The Sentra has been a pillar of Nissan’s car line for a full thirty years now, and while times have certainly changed, the Sentra has unfailingly been the automotive equivalent to sensible shoes or the same favorite brand of jeans you pick year after year. In other words, with the Sentra, the perception is you get just about what you expect. But the reality is we no longer live in a world where your choices for a decent small car were essentially limited to Civic/Corolla/Sentra. Far from it. With that in mind, The Garage set out to see how the current Sentra stacks up.
The Sentra is now in its sixth generation. Introduced in 2006 in Detroit as a 2007 model, the Sentra is now ancient in a sea of brand-new, fresh-faced competition. To put this into perspective, when the current Sentra was shown to the world for the first time, my wife was pregnant with our son. Said son is now in Kindergarten learning how to read, about to turn six years old. But, I digress. The Sentra is certainly familiar in appearance for having been around so long. A styling refresh in 2010 did much to soften up the blocky Lego-like front and rear end design. Our test car was a Sentra SR with the Special Edition Package identical to the car pictured here. For sure, I appreciated the SR-specific exterior features such as side sill extensions, sportier front and rear fascias, decklid spoiler among other features. But again, you’re looking at a design that has been around for an eternity. The sporty appearance bits help, but cannot mask the age of the design.
Given the sporty bits on the Sentra’s exterior, those expecting that theme to carryover inside will walk away bitterly disappointed. Our test car was finished in a pale, industrial grey that just seemed to shout ‘rental car’. The Sentra offers a perfectly functional, practical cabin, however. As a tall fellow I had more than enough room up front. Gauges were clear as a bell, and all other controls were a snap to use. But I was frequently annoyed with a squeaking driver’s seat on our 2012 test car with all of 6,000 miles on the clock. I was also disappointed at the lack of heated seats-they can be had on a Sentra, but only the top-spec SL model. The cabin is showing its age much moreso than the exterior, but again, the biggest letdown was the Sentra SR’s sporty exterior styling revealing a drab, dull, and completely uninspired interior.
With the exception of the SE-R and Spec V Sentra’s, all models share the same 2.0L four cylinder rated at 140hp. With this engine, only the base Sentra can be had with a manual transmission, all other models share a CVT. Acceleration felt about average for this class of car, and EPA fuel economy ratings of 27/34 city/highway MPG are OK but well behind the numbers a Hyundai Elantra can achieve. On a cold January weekend here in Connecticut, the Sentra seemed to take forever for its engine temp to warm up. Cruising at 35mph with the engine, which is no model of silky smoothness itself but at a constant buzzy 2,000 rpm the Sentra was annoying as all heck until she finally warmed up enough. Once warmed up, the Sentra still felt far less refined than its newer competition, in terms of ride quality and overall refinement.
The 2012 Nissan Sentra 2.0 SR has a base list price of $17,990USD, which includes the exterior bits described earlier, foglights, six-speaker audio with iPod interface. Our test car added splash guards, floor mats, and the Special Edition Package that included Navigation, XM Satellite radio, XM NavTraffic, USB port, keyless entry and ignition, Bluetooth, moonroof and unique 16″ alloys. Total tally, including destination comes to $20, 320. That is a pretty decent amount of features for the price paid here.
The Sentra represents a decent value for the amount of features you get, but in the end this is a dated, tired car that has outlived its useful life. The bottom line is that in the intervening years the Sentra has been around, the competition has seriously stepped up its game. To be sure, the Sentra will do all that is asked of it-reliable, economical transportation. And the market has spoken-in 2011, the Sentra was Nissan’s second best-selling car in the US behind the Altima. In my opinion, newer models like the Ford Focus, Chevy Cruze, Hyundai Elantra and Mazda3 simply offer a far more engaging driving experience and refinement the Sentra cannot match. Value is one thing, but in a market as hotly contested as this, resting on your laurels simply won’t do in 2012.