A complete redesign for 2007 transforms the Nissan Sentra from one of the dullest cars in its class to one of the most spectacular. Bigger inside than most of its rivals, the new Nissan Sentra offers mid-size space in a compact sedan body, and its optional continuously variable transmission holds the promise of better fuel economy than a manual with the convenience of an automatic. How does the 2007 Nissan Sentra work in the real world? Read on. $15,365 base, $18,565 as tested (Sentra 2.0S), EPA mileage 28 MPG city/34 MPG highway (manual), 29/36 (CVT automatic).
First Glance: Sentra's new styling is flashy and functional
I've urged many would-be mid-size car buyers to consider a compact. The truth is that we rarely use all the space in our cars, and downsizing is a good way to save both money and the environment by spending, consuming and polluting less. Traditionally, buying a compact instead of a mid-size has meant giving something up, be it extra space, extra power, or extra gadgets. But as the ever-changing price of fuel becomes more and more of a concern for car buyers, the automakers are tuning their smaller cars to appeal to a broader audience.
No vehicle makes a stronger argument for downsizing than the all-new 2007 Nissan Sentra. About all it has in common with most compacts is fuel economy, price, and the size of the shadow it casts. Inside the Sentra has lots of room and plenty of optional gadgets normally found on higher-end cars.
The new Sentra's styling is a radical departure from the melted-blob look of the old car. I like the chunky baby-Maxima design cues -- handsome, yes, but also very practical, as the Sentra's blocky body yields lots of interior space. Note how the rear edge of the back door angles backward at the window line, not forward as with most cars. That makes it easier to get in and out without banging your head. That said, I didn't care for the over-chromed taillights (link goes to photo), and the tall sides make the wheels look a little too small. My test car's silver paint job really didn't do the design justice; I think the Sentra looks much better in colors like blue, red, and jade green.
In the Driver's Seat: Good looks and great functionality
The Sentra's 97.7 cubic foot interior volume is closer to a mid-size Honda Accord than it is to a compact Honda Civic. In fact, the only compact that betters the Sentra for interior space is the Hyundai Elantra; it's also the only one to top the Sentra's 13.1 cubic foot trunk. The Sentra's split/fold rear seat has a bottom cushion that flips forward, providing a truly flat load floor.
Interior styling is just as vibrant as the exterior, with lots of varied shades and textures. Sentra 2.0 and 2.0S offer a choice of beige or dark-grey seat cloth, while the top-of-the-line 2.0SL comes with leather. A/C controls use the 3-rotary setup of which I am so fond, but the stereo uses buttons for tuning instead of a simple dial. The shift lever is mounted low on the dash rather than the floor, making it easier to reach.
The Sentra is also a good deal: Pricing starts at $15,365 and includes power windows and locks, air conditioning, CD player, and, most importantly, front seat-mounted torso airbags and two-row side curtain airbags. The 2.0S I tested adds steering-wheel stereo controls, keyless entry, and a height-adjustable drivers seat. My test car's $900 "Convenience Plus" package included lots of cool goodies: Keyless ignition, Bluetooth hands-free phone system, cruise control, a trunk divider (for which I found little use), and a nifty removable CD holder that lives above the sun visor. A loaded Sentra 2.0SL runs just shy of $22k; the only notable omissions from the options list are a navigation system and electronic stability control.
On the Road: CVT rules!
The beauty of the CVT really hit home while I was climbing a 6% freeway grade with cruise control engaged. Most cars slow by several MPH until the transmission suddenly kicks down, resulting in a yowl from the engine and a surge of power. Thanks to its CVT, the Sentra maintained a rock-solid 65 MPH all the way up the grade, the engine smoothly increasing from 2,000 RPM to 3,500 RPM with no jerking or surging.
Most of us don't climb 6% hills every day, but the CVT has other advantages: Acceleration and fuel economy are not only better than a traditional automatic, but are superior to a stick-shift as well. The CVT Sentra's EPA estimates of 29 MPG city/36 MPG highway are better than the standard 6-speed manual's 28 MPG city/34 MPG highway. I averaged just over 30 MPG in mixed driving, a figure that put a big smile on my face.
Journey's End: My new favorite compact sedan
The Sentra's ride and handling are more mid-size than compact; it's tuned for comfort rather than sport. Even so, the Sentra's handling is up to the task of negotiating curvy roads and sudden panic swerves with aplomb, and I'm sure most drivers will appreciate the smooth, quiet ride. (Fear not, boy- and girl-racers; Nissan serves up a hot-rod version called the Sentra SE-R.) And once you've driven a CVT, chances are you'll never want to go back to an old-fashioned automatic transmission.
The Sentra stands out well against the competition, rivalling the Hyundai Elantra for value and knocking out the Toyota Corolla and Chevrolet Cobalt for style and space. It's not as sporty as the Mazda 3, but its roomier and much more modern.
The Sentra's most capable adversary is the Honda Civic, which runs neck-and-neck for modern styling and edges out the Sentra on fuel economy, plus it boasts standard antilock brakes and an optional navigation system. To me, though, the Sentra offers more personality and better value-for-money. And if I'm going to forgo a clutch pedal, I'll take the Sentra's CVT over the Civic's 5-speed automatic. Which is the best compact? They're pretty close -- but the Sentra is the one I'd buy. -- Aaron Gold