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by Rex Roy
Sometimes it just feels
good to reminisce. It has a way of putting things in perspective. So come back
with me to a simpler time, where there were just a few compact cars with names
like Falcon and Nova. They came from places with names like
A quick scan of today's compact market shows nearly three-dozen models from five countries ranging in price from about $9000 to more than $47,000. Cars at each end of this cost spectrum have almost nothing in common, making today's compact market rich, vibrant and somewhat confusing.
Knows what it is
The all-new 2007 Nissan Sentra, however, knows where it fits in the segment. It is not the cheapest, nor does it have any pretensions of being a small luxury sedan. In the author's view, it is a reincarnation of yesteryear's mainstream compacts — Nissan's version of a Plymouth Valiant or AMC Rambler. With four doors, plenty of room inside, and loads of standard features, our Sentra 2.0 SL tester equates to a Dodge Dart Brougham on the price scale. Less expensive Sentra models are available, with the base 2.0 model starting at $14,750 and the S model coming in at $15,650. The higher-performance SE-R model comes on line this spring.
In line with its $19,015 sticker (including destination charges), our well-equipped SL model carries front, side, and side curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes with brakeforce distribution; A/C with micro filter; power windows, mirrors, and locks; tilt steering column with radio and cruise controls; and a trip computer with tire pressure monitoring system.
Inside, the quality of materials seemed in keeping with more expensive cars, with pleasant fabrics and nicely textured plastics. Comfort, fit, and finish were on par with a recent Toyota Camry that passed through our fleet, while the materials seemed a step above the new Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass. Even during a cold spell where temperatures fell below freezing, the Sentra's interior was surprisingly quiet and free of annoying squeaks from the instrument cluster and trim assemblies.
The gauges were easy to read, and the large LCD readout of the combined audio system and driver information center was appreciated by the colorblind and otherwise visually challenged author. This kind of attention to detail — making things easy to use and familiar — showed up in many areas. In addition to how easily the rear seats folded, the cup holders in the center console had a simple adjusting mechanism to tailor its size to the cup you're holding.
2007 Nissan SentraEnlarge Photo
Along with the aforementioned list of standards, the 2.0 SL also included what Nissan calls the Intelligent Key Keyless Ignition & Entry System. It works like regular keyless entry, but handles the ignition sequence a bit differently. Unlike keyless ignition systems that require the unnatural combination of pressing a "start" button while pressing the brake pedal, the Sentra's system has what amounts to an intuitive key/tumbler-style ignition switch in the steering column, only you never insert a key. The fob stays in your pocket or purse. When you have the key fob with you in the car, one partial turn of the ignition lets the car know you're there. The car then instantaneously confirms the validity of the key fob, allowing you to turn the ignition tumbler the rest of the way, starting the engine in the normal manner. Smartly, the key fob hides a standard key should the car's electrics die.
Fire it up
The ignition fires up a competent engine. At 2.0 liters, it uses all of today's expected technologies to make 140 horsepower and 147 lb-ft of torque. Its twin cams and four valves per cylinder produce decent power for the car's appointed rounds, but like some others in the class, the engine gets noisy as the power peaks between the torque and horsepower summits of 4800 and 5100 rpm. The engine is matched to what is becoming the norm in middle-of-the-road compacts, a continuously variable transmission (CVT).
Leonardo da Vinci had the idea around 1490, and the first CVT patent was applied for in 1886. It's been used for decades in snowmobiles, motorcycles, and tractors, and sporadically in automobiles since the 1950s. CVTs don't have traditional fixed gears and can therefore deliver stepless power delivery. The design's long-term popularity comes from its smoothness of operation, its simplicity, and its ability to improve fuel economy while reducing emissions. While some may think of it as a new-fangled technology, it's not. It's simply been slow to the mainstream automotive party because of the design's torque limitations.
In the Sentra's application, the electronically-controlled Xtronic CVT "shifts" much like a traditional automatic transmission with individual gears. Under normal acceleration, the CVT electronically "fakes" shifts so that drivers hear and feel what they are used to. The process is all quite normal to drivers used to transmissions with three, four, and five or more fixed gears. However, nail the throttle and the tach zooms up to 5000 rpm and stays there. Your brain waits for the shift that never comes as the CVT manages its infinite gear ratios to keep the engine in the thick of its power band, maximizing acceleration. Weird…but only until you're used to it. Then you'll love it, as the CVT is a significant contributor to the SL's mileage of 29 city/36 highway.
Around town performance
The powertrain performs well, and this performance is matched by the suspension. Fitted with struts up front and a torsion beam rear suspension, it handled everyday driving duties smoothly. Anti-sway bars at both ends keep body lean in check. The ride strikes an excellent balance and never felt too soft or too firm. The front disc/rear drum brakes performed in kind, delivering sure stops and a very smooth transition into and out of the operation of the anti-lock braking system.
In keeping with its pleasant generalist nature, when we pushed the Sentra SL hard into corners, it wasn't at its best. Arcing through high-speed corners, it tended to feel kind of springy — like a hobby horse — a condition we expect will be refined out the high-performance SE-R edition. To our surprise, the electric power steering provided decent feedback without the numbness we've experienced with other similar systems.
Nissan's a busy company these
days. Along with launching the new Sentra, for 2007 they've also introduced the
new Versa and Altima, all while moving the company's
2007 Nissan Sentra SL
Base Price: $19,015
Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder, 140 hp/147 lb-ft
Drivetrain: CVT automatic, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 179.8 x 70.5 x 59.5 in
Wheelbase: 108.7 in
Curb weight: 2991 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 29/36 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front, side, and curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes and tire pressure monitoring system
Major standard equipment: Air conditioning; remote keyless entry; keyless start; rear-window defroster; steering wheel radio controls; power windows/locks/mirrors; AM/FM/CD player; cruise control
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles bumper to bumper, five years/60,000 miles on powertrain components