2007 Nissan Sentra

San Francisco - With gasoline prices again taking residence in the national consciousness and demand for small cars rising, the already-blazing competition in the compact segment is heating up. Fortunately for Nissan, it had already gone back to the drawing board for a complete redesign of its Sentra, a small-car stalwart since it first broke cover in 1982, before the crude oil hit the fan.

Sharing its platform with Renault's megaselling Mgane, the new Sentra is among the first tangible fruits of the French-Japanese alliance as well as a U.S. standard-bearer for Nissan's C platform. Built in Mexico, styled in California, engineered (partly) in Detroit, with its platform and powertrain hatched in Japan, the Sentra is a true multinational. Yet it's a remarkably cohesive whole that catapults the Sentra into another league of seriousness.

Don't get us wrong, girlfriend, you won't be begging your secretary for the keys, at least not unless he or she plans on waiting for the enthusiast-oriented SE-R version due next year. But you needn't loudly bemoan your fate should you find yourself behind the wheel. This is a handsome, modern sedan with decent performance, and it no longer makes you feel like you're wearing the automotive equivalent of a dunce cap.

The new Sentra rides reasonably well and is a wieldy thing, albeit larger than ever--with almost six inches added to the wheelbase and more passenger volume than the majority of its competitors. The old 1.8-liter four makes way for a sixteen-valve, DOHC 2.0-liter with 140 hp (up from 126 hp), and torque rises from 129 lb-ft to 147 lb-ft. With a new optional Xtronic CVT transmission, fuel economy surpasses the old automatic model's, with EPA mileage of 29 in the city and 36 on the highway.

Nissan product planners say an electric power steering rack and a tauter suspension address media criticism of overlight steering and squishy ride, but with a casually suspended body that wants to gyrate with most every release of the six-speed's clutch, this car that looks like a hatchback--but isn't--still corners like marshmallow fluff. It's much improved but, for engaged drivers, it's not there yet.

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