch in front and a half-inch in the rear.
In addition to styling the exterior, NDI also signed off on the interior - but the German influence from NDE is readily noticeable. Higher-quality materials and surface textures offer a European look and feel to the cabin. Standard features include power windows with one-touch auto down, power door locks, CFC-free air conditioning, remote trunk and fuel-filler door releases and front/rear cupholders. A four-speaker AM/FM/CD audio system is standard, and a seven-speaker, 180-watt AM/FM/CD unit with available in-dash six-disc CD changer is offered as an option.
The higher and slightly wider driver's seat now has eight-way adjustments, and a 60/40 split fold-down rear seat with locking seatbacks is available on uplevel models. Three types of cloth are offered, depending on model and trim levels, in three colors. And in keeping with the bigger-is-better theme, the revamped instrument panel features a new gauge cluster design with larger, easier-to-read figures.
Being that Americans always carry lots of stuff when we drive, we love cars with cubbyholes. So Nissan doubled total interior storage capacity in the Sentra, adding a covered box on top of the instrument panel and catch trays atop the front side-sill crossmember and the mid-seat section next to the parking brake lever. The front door pockets now include a holder for 20-ounce water or soft drink bottles, and two 12-volt power outlets are available.
Safety equipment includes dual front airbags, pipe-style steel side-door guard beams, front seatbelts with pretensioners and adjustable upper anchors, as well as three-point seatbelts in all seating positions and child-safety rear door locks. Supplemental side-impact airbags mounted in the seats and a vehicle security system with immobilizer are also available.
The 2000 Sentra is offered in three trim levels, XE, GXE and SE, with the choice of an all-new 1.8-liter or refined 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine. Available in California only will be a limited-production Sentra CA model -- the first gasoline-fueled vehicle to meet California Air Resources Board (CARB) Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (or SULEV) standards and obtain zero-emission credits (once earned only by electric cars). In case you were wondering, the CA model designation stands for "Clean Air" and not for California's postal zip code abbreviation.
All Sentra engines boast refinements and technological advancements for improved power and durability. The 1.8-liter replaces the previous 1.6 for XE, GXE and CA models, while the 2.0-liter is reserved for the sporty SE model. Both utilize platinum-tipped spark plugs with 100,000-mile maintenance intervals.
Rather than scrap the good design inherent in the old 1.6-liter, the 1.8 is actually an advanced derivative of the previous engine. (The bigger displacement came from a 4-mm bore increase.) Revisions include a single-type timing chain, direct ignition system (similar to Maxima), variable valve-timing, redesigned exhaust manifold, micro-finished crank and camshafts, 32-bit engine control module and a special swirl control valve which increases air/fuel mixing during engine warm-up to improve combustion.
The end result not only gives the 1.8 more power and torque, but also helps it deliver a 27/35 mpg EPA City/Highway mix for the five-speed manual transmission car and a 26/33 mpg City/Highway rating in cars equipped with the four-speed automatic transmission. Better still, the 1.8 meets the government's stringent requirements for Low Emission Vehicles (LEV) and will be available in all 50 states.
The big news here isn't really about how much power the new motor makes, but rather where that power is felt in the rev range. The new DOHC 1.8-liter cranks out 126 horsepower at 6,000 rpm (versus the 115 of the motor it replaces) but more significantly -- it delivers all of its 129 foot-pounds of torque way down at 2,400 rpm - more akin to the torque range in V6- and even some V8-powered cars. Consider that the previous engine reached its maximum torque of 108 foot-pounds way up at 4,000 rpm, and you can get an idea of how the driving characteristics of this car are much different.
If driving dynamics are your thing, then opt for the sport-oriented Sentra SE, powered by the improved DOHC 2.0-liter all-aluminum four. The 2.0-liter now produces 145 horsepower (increased from 140) at 6,400 rpm and 136 foot-pounds of torque (up from 132) at 4,800 rpm. Refinements include a lengthened intake manifold, re-profiled intake cams, lighter-weight roller-type rocker arms and crankshaft, new piston rings and a modified swirl control valve.
The 2.0 also benefits from Nissan's variable capacity muffler system, first introduced on the 2000 Maxima. The new variable capacity muffler utilizes a special flap valve (using high-temperature aerospace spring technology and materials) which opens at 2,000 rpm and above to reduce exhaust system backpressure and increase power. EPA fuel economy numbers for the 2.0-liter engine are 24/31 mpg City/Highway for the manual gearbox and 24/30 for the automatic.
By the way, a revamped five-speed manual transmission is standard on all models (except the CA). The clutch is now hydraulically controlled (instead of via a cable) and the gearbox itself has undergone more than 25 modifications -- including the addition of double-cone synchronizers for first and second gear for smoother, stronger shifts. A viscous limited-slip differential is available with SE models equipped with manual transmissions and the optional Performance Package. That package adds a stiffer suspension, 16-inch alloy wheels, a rear spoiler and side sills, sporty interior trim and the 180-watt audio system.
A revised four-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission is standard on the Sentra CA and optionally available with XE, GXE and SE models. It features a modified clutch pack and improved shift schedule to provide smoother performance, and a newly designed torque converter to enhance acceleration and fuel economy.
If you're into helping out the environment and you live in California, then you can opt for the Sentra CA model -- the first gasoline-fueled vehicle to meet California Air Resources Board (CARB) Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (or SULEV) standards. But beyond that, the CA also received CARB certification as meeting zero evaporative emissions. To illustrate what the zero-evap standard means, let's say Car A is driven 10 miles to work in the morning, and 10 miles home in the afternoon. Car B sits in the driveway all day long with its engine turned off. Which car emits fewer harmful vapors? The answer is Car A - if that car is the new Nissan Sentra CA.
"The most significant feature of the Sentra CA is zero evaporative emissions, a feat thought extremely difficult -- if not impossible -- to attain just a few years ago," said Jed Connelly, vice-president and general manager of Nissan North America. "Fuel vapors, which are potentially harmful to the environment, seep from fuel systems constantly, whether a vehicle is being operated or whether it is parked. Some of these gases react with sunlight to create smog, which has been linked to a range of health problems. The Sentra CA eliminates nearly all of those vapors."
Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that the Sentra CA achieves this high rating solely through advances in engine and emissions technology -- the vehicle itself is an otherwise unmodified car that looks and drives like any 2000 Nissan Sentra, distinguished only by special "CA" badging on the trunk. The only concession the driver will notice is the vehicle's need for low-sulfur gasoline, which is currently available only in California.
Nissan uses several key technologies to make the Sentra CA so cleanly green. It boasts double-wall exhaust manifolds, a new combustion control sensor and quicker catalyst warm-up (three, 3-way catalysts are utilized in the emissions system). It also features new hydrocarbon trap catalysts, a non-return fuel system and a special electronically controlled swirl control valve that reduces hydrocarbon emissions in cold and warm start situations.
The CA engine generates the same horsepower and torque as other 1.8-liter Sentras, so there is no performance penalty. And with estimated fuel economy numbers in the 26 mpg City/33 mpg Highway range, there is only a slight reduction from other automatic transmission-equipped models.
In addition, the radiators of all Sentra CAs are covered with a special coating that helps clean the air as you drive. As ozone-laden air passes over the radiator, the coating converts ozone molecules into oxygen. In effect, the air that the Sentra CA leaves in its wake should be cleaner than the air entering in front of the vehicle.
The limited-production Sentra CA goes on sale in California in March. (There is no effect on performance or mileage if the Sentra CA is driven on higher-sulfur content fuel used in other states; however, SULEV emissions levels will likely not be attainable.) The SULEV standard is part of CARB's recently approved LEV II regulatory package for 2004 and subsequent years, meaning the Sentra CA meets SULEV emissions levels at least four years early.
We found that the CA feels no different underfoot than the GXE and SE versions we piloted during the media ride and drive outside Las Vegas, including a trip up in Lake Mead country and through the nearby Valley of Fire state park. But we were more interested to see how the 2000 model performed in a variety of real-world driving situations - and were pleasantly surprised. (The base XE model was not made available for the drive, as it is expected to account for only 10 percent of Sentra sales.)
Retaining an independent MacPherson strut front suspension design for the new Sentra keeps costs low, as does the employment of Nissan's rear Multi-Link Beam setup, which provides more predictable handling and less road noise than traditional beam arrangements. SE models have the added advantage of a front strut tower brace for reduced body lean, along with stiffer suspension tuning for enhanced grip during cornering.
Sentra XE and GXE offer standard 14-inch wheels and tires, with 15-inch alloy wheels and tires standard on CA and SE (optional on GXE). Sporty 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels with P195/55R16 tires are optionally available on SE. A power-assisted front disc/rear drum braking system is standard on XE, GXE and CA models, while four-wheel discs are offered on SE. Should ABS be desired, a four-channel/four-sensor antilock system is optional on GXE and SE.
The new Sentra exhibits solid road manners, especially for a car in this class - owing much to its more rigid front subframe and softer bushings, plus larger-diameter rear antiroll bar. We would strongly suggest the bigger wheel/tire setup, as the ride and handling gains will be well worth the additional cost. A redesigned steering-rack mount brings reduced lateral movement and improves both steering response and feedback in the Sentra, whose engine-speed-sensitive, power-assisted rack-and-pinion unit offers a well-connected feel of the road.
The spunky 1.8-liter gives you everything its got during around-town stoplight sprinting. But there is a tradeoff for moving the torque band down so low: If you are cruising the Interstate and need to make a high-speed pass of slower-moving traffic, the engine sounds willing but actually has precious little left to give in the upper rpm reaches. You might want to allow extra time and room for such maneuvers.
But driving the well-balanced and well-equipped GXE only caused us to raise our expectations for the SE, which is made for the sporting set. In addition to the bigger engine, brakes and stiffer suspension, the SE gets you fog lights, titanium-colored gauges and a leather-wrapped wheel. (We'd suggest the aforementioned SE Performance Package for the 16-inch rubber alone.)
The good news is that the roominess, features, comfort, ride and quietness of the new SE are far beyond any of the Sentra SE-R models of yore; but that is also the bad news. That's because the SE feels bigger and less playful than those old pocket rockets - and it is awfully quiet, with no singing camshafts or raspy exhaust note to tell you how hard you are pushing it. Fun, yes - but on-the-edge tossable, no. Pure enthusiasts may need to look to the aftermarket for help here.
Overall, we like the new Sentra and think Nissan has certainly widened the appeal of its entry-level sedan. Our gripes about the 1995-99 Sentra were its frumpy, bland styling and lack of rear-seat legroom. While the design of the 2000 model may be conservative, it is not at all frumpy - and Nissan has made the new Sentra's interior larger (although rear legroom is still at a premium). But what really counts in this segment is price, and in that regard we've saved the best for last.
Nissan says significant cost reductions from platform- and component- sharing allowed it to cut development and assembly time and reinvest the savings back into the vehicle. The new Sentra starts at just $11,649 - $150 less than the base 1999 Sentra it replaces. The volume trim level (at 80 percent of production) will be the 2000 Sentra GXE, which starts at $13,499. If you include the popular GXE Convenience Package, that equates to $740 less than last year's GXE with a Limited Edition Package.
That GXE Convenience Package adds a remote keyless entry with trunk release, 60/40 rear seat, valet key, cargo net, and a rear auxiliary power outlet for only $150. A GXE Luxury Package is also available, which adds items such as 15-inch alloys, vehicle immobilizer and security system, and premium audio.
You can get into a new Sentra SE with the manual trans for $14,899, and the California-only Sentra CA retails at just $14,799. Overall, the 2000 Sentra is $559 less than the 1999 model on a weighted-average comparison. On sale now and appearing in showrooms in March, Sentra goes up against the likes of the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Ford Focus and Chevy Cavalier. Nissan expects to sell nearly double the number of Sentras that it moved last year, or about 120,000 units.
While we think it has enough going for it in content and price to compete well, and should excel in any fun-to-drive comparison, we wonder how a bigger, better Sentra will impact Altima sales, and vice-versa. How many similarly sized sedans does an automaker need? Ford, for one, doesn't see the need for Escort, Focus and Contour - so Contour was axed and Escort is a lame duck. How the "un-compact" Sentra might affect the future of its sister sedans is up for grabs.
"Along with our new 2000 Maxima and Altima, the new Sentra gives us the strongest three-sedan lineup in the industry," said Nissan's Connelly. But our question is, is three company or is three a crowd?