SAN FRANCISCO, California - When Nissan launched its new subcompact Versa early in 2006, it left the existing compact Sentra in a rather ambiguous spot. Now, by redesigning the long-lived Sentra for its sixth generation in the lineup, Nissan has made the distinction between the two models more clear. Actually, the reworked Sentra was expected earlier, but delayed by a year or so because the initial design was considered "more daring" than customers were likely to accept.
In its 2007 form, the Sentra sedan has grown by 5.9 inches in wheelbase and 2.3 inches in overall length. Standing 4 inches taller than its predecessor, the 2007 sedan is 3.2 inches wider. Passenger volume has increased by 8.9 dubic feet, and trunk capacity is 1.5 cubic feet greater.
Some styling touches are reminiscent of the Quest minivan, especially up front. Built on Nissan-Renault's Global C platform, also used for the Renault Megane and other models not sold in the U.S., the Sentra is manufactured in Aguascalientes, Mexico (as was the prior generation). An additional 353 robots have been brought into the plant for assembly of the Sentra and related products.
Specifically designed for North America, the 2007 Sentra has an interior that's "a little more upscale and functional" than before, said product specialist Ken Kcomt. There's a new instrument-panel layout and gearshift location, no longer down on the floor. Competitors include the Toyota Corolla, Mazda3, Chevrolet Cobalt, and Ford Focus - not necessarily the lowest-end models from rival automakers.
A 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine replaces the prior 1.8-liter, delivering 140 horsepower rather than the former 126. Torque output has grown from 129 to 147 pound-feet. A six-speed manual gearbox is standard, but the big news is Nissan's continuously variable transmission (CVT), offered for the first time in a Sentra. Also available in four other models, it's the third-generation CVT, which Kcomt says is "a strategic technology for Nissan." About 700 algorithms are available from the CVT's controller, and an overdrive button alters the shift point by about 2000 rpm, which is intended to improve responsiveness.
With the CVT, the 2007 Sentra gets an EPA fuel-economy estimate of 29 mpg in city driving and 36 mpg on the highway. Estimates for the prior-generation Sentra were 28-mpg city/34-mpg highway, which is the current figure for a Sentra with manual shift. New electronic power steering is claimed to yield about 1.5 percent better fuel economy than a Sentra with hydraulically-controlled steering.
Special features include an integrated (and removable) overhead CD holder. Configurable front cupholders adjust to hold a 32-ounce cup. A trunk divider permits hidden storage, with front and rear compartments.
As for safety, seat-mounted airbags and curtain-type airbags are standard. Antilock braking is not, but it's a standalone option. Also optional: an "intelligent" key, leather upholstery, and XM or Sirius satellite radio.
Three trim levels are offered for the Sentra, which went on sale in mid-October. The base-level Sentra 2.0 comes with air conditioning, power windows/locks, a CD player, and either manual shift or the CVT. Nissan's volume model, the 2.0 S, gets bigger (16-inch) tires, remote keyless entry, steering-wheel audio controls, and a trip computer. Topping the line, the 2.0 SL comes only with the CVT and includes leather trim, 16-inch alloy wheels, antilock braking, an intelligent key, and Bluetooth hands-free phone operation.
In a Sentra SL, Nissan's continuously variable transmission works neatly and the engine is generally quiet. At idle, it's nearly silent. Some blare occurs during harder acceleration, but less than some CVT-equipped vehicles yield.
The CVT-equipped Sentra responds reasonably well to the gas pedal, too, but performance isn't really its strong point. On long upgrades, the Sentra exhibits more sound than fury. Though it gets the job done, this sedan is a little more sluggish than some might hope. Even when performance isn't quite up to snuff, though, the CVT keeps pulling enthusiastically. Acceleration is actually more energetic when taking off from a standstill.
Ride comfort in the SL is pleasant on most surfaces, and tolerable even through rougher pavement. A Sentra S delivered a slightly lumpier experience on expressway rough spots. Occasionally, a serious bump leads to either a woozy dropping sensation or a rather harsh hit.
Don't expect a sporty steering feel, but it's not so far removed from that level. As promised, "on-center" feel is good and the Sentra tracks well enough on expressways. It also behaves adroitly on twisting narrow two-lane roads.
Occupants get plenty of front-seat space. Backseat room is abundant, too. Clearly, it's roomier than Sentras of the past. Instruments are simple but readable, except for the bar-type fuel and temperature gauges, and the trip odometer. The gearshift lever sits in a handy spot.
Expect to pay more for this larger Sentra than its predecessor commanded. Pricing for a base-model Sentra starts at $14,750 (plus destination charge), with CVT adding $800 to that figure. The midlevel 2.0 S starts at $15,650 with manual shift. Only the CVT is available in the top-rung 2.0 SL, which stickers for $18,400. Expect to see a series of TV commercials featuring an actor who actually lives in a Sentra for a period of time.
At the Los Angeles Auto Show in late fall, Nissan will unveil a performance-oriented SE-R edition of the Sentra. Later, at Detroit's North American International Auto Show, a new Rogue crossover vehicle will debut.