Are people at Nissan aware of how far the Sentra has fallen? Such a cheap, bland interior just doesn’t cut it in 2011. Neither does such an unrefined powertrain. CVT automatics may once have been a good way to achieve superior fuel economy numbers, but now competitors are achieving much better results with torque converter and dual-clutch transmissions that don’t make the engine sound like a clogged shop vac.
I hate to bring up the nationality card, but if a Korean or American automaker produced a small car this far behind the curve, there’d a be chorus of whining about how said automaker can’t/won’t build a serious small car contender. Now, obviously, Nissan can and does build nice small cars — the Versa, the Cube, and the Juke are all plenty competitive. But the Sentra is still Nissan’s standard-bearer in the crucial C-segment. Other automakers — Volkswagen, Ford, Hyundai, Chevrolet — are killing themselves to put out superior compacts. Where is Nissan?
– David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
When it comes to cargo space and versatility in the world of compact cars, hatchbacks almost always trump conventional four-door sedans. The Sentra isn’t exactly an exception to that rule, but it does have one neat party trick, at least on higher-trim models like this SL. Yes, that 60/40 split rear bench does fold, but with a little elbow grease, the seat cushions pop up and flip forward, allowing the seat backs — headrests and all — to fold down. The result? A lengthy load surface that’s almost completely flat.
I’m not as quick to dismiss the Sentra as some of my colleagues, but certainly, other competitors (especially the new Hyundai Sonata) manage to outclass and undercut Nissan’s compact offering. This is a plain-jane, bread-and-butter C-segment offering but the extra flash, efficiency, and affordability found in rivals means Nissan dealers may be facing an uphill battle.
– Evan McCausland, Web Producer
David Zenlea is right. It’s hard to drum up even faint praise for the Sentra (maybe the bargain $990 package with a sunroof, rearview camera, and a small-screen navigation system?). Sure, the Sentra offers all the tenets of a modern automobile, but, golly, there are several cars that will meet those basic requirements with luxuries like style, more comfort, better fuel economy, and improved performance all at a comparable price. Nissan is capable of engineering and designing excellent vehicles — the Juke with its 1.6-liter turbocharged engine and can’t-ignore-it styling comes to mind — but its older products like the Sentra have aged at an accelerated pace compared to the rest of the industry. Compact car buyers would be wise to check out the newcomers from Ford, Chevrolet, and Hyundai or the old standby Honda Civic.
We’re due for a new Sentra within the next two years, just as Honda and Toyota should be launching new compacts. While those two automakers will only need incremental improvements to maintain their position as the segment sales leaders, the Sentra needs a wholesale makeover simply to return to competitiveness. Such an effort should start with an infusion of presence, with a complete redesign both inside and out. Retaining the Saturn Ion-like profile won’t cut it and Nissan has the potential to craft a reputation for bold designs much like Infiniti has done with svelte shapes and gracious curves. It’s also time that Nissan reevaluates its widespread use of the continuously variable transmission, as other automakers are now delivering better fuel economy with conventional automatics and dual-clutch transmissions, both of which offer more satisfying acceleration characteristics.
– Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
Although the Sentra does have a couple of useful features, such as the flip-and-fold rear seats that Evan mentioned, adjustable cupholders, and a very reasonably priced option package that includes navigation and satellite radio, it doesn’t have a whole lot to recommend it over competitors like the Honda Civic, the Toyota Corolla, the Ford Focus, etc.
I drove the Sentra the weekend before Christmas and loaded it up after spending a day at the outlet mall. The forty-mile drive to the mall was uneventful — the 140-hp engine produces enough power so that this 3000-pound car can cruise at 80 mph pretty effortlessly. The CVT transmission, as is common with most transmissions of its type, makes a fair amount of noise under hard acceleration, but once underway it’s smooth enough.
The only word I can use to describe the interior is bland. I don’t imagine anyone climbing into the Sentra and thinking that this is a car they have to own. There’s nothing particularly objectionable about it, but there’s also nothing that stands out.
And that opinion is borne out when you look at the sales statistics. While almost 95,000 Sentras were sold in 2010, that number is dwarfed by the 260,000-plus Honda Civics and Toyota Corollas sold last year. The Sentra was also substantially beaten by the Ford Focus and the VW Jetta, which themselves are looking to increase sales this year by virtue of their recent redesigns.
– Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
Base price (with destination): $19,600
Price as tested: $21,390
2.0-liter four-cylinder engine
Xtronic CVT automatic transmission
Vehicle dynamic control
Traction control system
Tire pressure monitoring system
Nissan intelligent key
XM satellite radio
Leather-wrapped steering wheel
Tilt steering column
Steering wheel-mounted audio and cruise controls
60/40-split fold rear seats
Options on this vehicle:
SL special value package — $990
Power sliding glass moonroof
Dual illuminated vanity mirrors
Cargo net and hooks
SL audio package — $550
340-watt Rockford Fosgate sound system
Splashguards — $140
Floor mats — $110
Key options not on vehicle:
Leather package — $900
Heated front seats
Auto-dimming rearview mirror — $125
Fuel economy: 27/34/30 mpg (city/hwy/combined)
Size: 2.0L DOHC I-4
Horsepower: 140 hp @ 5100 rpm
Torque: 147 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm
Transmission: Xtronic CVT automatic
Curb weight: 2978 lb
Wheels/tires: 16-inch alloy wheels; 205/55R16 Bridgestone Turanza EL400 all-season tires