New & Used Nissan Sentra: In Depth
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While the Nissan Sentra nameplate has been around for more than 30 years, the cars themselves have steadily increased in size, safety, and available options. These days, the Sentra is a compact four-door sedan that faces off against the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla among Japanese makers--and the Chevy Cruze, Dodge Dart, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, and Kia Forte, among others.
Today's Nissan Sentra was last redesigned for the 2013 model year. Designers used high-strength steel to cut out up to 150 pounds of weight while making a stiffer, safer structure. That in turn meant the Sentra could be powered by a smaller 130-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, driving the front wheels through the latest Nissan continuously-variable transmission (CVT)--although a manual gearbox remains available on some models.
With Sentra having grown in every dimension except height, its cabin now approaches mid-size volume and offers more rear legroom than any other model in its class. The Sentra lineup offers some larger-sedan features like automatic climate control and Bose audio, although we note a Bluetooth hands-free interface still isn't included (or even offered) in the base Sentra S models. Nissan has maintained an affordable price, with even fully loaded Sentra SL models topping out at about $23,000. Gas mileage ratings can reach up to 40 mpg in the highway cycle if the optional FE+ package is specified.
The very first Nissan Sentra to be sold in the U.S.--from 1982-1986--replaced the old Datsun 210, and was actually the first car to carry the new Nissan nameplate. It also was the first Nissan to be built in the United States, in a vast assembly complex in Tennessee. Four-speed manual and three-speed automatics were offered, with top versions rated at 35 mpg highway. The second generation arrived in the U.S. as a 1986 model and continued through 1990.
For 1991, the third-generation Sentra adopted an upright shape that provided good interior space; that version ran through the 1995 model year. Its light weight and independent suspension gave it a more sporty feel than the competing Toyota Corolla and the Honda Civic, and it won many enthusiast fans when it added a special SE-R edition. A regular on Top Ten lists in car magazines, the 140-horsepower SE-R came in a two-door body style and was specially tuned for sporty driving, and added four-wheel disc brakes and a limited-slip differential to the standard-features list. Basic equipment lists included an AM/FM radio and roll-up windows, and automatic seat belts were used through most of these model years to meet federal safety-belt requirements.
For the fourth generation, though, Nissan reversed course and tried to cut costs in the Sentra. A torsion-beam rear suspension replaced the independent suspension from the previous car, and while the SE-R returned, it was a watered-down car, both larger and less nimble than before. The SE-R was later renamed the "200SX."
The Sentra grew larger in its fifth generation, sold from 2000 to 2006, as the larger Altima moved firmly into the mid-size sedan class. The new edition, now built in Mexico, felt more substantial and roomy; the SE-R returned with a larger 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, and a Spec V edition cranked out 175 horsepower through a six-speed manual transmission. A facelifted edition in 2004 presaged styling themes that would appear on the new Maxima, with a wide grille split by a round Nissan badge.
The next Nissan Sentra debuted at the 2006 Detroit Auto Show, and entered the market as a 2007 model--with that basic car running through the 2012 model year before it was replaced with today's car. A smaller subcompact sibling, the hatchback Nissan Versa, joined the compact Sentra, now offered only as a four-door sedan. It came standard with a 140-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and a choice of manual gearboxes or a CVT. The SE-R returned as a sedan, with a high-output version of the same engine rated at 177 horsepower; the SE-R Spec V produced 200 hp and was teamed with a six-speed manual transmission.
The 2010 model year brought a cosmetic refresh for the Sentra's somewhat stubby look and its angular interior. As a driver's machine, this Sentra lacked in comparison to the great Sentras of the early 1990s, but it proved to be a reasonably roomy package with excellent outward visibility. The CVT-equipped versions suffered from the noise and drone that accompanies most cars fitted with CVTs; by design the transmission keeps the engine revving at high rpm, where noise and vibration reside. The CVT was the only gearbox on the SE-R, which made the Spec V the sole choice for straight-edge enthusiasts. Ride quality on all versions was a high point, and assembly quality was good.
The Sentra had been a step behind some other offerings in safety features. As late as 2010, electronic stability control remained only an option on lower-line Sentra models, as did anti-lock brakes on the base 2.0 models. All those features were made standard for 2011. For 2012, a new low-cost touch-screen navigation system--including USB/iPod connectivity--was added as a new option to the 2.0S.