The Sentra might be traveling in the shadow of the less-expensive and slightly smaller Versa, but Nissan’s not-so-little sedan still has a lot to offer and is one of the better-looking cars on the road.
It’s also available in two performance models that the Versa just can’t match.
The current Sentra — introduced for the 2007 model year — has undergone a minor facelift for 2010 and more closely identifies with the mid-size Altima sedan. The headlights and taillamps have been revised and an all-new front-end treatment has been grafted onto base editions.
This certainly helps the Sentra stand out a bit against the Versa, which has gained a somewhat cult-like following, especially among younger buyers.
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Physically, the Sentra remains pretty close to its primary sedan competitors, including the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Mazda3 and Chevrolet Cobalt, but the car’s key strength is its interior packaging. The Sentra’s cabin space outshines that of its competitors thereby giving the car more of a mid-size feel. The Versa has allowed the Sentra to move up in size, potentially making it a candidate as a primary family hauler.
Since the Sentra’s wheels are positioned as far outboard as possible, there’s little in the way of overhanging bodywork. At the rear, the chopped-off tail seems a bit abrupt but doesn’t adversely affect trunk space.
The mildly restyled cabin is also a great place for professional pack rats or anyone requiring adequate storage for their valuables. The glove box is of sufficient capacity for stowing a laptop computer, loose-leaf binders or a large camera or small purse. Another handy bin to the left of the steering wheel can hold sunglasses, cell phones, or a flashlight. And between the front seats there’s a fully adjustable compartment with room for items as large as a couple of paperbacks or a number of CDs.
The four base-model Sentras, consisting of the 2.0, 2.0S, 2.0SR and 2.0SL, run with a 140-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. By contrast, the Versa uses a 1.6-liter engine. Moving up to the SE-R gets you a 177-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder, while the thoroughly performance-focussed SE-R Spec V steps up the 2.5’s output to 200 horses.
A six-speed manual transmission is standard, but only if you get the 2.0. A continuously variable transmission (CVT) is optional, but is the exclusive transmission of the S, SR and SL.
The SE-R’s CVT has paddle-shift controls to simulate the gear selection of a manual transmission while the SE-R Spec V comes with the real deal.
Base fuel economy is pegged at 26 mpg in the city and 34 on the highway. The Honda Civic is rated a little better on the highway, while the smaller Versa is rated slightly better in town and about the same as the Sentra on the highway.
From a standard-equipment standpoint, all Sentras come with an assortment of features and are by no means bare. Of special note is the sporty 2.0SR trim level that was added for the 2009 model year. Although it lacks the punch of the SE-R and Spec V editions, it certainly looks the part with its unique nosepiece, fog lights, body side moldings, rear spoiler and special alloy wheels.
Along with a more potent powerplant, the SE-R includes a sport-tuned suspension, more supportive bucket seats, additional gauges, aluminum pedals and 17-inch wheels (base models come with 15-inchers).
To the SE-R’s content the Spec V adds bigger brakes, stickier tires, chassis stiffening (extra braces) for the engine compartment and trunk area and its own suspension package that lowers the ride height. Note that the Spec V requires premium fuel to feed its 200 horses, but that’s a fair tradeoff considering the extra grunt.
A big part of the Sentra’s appeal is that buyers can load up on an assortment of options that are otherwise unavailable on other cars in the same bracket. Add leather and heat to the front seats, faux woodgrain trim, navigation system, backup monitor, keyless start and a premium eight-speaker Rockford Fosgate-brand audio package.
Sentra pricing begins at about $16,200 and reaches into the $21,000 range for the Spec V, which is competitive with its peers. All it needs now is for the Versa to quit hogging all the limelight.