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The 2012 Nissan Sentra is a compact sedan that appeals to shoppers looking for a practical, affordable, economical small sedan. Just below the Altima mid-size sedan yet a little more substantial and refined than the Versa sedan, the 2012 Sentra hits a size and price sweet spot also occupied by the likes of the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, and Ford Focus.
While the Sentra borrows many cues—including the flared-outward headlamps and prominent fender flanks—from the still-current Altima sedan and Maxima, this small sedan's somewhat slab-sizes look and blunt rear design end up looking a bit dated compared to newer, more curvaceous rivals. Sportier SE-R and Spec V models are dressed up a bit more. The Sentra's instrument panel is a little more chunky and angular than those of most other small cars today, but a nice neat center stack has well-arranged controls and there's a good driving position from upright seating and a relatively low beltline.
Most of the Sentra models you find at the dealership will pair a 140-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and Xtronic CVT; it's a decent combination for city driving, but on hills and in passing it can feel a bit sluggish or delayed. There's a six-speed manual gearbox that makes the Sentra a lot more enjoyable, but it's only offered in the base model. The sporty SE-R trim brings a larger 2.5-liter engine making 177 hp, matched only to the CVT. Then at the top of the line, the performance-focused SE-R Spec V gets a 200-hp, 2.5-liter four, hooked up to a six-speed manual gearbox. Suspension tuning that's very different between trims, with the firmer tuning giving the Spec V especially a much tighter, more eager personality. But gas mileage is a letdown throughout the Sentra line; even with the base engine, it's several mpg lower than in many rival models.
Refinement and ride comfort remain strengths for the Sentra. The Sentra comes in only a single sedan body style, but it's a well-designed one, with tasteful but budget-grade appointments. Front seats are somewhat flat and unsupportive, but it's easy to find a good driving position and there's just enough rear space for a couple of adults—thanks to the rather high roofline. . While the seats themselves are flat and unsupportive, with padding that just won't work for long trips, most will be happy with the space and the driving position. The back seat, too, is a place good enough for adults for a trip across town.
Compared to many compact-sedan alternatives, the 2012 Nissan Sentra has unimpressive safety ratings, with mostly 'acceptable' ratings from the IIHS and just three-star ratings for frontal and side impact from the federal government. Side and side-curtain airbags are standard, as are active head restraints.
For less than $17k In its base 2.0 form, the 2012 Sentra is a makes a good commuter car and is a strong value for the money, with power windows and locks, air conditioning, tilt steering, split-folding backseats, and a 160-watt sound system all stanard. Sentra 2.0 S or 2.0 SR trims get you a few more extras like a center console, keyless entry, and a trip computer, while the high-end 2.0 SL adds leather and Bluetooth; but the issue with both of these models is that they cost a lot more and only come with the CVT. For 2012, the Sentra 2.0 S can be optioned with a navigation system that includes five-inch touch screen and USB/iPod connectivity. A special-edition package on the SR also loads it with popular options.
At the top of the range, the SE-R gets a sport-tuned suspension, big 17-inch alloy wheels, special badging, sport seats, and a number of other extras. The Spec V takes the performance package another step, with extra bracing, upgraded brakes, summer performance tires, driving lamps, and exclusive lower bodywork.