The 2012 Sentra spans several quite different personalities. But 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.
Based on several drives covering the various models of the Sentra, our editors have found the basic 2.0, 2.0 S, and 2.0 SL versions to make the most sense. The CVT might take a little getting used to as there's a slight delay while the revs ramp up, then a raucous drone during hard acceleration. These basic Sentra models don't make any sporty claims, but they're actually quite light and nimble-feeling—and very maneuverable—and the driving experience is pleasantly straightforward.
Suspension tuning is very different between trims; the firmer tuning of the Spec V especially gives it 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.
The CVT, in particular, simply doesn't fit the sportier character of the SE-R. The Spec V delivers on the handling front, with substantial upgrades to the suspension and brakes, along with appearance upgrades inside and out; but it doesn't feel as edgy as the MazdaSpeed3, or even the Honda Civic Si.