New & Used Nissan Sentra: In Depth
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After three decades on sale, the Nissan Sentra has grown in size while amassing a larger collection of safety gear and optional equipment. Sentras have been sourced from several places around the world, with current models sold in the U.S. now coming from Mexico. The little Nissan has also come in several different body styles over the years, and at one time it was one of Nissan's greatest performance bargains.
The Sentra is a compact four-door sedan rivaling such vehicles as the Ford Focus, Honda Civic, and Toyota Corolla. It has long been Nissan's compact standby and is consistently the brand's second-best-selling car behind the mid-size Altima.
The very first Nissan Sentra to be sold in the U.S.--from 1982 to 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 automatic transmissions 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.
In 1991, a new 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 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, adding 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 fifth-generation Sentra, sold from 2000 to 2006, grew larger again, bumping the one-size-up Altima firmly into the mid-size segment. This bigger new model, which saw production move to Mexico, also felt more substantial and was roomier inside. An SE-R model model returned to the lineup, powered by a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine; a high-output Spec V variant made 175 horsepower and came with a six-speed manual transmission. This generation saw a face lift for 2004, which featured a wider grille bisected by a round Nissan badge; the same styling motif moved to the new Maxima shortly after.
The next Nissan Sentra debuted at the 2006 Detroit Auto Show, entering the market as a 2007 model. That basic car ran 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. This Sentra 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 was slow to adopt certain features that are often taken for granted in other models. Electronic stability control was an option on less-expensive until 2010, while the base 2.0-liter model lacked standard ABS. For 2011, all of those items were made standard across the board. And in 2012, Nissan added an affordable touchscreen navigation option to the 2.0S, which included USB and iPod connectivity.
The new Nissan Sentra
Today's Nissan Sentra was last redesigned for the 2013 model year. Engineers 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 the base model.
With the Sentra having grown in every dimension except height, its cabin now approaches mid-size volume and provides 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 model. Nissan has maintained an affordable price, with fully loaded Sentra SL models topping out at about $23,000. Gas-mileage ratings can reach up to 40 mpg in the EPA highway cycle if the optional FE+ package is specified.
Nissan has made very few changes to the Sentra since its 2013 redesign. For 2015, most models see an increase in standard equipment. The sedan has also been retested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, improving its "poor" showing in the front small overlap test to a top "good" score, which nets it the Top Safety Pick award. Nissan likely made some adjustments under the skin to improve this test result.
A mid-cycle refresh is likely for the 2016 model year; it will bring the new, bolder front-end design seen on other recent Nissan models.